“I’m from the North and I can tell you what’s wrong with your schools and I can tell you how to fix them.” What are the implications of those words when folks from rural schools and communities hear that? The first thing they do is turn you off. It’s not a North/South thing it’s just the imperiousness of the tone and the know it all look that these interlopers (maybe even carpetbaggers) are giving you.

Having spent a good part of my life in rural areas, I can tell you the first set of words that come to rural people’s minds when they hear you are from another place, not their town-SUSPICION. There are no more apprehensive people than rural people when you approach them with a great desire to tell them, “the right way of doing things.”

Even when we were running scholarship programs in N.Y. West Va. and PA. And were doling out bunches of money, people were suspicious. In one small town in rural N.Y., we offered a scholarship of $50,000 over four years to a young lady. Her self-ordained minister told her that this was a gift from the devil and that she should not take it. We spoke to the guidance counselor and he told us that this self-ordained minister had impregnated his girlfriend at the senior prom.

We are both of the opinion that to be of some help to rural communities, you should spend a bunch of time learning the community. Your job is not to tell, but to listen and ask questions. People will be more than happy to help you with that the older folks will be able to tell you the history of the place. If you make yourself available to community events, just showing up, that will tell people that you really are interested in them.

It will take time and a great deal of patience. In some places it may be more closed off than others. There are so many roadblocks to a successful volunteer experience. Some people are not actually suited to a volunteer situation.

A school or school district has its own personality. The variables include such things as their history, geography, staff interest (you might be a threat), administrative interest, economics (don’t ever go into a rural school with excessive jewelry, expensive clothing and shoes, outward symbols of wealth), and traditions.

The community has to see that you will love their children. It’s easier to love the younger ones in the elementary school. It is more difficult to love the middle schoolers and the high school students. As it turns out, most volunteers wind up working with the younger children. The sad thing is that one does what one is comfortable doing. That is o.k. in a number of situations.

As you spend more time in the schools, you will realize that there are things that have to get done that you are not comfortable with. I am not speaking about subject matter, but such ancillary things as helping students apply to a college, technical school, or just listening to what they have to say.

Like any school or school district, they have their own priorities. The school district for which I was superintendent had three priorities, music, basketball and science. For a school district of 2400 students and 3 state basketball championships, many bands (and many choruses in churches and community bands) and a number of prominent science graduates were the pride of the community.

These are some of the things that a volunteer should take a look at. It might even be a good idea to go to a couple of school board meetings. Seems like a lot to do just to read to first graders. Maybe it is, but I can tell you that you will understand your children a bit more when they tell you of their problems.



  1. Arnold, You’ve presented some wise information. Also, folks should remember there are many very competent rural folks. Recently we were reunited with Mike Stover and his mother, Carol. We all had warm memories of Dwight, a wonderful example of a self made, wise rural man.

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