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Small town shows how to make education work

Contrary to the image that rural schoolchildren enjoy uninterrupted idyllic lives, two recent studies indicate that many of these youngsters face precarious times.

The "National Study Regarding At-Risk Students," released in 1991 by the National Rural Development Institute and "Falling by the Wayside: Children in Rural America," published in January by the Children's Defense Fund, argue that, when compared to their city peers, rural children are more likely to fail because of drugs, crime, parental neglect and poverty.

Some schools, however, confound the experts by succeeding where raw data predict that these schools should fail. Witness such a case in the North Central Florida town of Waldo, population 1,100.

With 10 classroom teachers for its 254 pupils in Head Start through fifth grade, the Waldo Community School demonstrates that realistic goals, sincere commitment, pride and love _ not rich coffers and high-tech facilities _ provide the right mix for rescuing "at-risk" rural children.

When Waldo pupils move on to a bigger school in Gainesville, most perform well academically, and a large number participate in honors programs. Teachers report also that most of their Waldo transfers behave well and respect others.

Several factors account for the school's success. For instance, its unfenced grounds, occupying a city block in the heart of town, are within walking distance for most students. No student is bused past another school to get to Waldo. The campus is bordered by the police and fire departments, city hall, antique shops, a hardware store, several homes more than 80 years old and the First United Methodist Church.

No one is surprised that drug dealers avoid the school area.

"We try to meet needs beyond education," said guidance counselor Corky Smeyak, who, like others, doesn't mind being corny about the school. "Waldo is a talking, meeting, gathering place. After school, parents are out front working toward goals, planning fields trips and discussing student-related issues. We are a community resource for our parents and children. We really do believe that small is better."

Teachers get to see their students from year to year as they are promoted. This intimacy helps the children move comfortably through the grades, Smeyak said.

"We are an integral part of the community," Principal Frank Burns said. "We can't separate the school from the town. We know our students' and parents' names. We have a stable staff and little turnover. We have roots."

Physical education teacher Helene Rhine and kindergarten teacher Wanda Gallmon attribute the school's success to "social capital," the concept of formal and informal networking outlined by sociologists James S. Coleman and Andrew M. Greeley in their research on "functional communities."

In such communities, parents not only share values but also know one another well, belong to the same churches, regularly attend PTA and parent-teacher conferences, visit classes, help raise money and volunteer in school. Not surprisingly, Waldo parents already have volunteered nearly 1,800 hours since classes began last fall.

And the district board has shown its support of the school in one way by authorizing more than a million dollars in renovations, additions and improvements since July 1986.

"When the people see that the school board is investing in the community, the people, in turn, want to invest in their own children," Burns said. "We're in this fight together."

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Gainesville Sun.