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Graduation1 Rural leaders from across the country gather later this month to discuss the future of rural communities.   Paramount to the discussions at this joint gathering of the National/Midwest Rural Assembly will be the establishment of environments that attracts young adults to work, live and engage in rural communities. So it’s natural, with graduation season on our doorstep and the National Rural Assembly right around the corner, that I am weighted down with thoughts about our future education system,  the vibrancy of our rural communities and how we fit youth into the picture. 

At the heart of it

Most rural communities operate under the principle that the school is the heart of the community. It causes me to wonder, then, how we will have successful communities with dwindling school enrollment. While many of the 2011 graduating classes in rural Minnesota are large and prosperous, the future looks bleaker for class sizes coming down the pipe. As school districts foresee these smaller class sizes and simultaneously face increasingly tight budgets, action is necessary to change and adapt the system in order to remain resilient.    

So what do these small-town rural communities do when faced with future dwindling class sizes, resulting in the dismissal of qualified teachers, administration and staff who have invested in their community and served as important leaders to the students? While students may rarely think about the long term impact of the class size issue, they are indeed personally impacted in meaningful ways. In one rural community it means farewell to a beloved principal, a guiding star to both struggling students and those whom seemed to make excelling look easy; it means, for some of the students, their first real-world lesson that life is not fair

When life is not fair

When students of the Benson High School graduating class gathered this last week, all 109 of them, they faced this reality head-on. While heartfelt student speeches and Baccalaureate addresses tackled all of the classic sentiments of graduation, one leader in the community addressed an issue that weighed heavy on the hearts of not only the students, but the entire community. With elementary classes at Benson carrying half the number of students of this graduating class, cuts were inevitable. The Baccalaureate addressee—as community pastor, father of a graduate, long-time school board member and universal fan of the graduating class of 2011—offered up his sympathy for this first post-graduation life lesson, but gave it to them with a dose of reality. He offered the students a choice. He said, your beloved principal can stay if half of you stay and redirect life’s next journey to re-enter the education system at Benson High school. And while eager to take on the next adventure—to head off to college or take a job in the real world—it must have been astounding to see many of the student’s hands reach high in the air as a testimony to their principal and friend. The students’ reaction was heartfelt, though clouded with the weight of reality.  

The message to the graduates was simple, yet heavy. Deep relationships with teachers, principles, community members, underclassmen, parents and others who share their definition of home, have irreversibly changed the students. While they will carry this change with them in their character, they cannot re-live their last adventure; it is time for the next journey to begin, a journey that will continue to show them that life is neither fair, nor just. 

Circle them back

But perhaps our message to rural youth is not complete; perhaps it is not quite that simple. Our message to our rural youth empowers them to stretch their boundaries, push against their comfort zones, travel, move away and spread their wings; it prefaces that life is not fair, yet regardless they must push forward. Perhaps we also need to send along one other message in conjunction with these: that while pushing forward, it may mean that we return to where we started. Perhaps we need to extend, along with the supportive push out the door, a deliberate open-ended invitation to return home. We must emphasize that life is not a one-directional path, and circular paths don’t indicate set-backs, but instead are the most fulfilling paths we can take.   

In fact, recent studies support this trend, as discovered several years ago by Ben Winchester, a research fellow with Minnesota Extension. In a paper titled “Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of Newcomers,” Ben shared research showing that rural counties in West Central Minnesota were losing high school graduates, but were gaining college educated adults who were migrating to small towns to raise their families.

Invest and be proud

Lastly, there is a message to be heeded by the community. While the students head on to their next adventure, carrying with them a wild excitement that is only slightly dampened by sentiments of home, the rural community must carry something with them as well: pride. In rural communities that suffer daily reminders of depopulation and the out-migration of their youth, it is easy to feel helpless, but I tend to agree with Mike Knutson, of the Rural Learning Center. The reality is that "rural residents have as much responsibility for the future of their communities as free market economics or government policies. We choose where we buy our groceries. We choose how trashy or vibrant our communities look. And we choose how our young people feel about their communities by what we tell them and how we invest in them." By the actions of this graduating class of 2011, I say that many rural communities are investing well.  Furthermore, what goes around comes around; there is hope that with an invitation to return, 2011 graduates across rural America will circle back, in time, to the place they call home.   

Join us in Saint Paul for the National Rural Assembly, June 28–30, to talk about strategies and issues of concern to existing, new and returning rural residents, among many other topics pertinent to rural America (