Across the country, rural schools are being forced to shut down as more families move to urban areas and funding sources dry up. In Arena, Wisconsin, six-year-old Brady Schlamp must now travel 10 miles to school. His former school, right around the corner, was shuttered. As Jeffrey Brown reports, the closures can cause logistical challenges, emotional fallout and community divisions.
We have tried to show lately a number of efforts aimed at reviving small towns and rural areas around the country.
Tonight, we focus on a problem that's tied to towns and small cities losing too many residents. Some rural schools are being forced to shut down or consolidate as people move away.
Jeffrey Brown reports from Central Wisconsin for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.
Every morning, 6-year old Brady Schlamp boards the bus in Arena, Wisconsin, to travel the 10 miles to his new school in the neighboring town of Spring Green.
Just a few blocks away, Arena Elementary, a now abandoned building where Brady attended kindergarten last year. His mom, Deborah, says the transition has been tough.
He's adjusting. Slowly, he's starting to make some new friends, which he's happy about. But I think he's sad some days, especially when we go by the school. Now we go by, and it's just — it's sitting empty. The playground is sitting empty.
Empty schools closed to save money, it's happening in rural areas all over the country, including here in the River Valley School District in Central Wisconsin, which shuttered elementary schools in two towns in the last two years.
Some here commute to work in Madison, less than an hour away, and the area boasts attractions like Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio, Taliesin.
But the rural economy and demographics are changing, and that, says superintendent Tom Wermuth, impacts schools.
Although our area is growing as a whole, we're growing primarily over the age of 60 and becoming more of a retirement destination. And we're not attracting the families that traditionally were of child-bearing age.
So it's a numbers game in part?
It's a numbers game. And it's a numbers game because student head count dictates how we're financed.
But for everyone here, of course, it's about much more than just numbers. The school closures have split communities and pitted towns against one another.
It was hard. It was emotionally hard. Still hard.
I see, yes. Because?
Well, it was such a part of our lives.
Karen Wilkinson was a teacher at Arena Elementary for years, until she retired two years ago.
Neighbors stopped speaking to neighbors, and friendships were divided.
Really? It got to that point?
It did get to that point.
Wilkinson and others say, when the Arena school was closed, the heart of the town was lost, leaving just one cafe and a cheese shop as the main social and economic engines.
And Deborah Schlamp says, without a school to attract younger people, a vicious cycle is perpetuated.
I don't think families are going to want to come here anymore. They're going to start looking at the other towns, and nothing's going to happen with Arena. It's just going to eventually kind of dry up, I think.
Residents of nearby Lone Rock have similar concerns.
Kathy Rossing taught at its elementary school until it was closed. She, like many students, made the move to Spring Green and now teaches at the consolidated school.
It was very, very hard, both having taught my entire teaching career there in this nice small family atmosphere, and then also as being from Lone Rock. That was a whole different concern too, with being a property owner in Lone Rock, and worrying about what our value of our house is, and are we losing that?
Superintendent Wermuth says the decision to close schools wasn't easy, but the failure of residents to vote for a tax increase two years ago, coupled with what he calls an antiquated state funding formula, meant he had no choice.
I think we made the difficult decision that we had to make in order to continue to provide the students that we're serving the best possible academic and co-curricular experiences that we could.
That is, consolidation does bring benefits, as Wermuth was eager to show on a tour of the newly configured schools.
There's more children in the building than there have been in years.
Yes, which is a good thing.
It's a good thing. It's good. It allows us to do things like balance classrooms by gender and behavior and ability level.
And he said students have made the adjustment more easily than many of the adults.
I'm making a lot of — more new friends and all that stuff.
Case in point, 10-year-olds Lydia Johnson and Kaylie Killoy, who now go to the consolidated middle school in Spring Green as fifth-graders.
We have lockers, and we have more responsibilities. We have to travel from one class to another.
I like having the lockers too and having an actual study hall.
Oh, yes? You didn't have that before?
As elsewhere, consolidation is nothing new here. In the 1960s, in another period of change, the district went from four high schools down to one.
Then, as now, Superintendent Wermuth says the goal is to offer students access to classes and programs unavailable at smaller schools.
We have got phenomenal career and technology education programs. We have a welding program. We have an automotive program. We have an electronics program. We have a business program. We have an agriculture program.
Lots of times, when a school closes in a small community, it closes a community.
Education expert Julie Underwood says, although closures can be devastating to small towns, consolidation is often the only choice to keep school districts viable.
You want to stay vibrant as much as possible. And once you start losing that by losing students or cutting your programs, you're going to lose more students and cut more programs. It's a bad cycle.
She adds that rural school districts like River Valley are victims of a double economic whammy.
If you look at the demographic maps of Wisconsin, not only has the population shifted out of rural areas, but those rural areas have become poorer in terms of income, so they have less resources to deal with greater problems.
And now, even with the consolidation, the district finds it's still short of operational funds.
It put another tax increase before the voters earlier this month, which failed to pass. When we spoke before the election, Tom Wermuth told me a no-vote could lead to programs being cut.
We have phenomenal co-curricular experiences for our students, from the arts and music to our equestrian team.
You're saying all these things could be at risk?
They could be at risk, without a question.
As for the town of Arena, there is hope for building a new future, out of the old.
Fifty years ago, as an eighth grader, Jay Jones was giving tours of this Arena school building, then a K-8 school.
This is the village office. The police station would be taking this classroom.
Today, he's part of a citizens group aiming to repurpose the abandoned building into a community center, police station, day care, and even a commercial kitchen for start-up chefs.
I was part of the fight to keep the school open. We lost. So, we were handed lemons, so now you try to make lemonade. And that's what we're doing here.
It will take commitment and funding, says Jones, but he thinks the will to keep the town alive is there.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Arena, Wisconsin.
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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
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