Expert Commentary

What happens to a community when a rural school closes?

One thing is clear from academic research on rural schools: closings and consolidations can drastically change the flavor of civic life in a rural community.

The Piseco School ceased operations in 2012, but the school district endures. A superintendent and a three-member school board make decisions about bus contracts and the use of the former school building. (April McCullum/Burlington Free Press)

In the interest of examining this important news topic through a research lens, Journalist’s Resource collaborated on this story with The Burlington Free Press, where it first appeared. This piece, which also appeared in USA Today, is part of a series on how rural communities are shaping their futures without schools. The version below includes additional coverage of research on rural school closures.

PISECO, NEW YORK — In a town without a coffee shop, the former elementary school building in this small Adirondack community has become a gathering point for locals. A group of men meet each morning for coffee in the school kitchen, leaving donations in a jar under the counter.

Down the hall are the town offices, including a classroom that serves as traffic court on Monday evenings. The former school library now serves all residents, offering books on the honor system. An early elementary classroom has become a fitness center.

Graduation photos from years past — the final class graduated in 2012 — hang framed in the main hallway for anyone who feels nostalgic.

Most often, though, people visit the building for the wireless internet, seeking a refuge from spotty to nonexistent cell service.

Like towns in Vermont and across the rural United States, residents of Piseco are adjusting to life after school closure. This article, produced in collaboration with Journalist’s Resource at Harvard University, explores what happened in Piseco and what the best academic research can tell us about the ripple effects of rural school consolidation.

Far from ‘civilization’, Piseco draws outdoorsy tourists searching for peace and quiet

Piseco is about as rural as it gets in the eastern United States.

There are no traffic lights in Hamilton County, which at 4,500 people is the least-densely-populated county east of the Mississippi River, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For many years, seclusion has been the area’s key asset.

When a group of New York City and New Jersey friends formed a hunting and fishing club on Piseco Lake in 1892, they noted proudly that they’d chosen “the most remote point in the State of New York from railroads and such evidences of civilization.” To get there, New Yorkers had to take a boat, two railroads and two stagecoach rides, a total northward trip of at least 18 hours. Local industries at the time included lumber businesses and a hemlock bark tannery.

Now connected by state and federal highways, Piseco remains tucked away in the Adirondack Park — 6 million acres of mountains, forests and pristine streams that’s as large as the entire state of New Hampshire.

Class photos cover the hallway in the now-defunct Piseco School, which closed in 2012. (April McCullum/Burlington Free Press)

Tourism fuels the economy. Piseco Lake draws campers, outdoor enthusiasts and families who visit each summer, their names carved into wooden signs at their lakeside camps.

As a young girl, Mimi Fyffe would lie awake in bed at night and listen to the music from roller skating nights at the Piseco community hall.

She attended the Piseco school, graduating from eighth grade in 1973 with 11 classmates. She said it was a good education with personal attention from teachers.

“It just felt like the best of both worlds,” Fyffe said.

Fyffe became an elementary school teacher, living and raising a family in Vermont and New Hampshire before finally returning home to Piseco. She and her husband serve as innkeepers of the historic Irondequoit Inn on the lake.

Piseco remains a tight-knit town, but the lake is quieter than it was when Fyffe was a child. She has noticed fewer children around.

Shuttered school leaves community scarred but not broken

By 2012, when the Piseco school had shrunk to two dozen children, residents voted to shutter it. According to North Country Public Radio, the vote tally was 112-27.

“If there’s no job, it doesn’t matter how good the school is,” said Dick Rose, the part-time superintendent of the Piseco Common School District. “They’re not going to bring their children — you gotta feed ’em. So you have to have the jobs. And there really is not something that would bring people here.”

Children as young as pre-kindergarten began taking bus rides up the road to Lake Pleasant Central School, about 15 minutes from the Piseco school, which offers larger class sizes and new opportunities such as computer coding, 3D printing and student teams that enter national wind turbine competitions.

The closure remains a sensitive topic in town, largely because school staff lost their jobs. Some people declined to speak about the experience on the record.

“It was traumatic, completely traumatic,” said Heather Philo, the principal of Lake Pleasant Central School, the school in a neighboring town that absorbed Piseco students after the closure. From her perspective, Piseco made the right decision.

As for the town as a whole, Piseco has found ways to maintain community ties. Residents recently rallied to build a new playground at the former school building. The local volunteer fire department and the 400-member Piseco Lake Association still bring people together.

“I don’t think the sense of community has changed,” said Ed Hart, who since 1991 has served as a pastor at Adirondack Bible Chapel, the church that shares a parking lot with the school building.

Others said they sensed a loosening of the fabric of their town, but said it had little to do with the closure of the school. One resident pinned it on the influx of “outsiders.”

School closings and consolidations can drastically change civic life 

One thing is clear from academic research on rural schools: closings and consolidations can drastically change the flavor of civic life in rural communities.

A seminal paper from 2002 found that small rural communities with schools have higher housing values and better infrastructure. The author, late Cornell University sociologist Thomas Lyson, focused on 297 incorporated villages in New York with populations of less than 2,500.

Home values were nearly 25% higher in small rural villages that had a school. Lyson defined small rural villages as those with 500 or fewer people, and large rural villages as having between 501 and 2,500 people. Home values were 6% higher in large rural villages with schools.

Municipal water and sewer systems were more common in rural communities with schools, Lyson found. He also found the income inequality gap was wider in small rural communities without schools, and that a higher percentage of households in those places relied on public assistance.

Rural communities “nurture participation in civic and social affairs” and “anchor people to place” while schools and other institutions help “define rural community boundaries,” Lyson wrote.

