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More than education could be affected with school closing

General manager

The sign that has hung on the outside pool wall at the Sunnyside school will soon only adorn an empty building that may be remodeled into a new location for Petersen Elementary School.

When students, parents and citizens watched the last graduating class of East Carbon High School walk to get their diplomas last Thursday, certainly it had to run through their minds about what the future would bring. But that future is sure in only a few ways.

One certainty is that students from the Sunnyside and East Carbon area will be attending Carbon High and Mont Harmon Junior High next year. How those students will perform and fit in at those schools still remains to be seen. But most involved in the orientation meetings that have been put together by faculty and staff from each school for the new students say that things look more positive than many of them had expected it to. In fact, many of the former East Carbon students seem genuinely excited about their new adventure.

However, while things are not certain for the students, they are even more uncertain for the two little towns, which together only sport a total population of a little over 1,500 people. While the main emphasis during the public meetings by the opponents of the closure was what would happen to the kids, their education and their legacy, a strong underlying current that was heard many times from residents of both communities was the concern about what would happen to the towns themselves, without a high school and junior high for the first time in 45 years.

Board of education and administrators had answers when people asked about the students, but no one had any type of comeback when people started asking about the possible decline in property values, business opportunities and even populations drop offs due to the closure.

Over the past 60 years there have been a number of studies and works done on what has happened to small towns where schools have been closed. Probably one of the most well known works by an educator is a book written by Alan DeYoung in 1995 which was titled The life and death of a rural American high school: Farewell Little Kanawha. In this book, DeYoung, who is a professor of education at the University of Kentucky, documents the birth, the life and the death (the closing) of a small rural high school in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. The book is largely about the educational effects the school had on the community and after many years of economic highs and lows (which in that area are also largely tied to the coal industry) how the decline of the community led to the consolidation of schools in the area. Like DeYoungs book, much of the research that has been done in the area of how school closings affect communities, has been done in the Appalachian region of the south.

Two other definitive works on the subject include a book by Alan Peshkin called Growing Up American: Schooling and the Survival of Community that was published in 1978 and a study by Thomas A.Lyson called What does a school mean to a community? Assessing the social and economic benefits of schools to rural villages in Ne\v York.

Peshkin's book looked at what schools mean to communities largely by judging the impact of schools he studied that were open in small communities and assessing their sociological and economic impacts. At one point in his book he points out that "The capacity to maintain a school is a continuing indicator of a communitys well-being."

Peshkin's book, while studying wide ranging ramifications, didn't however look at particular issues that were in question in the East Carbon situation as closely as Lyson's report. However it should also be remembered that neither the book nor the study are concerned primarily with high schools, but with schools in general. Since East Carbon-Sunnyside will still have Petersen Elementary in session, whether it will stay where it is or move into a renovated East Carbon High building later, some of their conclusions do not exactly apply.

During the public meetings on East Carbon's closure a number of issues about how the action would affect the community were brought out. Many of these are addressed in the study by Lyson, who looked at rural communities in New York that had schools closed. Lyson looked at two categories of communities; those with less than 500 residents and those with between 501 and 2,500 citizens. The east county area falls into the later, although technically Sunnyside by itself exists within the smaller numbers.

Often when school buildings close they are eventually utilized for other functions, even private business, like the old Reeves School on Carbon Avenue in Price. However there are times when they just become derelicts as well. Carbon School District is presently interviewing architects to look at East Carbon High and to estimate the dollars it would take to remodel it into an elementary school.

Lyson says that small communities generally have things like churches, fire departments, post offices, town halls and other civic like organizations or buildings, but in his estimation "of all civic institutions....the school serves the broadest constituency" of a community.

He also noted that while he only studied small towns in New York state he expected "the findings to have relevance to rural communities in other states as well."

One of the first non-student issues brought out at the meetings earlier this spring was the problem of property values. Many opponents to the closure were concerned about the house values and what such a move could do to them.

Lyson pointed out that in 1990 the average mean value of a home in a small town with a school in New York was $59,508. But he found on the other hand, in small rural villages without schools, the average house value was $47,782. In the larger communities (in the range of the east county areas size) he found that the values were closer together with a mean value of $62,329 in those with schools as opposed to a mean value of $58,832 in those without.

He also examined income levels in towns with and without schools. One of the things he found was that income inequality was generally greater in towns that did not have schools as opposed to those that did and that the percentage of households receiving public assistance was higher in those without schools. He also discovered that small towns with schools had more professional , managerial and executive workers in them than those that had lost schools.

His study also revealed (much like a study that was done by Wright Mills and Melville Ulmer in both 1946 and 1970) that communities with strong civic infrastructures (which includes schools) showed higher levels of well-being and welfare. He also said that "...more recent research has demonstrated that the civic community is one in which residents are bound to a place by a plethora of local institutions and organizations."

Overall, however, Lyson felt that "...although one might infer that villages that lose schools will become less desirable places to live, the longitudinal data need to address this issue for all rural villages in New York are not available." He did note that in the few case studies he had seen, the data suggests there is a causal link between school closings and a community's overall well being.

However, not all is as bleak as it may seem for the East Carbon-Sunnyside area. He also points out that he studied a number of small communities that were thriving and retaining their populations despite school closures. He points out that civic and business activity can anchor a population in place, despite the absense of a school.

So even with the studies that have been done, most conclusions about how one school closure or another will affect the social and economic base of a community is still open for conjecture.

Some in the area would like to see the two towns return to their former glory, and with the awaking of the energy markets and even with some increased tourist trade due to the Nine Mile-Bruin Point-Whitmore Canyon loop road they could get back into a growth mode. But whether they will ever grow within the foreseeable future to be in the position to have another high school located in the community is a vision that few can see at the present time.

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