Arkansas Community Revitalization Efforts Share Great Approaches


Last Updated: May 27, 2010
 

This article appeared in the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Overall enrollment in the nation’s rural schools is growing. But this happy trend has not reached many rural schools that are losing students. A tangle of public policies and national economic directions (few of which make the well-being of rural communities a high priority) mix with local factors to drain economic opportunity and local residents out of many rural places. The results for schools and communities are often devastating: reductions in state school funding, declining local wealth, pressure to close schools altogether, the loss of community optimism, and the list goes on.

A little over two years ago the Rural Community Alliance (formerly Advocates for Rural and Community Education/ACRE) decided to address some of these circumstances in their work in Arkansas. The organization works to preserve and improve rural and community schools and create a more prosperous future for rural students and communities.

Lavina Grandon, Policy and Education Director for the Alliance, notes that rural schools lose enrollment because their communities don’t have the jobs and economic opportunities that residents need. “It became clear that rural schools have to be supported by thriving rural communities and that means reversing the loss of people and work.”

The Alliance began in 2003 as a statewide grassroots movement to stop legislation that would have forced the consolidation of school districts with fewer than 1,500 students, most of the state’s rural districts, and to refocus attention on quality education and a more equitable funding formula. As a result of that effort the minimum enrollment for school districts was set at 350, saving about 175 small rural schools. In addition, the legislature took several other actions helpful to rural schools including changing the funding formula to include more money for high poverty schools, providing incentives for teachers to work in hard-to-staff areas, expanding preschool programs, and funding distance-learning technologies.

Following those successes the group incorporated as a non-profit organization and expanded its efforts to improve education for all Arkansas children. It continues to bring people together across the state to understand and advocate for policies that will enhance educational opportunity. And, it works with communities at the local level to take a variety of actions to protect and improve their schools and to provide support for students in communities where schools have been closed. More than a thousand people in 46 community-based chapters are members of the organization.

Despite the success of these efforts, however, many rural communities were continuing to lose residents and jobs, and every year enrollment in several rural school districts fell below the 350-student threshold and the districts were closed by the state. Other schools were forced to close because of financial, academic, or other issues.

In the summer of 2008, the organization launched its Rural Community Revitalization Initiative “to create a ground-up, grass-roots led revitalization process in which community members vision and plan to build on their past and their present to create a better future for their communities and their children.”

The following year the group changed its name from ACRE to Rural Community Alliance to reflect the importance of the community-based work and its significance to rural families, children, and schools.

The communities of Delight, Eudora, and Leslie were the first to partner with the Alliance in the Revitalization Initiative, beginning their efforts in the fall of 2008. (You can read about their early work in the February 2009 edition of RPM.) This past fall the communities of Dermott and greater Lead Hill began the revitalization process.

The five communities are located in different parts of the state, face different challenges, and have different demographic characteristics. Yet all five have implemented the process and made remarkable progress.

The Rural Community Alliance Revitalization Process

The process starts when the local Alliance chapter completes an application to participate, chooses a project leader, forms a steering committee, and secures support of local elected officials. Then the steering committee, working with Alliance staff, puts together a survey to help determine community interests and ideas. The survey is widely distributed and results are tallied and presented in a community forum.

The community forum brings together as many local people as possible, Alliance staff, and representatives from agencies like the Arkansas Arts Council, Audubon Arkansas, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and others whose mission and resources relate to community development. Community participants learn about the revitalization process and about the results of the survey. Then they break up into focus groups organized around themes of common interest: education, economic development, natural resources, town beautification, and arts and heritage.

Much of the actual revitalization work grows out of the focus groups. At the community forum participants brainstorm ideas related to the focus group theme. The groups continue to work bi-weekly over the next several months to develop at least five ideas and strategies for revitalization initiatives, which they present in a second community forum.

At the second community forum participants vote on the ideas they want the community to pursue. The steering committee uses this information to develop a strategic plan and works with community residents to implement the plan.

Outcomes of the Process

Delight, Eudora, and Leslie have each been in the process for more than a year. All have identified specific strategies and goals and begun implementing their ideas.

“It’s getting to the fun stage where communities are actually working on projects,” says Renee Carr, Alliance Executive Director.

All three communities have undertaken beautification efforts by planting flowers and trees, holding cleanup days, and sprucing up buildings. Delight has turned a vacant lot downtown into a courtyard, and Leslie and Eudora have removed dilapidated buildings. Plans are in the works for parks, walking trails, and community gardens.

Economic development initiatives are off the ground in all three communities as well. The Alliance has provided grant-writing training and information support for development opportunities. Delight and Leslie have created farmer’s markets and Eudora is working toward a farmer’s and flea market. Eudora has provided enterprise training to more than two dozen young people and provided six young people with youth enterprise grants. Leslie has a new restaurant, art gallery, and real estate office, and a new gas station/convenience store is being built.

Projects to celebrate and preserve natural resources, arts, and heritage are also underway. Eudora and Delight are working to develop museums. The Delight group is beginning preservation efforts for the Rosenwald School in Antoine. And, Leslie and Delight have both held community fairs or parades that bring people together and celebrate aspects of local culture and history.

Education is a primary concern in all the communities. Leslie and Eudora have both lost most of the grades from their schools and both communities are seeking charters to regain schools. Delight has campaigned to change the state law that forces the consolidation of districts with fewer than 350 students.

Education is also a major concern for Dermott and Lead Hill, the two communities newest to the Alliance Revitalization initiative. The Lead Hill school district is nearing the critical 350-student enrollment mark and residents want to take action to keep their numbers up. Residents of Dermott witnessed what happened when other communities lost their schools and they, too, want to strengthen the school and the community’s involvement and support.

Both communities have completed the initial stages of the revitalization process and have made recommendations for their strategic plan.

“We’ve really been pleased with the ways communities have responded,” says Grandon. “There’s a real desire in all the communities to get together to improve economic opportunity and quality of life and quality of place. People are willing to roll up their sleeves and go to work to make things better.”

Challenges and Prospects

While the communities have made remarkable progress in a short time, it hasn’t always been easy.

“Every community is different,” says Dorothy Singleton, Lead Organizer for the Alliance. “One single approach won’t work exactly the same way everywhere. Things have to be adapted to the particular circumstances of the community.”

Grandon laments the dearth of resources for improving the quality of life and alleviating poverty in small rural communities. “In a lot of ways community members have to do it themselves, which can be a tough proposal in places with years of outmigration and loss of jobs.”

That means the energy and time of community volunteers can run thin at times. Even so, people keep working at it.

“The opportunities are so great and people’s hopes are high,” says Singleton. “There’s a lot of stick-to-it-iveness for moving forward.”

Don’t miss the June edition of RPM, which will feature an in-depth look at what the communities are doing.

For more information about the Rural Community Alliance and its Community Revitalization Initiative, visit www.thenewrural.org.

Read more from the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.