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Balmer: Consolidation Consequences

Last month I returned to rural southern Minnesota where my family lived from 1957 until 1963. This is farm country, with rich, loamy soil. Climb on top of a telephone book and you can see into the next county. The nearest town is twenty miles distant.

The red-brick school, where I attended kindergarten through third grade, is still standing. This is where I learned arithmetic and the Palmer Method and practiced diving under my desk during the Civil Defense drills of the Cold War era. It’s also where, on sunny spring afternoons, my attentions wandered out the window to the athletic field and beyond to the cornfields surrounding the school in every direction.

When I was a student at East Chain School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the school spanned K through 12. I recall attending football and basketball games with my father, rooting for the Chainers. Now it’s only an elementary school; the high school portion of the building was riddled with asbestos, and the community decided to raze it several years ago.

The East Chain School consolidated with other rural communities some years back to create the Granada-Huntley-East Chain School District. The Chainers are now the Mustangs, and apparently the school buses perform some kind of intricate choreography twice a day - the buses meet in a central location and exchange drivers - in order to get students to and from school.

I don’t pretend to know whether or not school consolidation is a good thing, and I suspect there is no single answer to that question. But whether in Minnesota or here in Vermont the challenges facing rural schools are not all that different. Parents want more diverse course offerings, the latest in technology, vocational training, better preparation for college - and sometimes those interests collide with one another, especially in a district with limited resources. And at least in Minnesota, farms are getting larger, and families smaller.

One person I talked with said that fifty years ago two or three families farmed a section; now it’s typically only one. Many children head off to college and never return. And public schools lose critical enrollment when parents for ideological or other reasons choose to educate their children at home. As a product of public schools, I’m a passionate defender of public education, and I still remember the names of my teachers all those years ago.

I also recognize that change is inevitable, and schools must adapt to changing economics and demographics. But I worry that something of great value may be lost in consolidation, the urge to merge.

On my way back to the airport, I drove by the school once again. The place that once was the center of this rural community is a bit ragged now, worn at the edges, not the glistening place I remember.

Still, I cannot imagine a better place to have begun my education.

Randall Balmer is chair of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is "Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter."
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