Special Report: Strong Community Support Necessary for Rural Schools

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When a rural school closes, it has a lasting effect on the community. Many Nebraska towns know what it's like to lose the community cohesiveness and identity. But it doesn't have to end like that for all rural towns.

McCool Junction Public School only has 270 students, but the community of McCool Junction has a pride for its school that they say is unrivaled.

"The community has a strong pride in their school and believes in rural schools and would do anything to promote their rural school," said Curtis Cogswell, who serves as the superintendent of the district.

Cogswell said he has seen the number of students double since he first arrived 11 years ago, a feat he credits to the community.

"I always say this, the only thing that will force McCool Junction to consolidate, because I'm a true believer in what the generations have instilled in this school district, is that if it comes, it's going to have to be an act of the state," Cogswell said.

It's a determination demonstrated by the community's efforts to preserve the school. Efforts like raising money for major renovations such as an all-weather track and a new learning center.

Perhaps what best defines the spirit of McCool Junction is a quote in the school's conference room: "McCool Junction Public School, Where Anything Is Possible."

"It's amazing to see how many community members will come together, work together, to complete any project that needs to be done, and they have a good time doing it. Because somebody described it as a family, and it is," said Grant Fisher, the school's administrative assistant.

McCool Junction resident Paul Underwood helps organize many of the community's fundraisers for the school. Even though his children graduated years ago, Underwood said his belief in the importance of local schools keeps him involved.

"To have a strong community, you need a school in it and you need to support the school. Because we have seen small communities that lost their school, and it seems like the tendency is for the town to dry up," Underwood said.

Underwood's belief is shared by many in the community, allowing them to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through auctions and fundraising galas such as "Evening With the Stars."

"All I can say is that it's a family. We're all very passionate about keeping our school. The school administrators, the school staff, and the kids, they all thrive, they all enjoy it, and so I think as a family, a community, that we will do whatever it takes to keep our school," said Lisa Johnson, who has kids at the school and also helps cater fundraising events.

The community's successful efforts have made students from other communities choosing McCool Junction over bigger schools elsewhere.

"It's closer, you get more attention from each teacher, anything you need, they just take care of you a lot better I think," said Jac Bailey, who transferred from a school in York.

Some said it's perhaps an issue of the chicken and the egg, but the community needs a solid school, just as much as the school needs a strong community.

"They know that the school is the identity and the nucleus of this community and they just have determined that we will keep our school no matter what," Fisher added.

Research also shows that schools are the center of social activity for many rural towns, the glue that keeps communities together. The future of rural schools in Nebraska may come down to the will of communities to support their schools in the face of funding cuts.