Special Report: Rural Schools Crucial to a Community's Identity

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At McCool Junction Public School, they know small rural school districts aren't inferior to their counterparts in bigger places.

"When we measure success, you look at when we have 100 percent graduation rate, and 90 percent of our students are going on to post-secondary education, I think we're doing something right here," said Curtis Cogswell, superintendent of McCool Junction Public School.

As of the 2012-2013 school year, there are 249 school districts in Nebraska. That's about half of what existed a decade ago. Experts noted that decrease is due in part to a controversial piece of legislation from 2005 that merged many districts. That law is no longer in effect, but rural school districts said, they're still feeling the heat.

While they admitted that rural schools may have a more restricted curriculum, advocates said students in small schools are given more attention by teachers and develop closer relationships with other students. But despite their successes, proponents said small school districts are continually stressed by a lack of funding from the state.

"They want us to do the same things, but they're forcing the issue to say, hey, we're going to limit the funding, and without funding we can't run schools," said Cogswell.

While the immediate impact of a school closure is the dispersal of students and staff, the true impact of school closures may not be as obvious.

"We can crunch mounds of empirical evidence to say, oh maybe you should consolidate. On the other hand, there are these fragile, soft values, values that can't be quantified," said Peter Longo, an University of Nebraska Kearney professor who has studied school consolidation.

Values, Longo noted, such as community cohesiveness and identity.

The village of Bradshaw lost its school in a merger years ago, yet residents say they still feel the impact today. What used to be the Bradshaw school is now storage units and a community fitness center.

"A few less families have moved into town than would have if the school hadn't closed," said Doug Preslicka, the village superintendent for Bradshaw. "The schools are a major part of your community as far as community activities, ball games, and lots of things that go on."

Educators said closing down rural schools also directly affects students, especially those who may need a small environment in which to succeed.

"Most families don't go to the church that's closet to their house. They go to the one that fits the needs of their family. And I said that's what's important, you find the school that fits the need of your family, or each individual child," Cogswell said.

Despite obstacles, some rural school are doing well. Part 2 of this special report will feature one rural school district that has not only been able to survive, but also thrive.