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Saving dwindling schools -- and rural towns' pride

Too many schools for too few students.

That result of the continuing enrollment decline is hitting the nation's rural school districts doubly hard these days.

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More than one-fourth of this country's school districts have fewer than 300 pupils. For their school boards, unlike those in most cities and suburbs, the choice is rarely which school to close. More often it is whether or not to shut down the only school in town.

That one school is frequently the community's singular pride and joy, supplying it with a certain sense of identity. As one rural principal puts it: ''If our football team makes the state playoffs, there's nobody left in town but the burglars.'' Accordingly, a decision to shut the school is often viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a sign that local business and the community itself may soon be on the road to extinction.

Faced with that prospect, many rural communities are opting for a sidestep, short of either a shutdown or a merger with another district.

The move involves keeping existing school boards intact but sharing academic programs, personnel, and, in some cases, the teaching and performance of music, drama, and athletics.

This community in Iowa, for instance, which merged with nearby Wesley into one joint school district more than 20 years ago but has continued to lose students ever since, decided two years ago to sign just such a sharing agreement with LuVerne, a town 14 miles away.

Under the plan, considered one of the best examples of a total sharing arrangement in this state of small towns, all junior high students from the area go to school in LuVerne while all high school students come to Corwith. Both school districts share industrial arts, home economics, and art teachers, and a guidance counselor.

Though in the beginning, high schoolers from LuVerne would return home after school to play on their own basketball teams, conduct their own student council meetings, and hold their own homecoming dances, that kind of separation is slowly giving way to a more relaxed approach to joint activities.

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Next year students in the two districts will embark on one senior class trip, serve on the same student council, and hold a joint junior-senior prom. High school students will try out for one Corwith-Wesley LuVerne football team. LuVerne had recently abandoned football altogether for lack of students.

In some cases such sharing serves merely as a prelude to a merger. Students and parents from different communities often find they get along better than they thought they would and merger worries fade.

''Generally, sharing is a temporary effort to see what happens,'' says Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National Association of School Boards. ''It could, like some of the temporary buildings of World War II, last 30 years. But probably somewhere along the line the institutional question - of whether or not the district is too small - has to be faced. . . . This kind of cooperation can provide a nice transition. Districts begin to see that if they do merge, there may be some cost advantages. But they also know that there are trade-offs - you have to give up some immediate local control.''

In the case of the three communities joining hands in education in this area, no one is yet making any predictions as to the outcome.

''The question for rural education is, 'How do you maintain (a community's) identity and still have good programs?' '' says Dale Sorensen, superintendent of Corwith-Wesley Community Schools. ''Sharing is one way to provide a richer educational opportunity so that students aren't the losers at a time when no one's really sure what's going to happen with enrollment decline.''

Iowa education authorities estimate that one-fifth of all Iowa schools share academic programs to some degree.

Nearby Minnesota has had legislation allowing schools to pair up with programs and personnel for the last four or five years.

''It's been working pretty well,'' says Mike Torkelson of the Minnesota Department of Public Instruction, who estimates that a few dozen schools in the state will be paired by next year. ''I think the realization is there in smaller communities that it's either do that or be forced to consolidate.''

One of Iowa's prize examples of school sharing is a vocational center built in the community of Storm Lake which offers youngsters from eight or nine area school districts everything from carpentry to vocational agriculture.

''Some travel 25 or 30 miles to get there,'' notes Ed Barbour of Iowa Central Community College, which runs the project.

Still, many small communities do not buy the concept that bigger must be better. Above all, they balk at any effort by state authorities to mandate mergers. The Iowa Legislature considered such a move in 1977 but let the bill fade into oblivion when more than 1,000 angry Iowans appeared at a Senate hearing to protest.

And even the interim step of sharing, particularly when it involves athletics , can be hotly controversial.

Amid dire predictions from Iowa athletic groups that it might lead to professional recruiting and the development of athletic ''powerhouses'' in some schools, the Iowa Department of Public Instruction in May issued a new rule that allows school districts already sharing academic programs to team up temporarily in extracurricular activities as well.

That's why this community, which lobbied for that rule, will welcome LuVerne students into the Corwith-Wesley football team next fall. In deference to new members of the team, neutral black and white rather than the current blue jersey shirts will be worn.

But in case the sports proposal generates more problems than it resolves, state authorities put a 1986 expiration date on it.

''I hope we haven't created a monster,'' says Ted Davidson, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards. ''It's not a trial program, but if it doesn't work, it probably won't be renewed.''

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