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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Educating BIG in Small Communities

Educating BIG in Small Communities

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

To have finite resources in trying, economic times seems common today in education.  Not easy … but common.  Small and rural communities are particularly hard-hit, as they struggle to provide a quality of education for children while facing declining enrollments because jobs and income are scarce.  Some wonder if our small towns will survive. 

I saw a billboard while traveling between Indiana and Michigan on I-69 recently, something to the effect of, “Recession 101:  Self-Worth Beats Net Worth.” 

Let me start here. 

I believe that self-worth is critical to the notion of “piece-by-piece” (person-by-person) economic development in small communities. Schools are critical in this equation, as self-worth and a school’s pursuit of community partnerships for excellent education are keys to playing the cards we have been dealt. Further, a principal’s leadership role is incalculably important.

As I envision how these leadership challenges would present themselves here, I ask myself, “What would I do to Educate BIG in a Small Community, if I had the honor of serving as principal?”

First, I would voraciously unearth information on careers that bring work to worker, rather than worker to work – careers that could be launched and enjoyed in our small towns. I would share this information with local staff, students, and families. These careers would include on-line work, as well as those in which local ingenuity designs, supplies, or manufacturers in-demand, products or services, marketed and sold globally. Niche opportunities in the knowledge economy are key. Staff members would provide our children with the academic and critical thinking skills leading to success in careers that have yet even to be envisioned, ensuring that small town youth are globally savvy, knowing their options and carving unique pathways to competitiveness. As knowledge and talent have no particular zip codes, we might as well offer them safe harbor in our own small towns. My colleague, Dr. Terry McDaniel, encourages future school leaders to ensure educational excellence in our schools so that tomorrow’s global success stories will want to stay and raise children. I couldn't agree with him more. Knowledge brings empowerment.  Empowerment brings self-worth.  Self-worth provides for piece-by-piece economic development and allows children the option of staying local over a lifetime.

Second, I would establish the school as a visible and accessible hub of local, historical commemoration.  I’m thinking in terms of lobbies, commons areas, gardens, courtyards, or nature trails, adorned with pictures and plaques, or other symbolic representations of what the local area is, was, and can beA Place of Pride. Local history requires nostalgic protection, as well as a certain exposure to youth for their own civic mindfulness.  History classes would ensure local content coverage. Every person over the age of 50 would be sought as a member of the school’s speakers’ bureau.  Honoring our hometowns and respecting our elders would become an integral part of the business of schools, fostering self-worth in students. Self-worth builds local identity and an allegiance to what is ours.

Third, I would ensure school support of all what I call “community leveraging points.”  Community and business leaders would have access to eager young minds and bodies performing able service learning. Whether students are involved with the local coffee shop owner, the barber, town mechanic, or farm equipment dealer, they would be encouraged to pay forward with no particular expectation in return.  I say this mindful of my graduate students, who mentioned to me in critiquing this article the need for a school leader to build capacity in developing partnerships (and not naively to expect that they will work as planned). Partnerships require ongoing training and education. One such partnership would include the school’s taking the lead on the beautification of the local community, as positive, curbside appeal is a must for all who visit and most of all for those who live locally. Representing with our personal best through investment from within garners investment from without.  In any event, it brings self-worth.  Self-worth protects and maintains what is ours.

Fourth, and most importantly, I would do my job as a small town principal.  I would know my children – each and every one – by name, grade, family, interest, aptitude, and ability.  As does the outstanding leadership team under Superintendent Chuck Brimbury in Peru, Indiana, I would know their test scores, reading levels, career aspirations, talents, hobbies, and areas of strengths and weaknesses, both academically and socially, while focusing on positive school culture. I would dine, shop, and live locally. I would hold ALL accountable for helping children succeed and would ensure that staff and faculty resources are placed where they can do the most good.  If teachers or staff underperform, I would first provide them training and/or move them to another area where they can better demonstrate that they are a fit (or move them on), as I believe schools are placed on the planet for student achievement and community betterment, not necessarily for adult employment.  Operating with these ends in mind builds self-worth and encourages the best of local education. This intrinsic drive brings with it the best accountability that an educational system could offer its constituents, much better than that mandated extrinsically.

We may not be able to perform miracles in small communities with limited resources, but I believe that through partnerships, we can best operationalize the resources at our disposal.  We can, through schools, encourage self-worth and piece-by-piece economic development. Too long have we relied upon fragile commodities, such as big manufacturing, government, and locally available natural resources, to keep our communities afloat; it is now up to us. It is now up to the knowledge we can development, the partnerships we can enjoin, and the opportunities we can, ourselves, secure.

With our global economic engine in overdrive, the local, small-town school is now a most-critical factor in the unity, creativity, and self-sufficiently that we will need through partnerships to allow us safe passage into a better tomorrow with local community intact.  Something very special still exists in small-town America, as it has since the founding of this great country, and small town school leaders are on the front lines of its preservation.


Dr. Ryan Donlan was once a principal and enjoyed quality partnerships in his community.  He operated on principle and ran a tight ship. Yet with the realities of today’s economy more trying than ever, does he have a clue?  Please let him know either through commenting on this blog, or by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.  Thanks for visiting he Ed. Leadershop

1 comment:

  1. I picture what is described as Mayberry-esque utopia. For the above to happen, the small community must be open-minded enough to explore the options presented. Understand, I do not disagree with the above, but for an exploration of what we can become in our small-town schools to occur, the community and school board have to be open to receiving it.

    Yes, making the community feel welcome and preserving its history in the school is a wonderful idea, but there is a delicate balance of preserving history and allowing that preservation of history to become empowerment/entitlement. I am a product of small-town schools and have been an administrator in only small-town schools. Dr. Gruenert will have to forgive me as I share personally, that I have seen some small towns do this well and others have let the community become too empowered and too entitled.

    It takes just the right building and more importantly, district leader, to be able to juggle the nuances of leading in a small-town. If that can be done, then I think there is a shot at preparing our youth for a big life inside their small town.