Commentary: The Role of Rural Schools in Welcoming the Stranger

Immigrants to this small south-Texas community benefitted from the tolerance and acceptance they received from institutions like public schools. In return, immigrants were ready to learn and contribute to the common good. That’s how the best rural schools still work, says educator Francisco Guajardo.

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My family left Mexico on the last day of 1968 and landed in a rural south Texas community named Edcouch-Elsa. It was a time of great tumult, as Vietnam raged, the Civil Rights Movement flexed its muscle, and War on Poverty programming began to affect communities such as my new home in the United States. The community welcomed us with open arms, and the local school became our training ground:  the vehicle through which we found opportunity. In short, the school and community helped us become full participants in the civic and economic life.

Edcouch-Elsa was a very poor community, largely comprised of immigrants, migrant farm workers, and other working-class folk. But it was a strong community, where people cared, looked after each other, and took in strangers from another land. The tolerance factor superseded the relative poverty.  As newcomers we benefited from the acceptance the school and community granted us. At the same time, the community was enriched because immigrants moved into the town. The schools were better because immigrants enrolled in significant numbers. Our rural hometown found the key to success:  Welcome immigrants and those who are different, and they just might bring enterprise, initiative, and a will to do well.

Edcouch-Elsa continues to be relatively poor, but during the past half century it has figured out good ways to be. While it lags in Internet connectivity, particularly in the more rural colonias outside the municipal limits, the schools still offer meaningful connections to students and families. Human networking works well when tied to electronic networking, and innovations such as place-based and culturally relevant educational approaches provide rich teaching and learning experiences.

An important challenge has always been about how to keep local talent.  Talented youth tend to be lured by the bright lights of big city life, but this community has been intentional about keeping its talent and being creative to get it back. The school has led the way, as it places itself as the center of community life. I came back home after college. My brothers and others did too, and the schools and community were better for it.

RELATED STORY: Francisco Guajardo wrote the education platform for the Daily Yonder’s “Rural Policy: ‘Here’s What We Need,’ Advocates Say.” Read more.

If Edcouch-Elsa, Texas is a metaphor for rural schools in this country, then we should be concerned.  Poverty continues to exist in this community, and that adversely shapes experiences children have in the local schools.  But the metaphor also offers great hope, because Edcouch-Elsa has figured out ways to hold onto its young talent. It has figured out ways to welcome the poor, the downtrodden, and those who come to this country in search of opportunity.

A half century ago, this country was mired in wars both at home and abroad, but rural communities such as Edcouch-Elsa nevertheless acted in decent and humane ways. They emerged as manifestations of what is good about rural people, and what’s decent about this country. Those rural schools continue to exercise a similar function. I see it every day in schools along the Texas-Mexico border.

Instead of looking at presidential pronouncements for wisdom or inspiration, I look at how children and teachers get along in rural schools. They generally care for each other, provide a meaningful antidote to the rhetoric of division and destruction, and they welcome strangers with open arms–just like they welcomed my family many years ago.

Francisco Guajardo is CEO of the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg and a former professor and administrator at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (previously University of Texas Pan Am). From 1990 to 2002, he taught at his alma mater, Edcouch-Elsa High School.

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