Two towns' schools keep communities afloat

South Dakota State Roundup

Published January 1, 1994  | January 1994 issue

A rural community's fate often rests on the fate of its schools. Two towns—Agar and Wessington—are optimistic about their schools and their communities' continuing viability.

Wessington, about 30 miles north of Huron, with fewer than 300 people, lost its school superintendent and his large family last year. That put the community in the position of losing state funding, which requires a minimum enrollment of 35 students.

Fearing the loss of the school district would sound the town's death knell, Naomi Reinhardt, vice president of the Bank of Wessington, took out an ad in Mother Earth News, a bimonthly periodical that touts rural living. The classified promoted Wessington as a child-oriented community with business and housing opportunities, as well as excellent hunting and fishing.

It worked. Following the classified ad in the April-May issue, Reinhardt received about 50 inquiries. After she and her husband appeared on a network television talk show, they received another 300 inquiries. Interested families were sent videotapes of the town "showing the good and the bad," Reinhardt says.

And by the end of July the Abbeys, with six children, moved in. Since then, another four families have arrived—bringing another dozen children for the Wessington school system from Chicago, Washington state, Florida and Georgia.

While a few of the new residents have found work in the area, jobs are not the attraction. Housing prices average between $10,000 and $20,000, and living expenses are generally low. Kathy Abbey opened a bakery in a nearby town but hopes to relocate to a Wessington storefront before too long; her husband, a computer specialist, volunteers at the high school and hopes to do some consulting. "It's a great place to live and go out at night and not worry," Abbey says.

Meanwhile, in Agar, 40 miles north of Pierre, the question was how to stop the exodus. Agar has only 82 residents, and Sully County, in which the town is located, lost over 20 percent of its population during the 1980s.

What Sully County does have is some of the state's most productive farm land, which generates high taxes. Agar, whose school district was closed in 1984, asked the state for special permission to reopen the high school and try something new.

To stem the tide of young people leaving the area and the state, the Prairie Economic Development Academy (PEDA) at Agar High School was formed. PEDA grooms future business entrepreneurs through a college preparatory curriculum, that also includes Latin.

The program was developed with the encouragement of the University of South Dakota (USD) Business School, which has established a scholarship fund for qualifying Agar students.

The school is run like a business: office furniture and individual cubicles replace traditional classrooms; school will be open an optional 40 extra days each school year; and students have access to a business incubator. Each student must create an individual business plan prior to graduation. "If they could start even one successful business that hires two people in Agar, it will be a giant step forward," says Robert Reinke, USD Business School associate dean.

Enrollment stands at seven. While that may sound low, George Levin, Agar school superintendent, says enrollment will be limited to eight to 10 students per class to retain the individualized education program.

Adults who want to enhance or develop their businesses also can take advantage of school and incubator facilities, which include shared office services, business consulting and adult education classes.

"We're trying to teach our students that they can make it in a business in South Dakota—they don't have to leave," Levin says.

Kathy Cobb