School consolidation: A qualitative case study on the importance of identity in a rural environment
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Though school district consolidation in the United States has been occurring from the early part of the 20th Century to present times, there is still much to be discovered on the best way to approach school consolidation and, specifically, approach the shifting social and cultural identity involved during the school consolidation process. Most of the focus of the body of literature concerning the effects of school consolidation has been on efficiency and financial issues inherent in making the decision to consolidate. This study provided a better understanding on behavioral, cognitive, and affective components involved in social capital and school identity and the importance of these factors within school consolidation consideration.
Social capital involves the connections and sense of belonging within a community or group that result from similar demographic attitudes and characteristics within the rural environment. This can be realized through affiliation with a school and the identification with the environment which is partially created through shared meanings, shared symbols, and sayings of the school. This institutional and educational culture can occur without awareness and over time from the affective, behavioral and cognitive ties among the people and their sociophysical environment. A changing school identity may influence the social capital, local economy, and community identity. The emphasis of the study was on how identity within a rural environment played a role in school consolidation consideration and the implications of a potentially changing school identity.
This research used a case study design with interviews conducted with selected stakeholders of the rural school districts involved in the case study. Case study was used for the research since case study allowed the researcher to seek out and conceptualize the ideas that emerged through interviews, observation, personal histories, and archival documents. This study focused on the perceptions of a school superintendent, a school board president, alumni students, and community members in the area of identity of the individuals and the school within the rural environment. There were a total of six participants and each was involved in two interviews. By using case study, the researcher gained an in-depth understanding of the concerned phenomena in a “real-life” setting.
Significant changes can occur as school consolidation is considered. A likely byproduct of impending change is disruption and discussion. How do stakeholders in the school consolidation process describe their experiences? How do the experiences in the school consolidation process impact the self-perceived identity of the stakeholders? What were the concerns about identity posed by various stakeholders from the perspective of the superintendent of the school district, school board president, students at the time of the consolidation, and selected members of the community and how were these concerns addressed?
Utilizing an interpretive theoretical perspective, this qualitative case study applied Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Systems Theory of Human Development as a method to ground the study and develop the evidence base for the role of place attachment in social-ecological dynamics. Bronfenbrenner’s Theory gave attention to different social and cultural contexts and allowed examination of place attachment and how people and cultures relate to their environments. The emphasis on the interaction with social-ecological change was used to support and focus the approach and allowed me to remove subjectivity as much as possible in the analysis. I could focus exclusively on participant perspectives and explore the affective, behavioral and social factors involved in the consideration of consolidation of a rural school district. Meanings emerged through the research process. The several strands of evidence related to the experience of rural school consolidation were synthesized to enable me to state the major research findings and offer recommendations on the findings.