But at the turn of this century there were fewer than 15,000 school districts in the U.S., down from 130,000 in 1930, according to his paper.

“School consolidation is likely to remain a threat to many rural communities in the coming decades,” Lyson concluded.

More recent research bears out the broadest takeaway from Lyson’s work: schools define communities.

Take Dawson County, Neb., which saw its school districts shrink from 18 to 5 during the 2000s. At the same time, the foreign-born population was booming in the small city of Lexington, population 10,000.

Researchers writing in Great Plains Research in 2013 found that school consolidation and demographic changes in the county led to school segregation along racial lines. White students increasingly went to schools outside Lexington after consolidation.

Lexington schools were enrolling more kids overall after consolidation — representing about 55% of the entire county enrollment by 2010 — but had fewer per-student financial resources.

Lexington schools spent about $7,600 per student in 2000 while the remaining four districts in the county spent about $8,800 in 2000.

By 2010, the gap had grown twofold. Lexington was spending just shy of $9,000 per student. The other four districts were spending more than $11,000.

In Dawson County, school consolidation and changing demographics ended up “compounding segregation and inequality and complicating the solutions to these problems,” the authors concluded.

In Texas, researchers writing in Administrative Issues Journal: Education, Practice & Research in 2013 explored 10 consolidations affecting 20 school districts from 1999 to 2008. They focused on cost savings and student achievement.

Districts that absorbed other districts spent more per student after consolidation. Passing rates did not improve in districts that consolidated, compared to similar districts that did not consolidate.

“These findings support the results from previous studies that even though consolidation could prove to be cost-effective in some cases, there has been no compelling evidence that consolidation is a cost-effective alternative to small rural schools,” the authors wrote.

Living close to a school can increase your home value

At least one study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Rural Studies, picked up where Lyson left off. Cornell researchers tested his finding that schools provide social and economic benefits to rural communities. They focused on 308 rural villages in New York with between 500 and 2,500 people.

Unlike Lyson, they did not find that a village having a school increased home values. But they did find economic benefits for those living closer to schools.

For example, for each mile a village was closer to a school, whether or not the school was actually in that village, values increased more than $11,000 and per capita income increased more than $1,000.

Research often focuses on the benefits schools bring to communities, but some research has found benefits from consolidation, too. Teachers experienced better working conditions and students had more courses to choose from after four high school consolidations in rural Arkansas in the mid-2000s, according to a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education.

Much of the research explores consequences of closings and consolidations in rural areas in different parts of the country. Researchers often warn that it can be difficult to make sweeping generalizations about what might happen in one rural area based on what happened in another rural area.

How Piseco adjusted to the closure over seven years 

Property values in Arietta, the town that includes Piseco, have not changed at all since the school closure, said a person who answered a phone call at the county government office who declined to be identified.

People who buy homes in Piseco are largely second homeowners or retirees who are not looking for a local school. Lakefront property remains desirable. And since 2012, Piseco’s school property tax rate has dropped to one of the lowest in New York.

Year-round residents are accustomed to driving to other towns for jobs and daily necessities, and their community had long been intertwined with neighboring Lake Pleasant before they sent their kids there.

Teenagers from Piseco have high school choice, and the two options are 25-45 minutes away through the winding mountain roads.

Keith Ford runs one of the town’s few businesses, fixing snowmobiles in the winter and motorcycles and boats in the summer. As a graduate of the Piseco school, he had hoped that the school could be preserved as a grade school for the youngest kids.

Kathy Hawkins, left, uses the computer in the library of the school in Piseco that she attended in the 1950s. Also pictured is George Hawkins. (April McCullum/Burlington Free Press)

“It really doesn’t affect me, not having children, but I hated to see it go,” said Ford, 57.

Kathy Hawkins’ family has owned property in Piseco since 1855.

“I’m happy here – except for the black flies,” she said during a recent visit to the library in the former school building, where she graduated from eighth grade in 1958.

She said Piseco doesn’t have the feeling of family that it did in years past. The closure of the school was unrelated to that shift, Hawkins said. For now, she’s happy to see that the building is still standing.

“Someday there might be more children in the area,” Hawkins said. “You never know.”

Why isn’t there more large-scale research about rural schools?

The federal government is a major funder of rural education research, but some experts say the money isn’t keeping up.

“There’s not enough research — not because there’s not people willing to do it,” said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, an advocacy organization in Chattanooga, Tenn. “I think the funding is not equal to give us the amount of research needed to really dive into the problems that a lot of communities face.”

Social science funding often goes to research likely to produce findings that are meaningful and that can be re-created. That usually means researchers need large sample sizes, which can be hard to come by in rural areas, said Amy Azano, an associate professor of education at Virginia Tech who has secured multi-million dollar grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant process itself can seem stacked against rural education researchers from smaller universities.

“Many rural scholars are doing important work at smaller colleges or regional universities and may not have structural supports in-house to write large grants,” Azano said. “And if they do, grant reviewers may have perceptions about the ability of smaller places to carry out grant tasks.”

Rural students make up a large chunk of the U.S. student body. About 30% of public elementary and high school students are in towns or rural communities, according the National Center for Education Statistics. That figure is 80% in Vermont.

Research can help explain how the strengths and challenges of rural communities affect millions of students — and research can recalibrate rural stereotypes, Azano said.

“There’s a deficit narrative that gets told about rural communities,” Azano said. “You see images of rural places and those pictures of despair get shown over and over. There are challenges in every community and rural communities are no exception, but there are also many attributes and assets. By not having equitable funding to be able to research those communities, we rely on clichéd storytelling.”

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