The New York Times provides an apocalyptic headline for this article by Julie Bosman. In reality, this is a story about one specific, rural school closing, with some notes about other tiny, rural schools that have also closed.
Lola was among the last students to attend Arena Community Elementary. After classes let out last Monday, the school was shuttered permanently by the River Valley School District, whose administrators say that unforgiving budgets, a dearth of students and an aging population have made it impossible to keep the school open. For the first time since the 1800s, the village of Arena has no school.
Arena Elementary is the second small rural elementary school in two years to close in the district, nearly 300 square miles of rolling pastures and dairy farms in southwestern Wisconsin. The one in the neighboring village of Lone Rock closed last spring. The district now has just one open public elementary school, in Spring Green, nine miles away.
Administrators say they hardly had any choice.
The numbers are there for anyone to see: The River Valley School District graduated 105 seniors this year, and expects only 66 kindergartners to start school in the fall.
Residents worry about what will happen to Arena, population 834, without the school. There isn’t much else on this two-lane stretch of Highway 14: a gas station, a cheese outlet, a cafe called Grandma Mary’s, beloved for its Friday fish fry and beef stroganoff.
But the reality of rural life in the Midwest, school officials say, is that younger people are fleeing. They want Starbucks and Thai restaurants, plentiful jobs and high-speed internet, and when they start families, they want schools with amenities and big, thriving athletic programs.
“In any small community, anywhere in this country, our kids grow up and move away,” said Mark Strozinsky, a River Valley school board member. “They go to college and get a job, but it’s not here, because the opportunity is not here. So who’s left here? Grandma and Grandpa.”
Two schools in the Portage school district in central Wisconsin closed several years ago after enrollment declined sharply, the district administrator, Charles Poches, said.
“You can’t have four teachers for 40 kids,” he said.
As the public face of the district, Mr. Poches said that he bore the brunt of residents’ fury at public hearings.
“It was hell,” he said. “We’d have 50 people, some who didn’t even have kids there but had gone to school there. They felt it was part of their community. It was very traumatic.”
Melissa Schmid, whose 10-year-old stepson, Evan, completed fourth grade this year, said she wished she had fought harder to keep the Arena school open. When the time comes for her 1-year-old daughter, she and her husband have decided to send her to school in a different district to spare her a long bus ride.
She worries about the value of their house. New people aren’t moving to Arena much anyway. But they definitely won’t now.
“We basically have a bank and a cheese factory,” Ms. Schmid said. “It’s not going to be a growing community.”
Communities are born, grow, mature, decline, and, eventually, die. This article tugs at the heartstrings, but it's not clear to me why we should try to stop what's happening, to make rural America great again. I understand how the existing residents feel. But the hard truth is that people increasingly prefer suburban and urban lifestyles to rural life. No amount of nostalgia or outside financial support is going to cause this rural district to grow again.