Rural Arkansas struggles after schools close

Rural Arkansas struggles after schools close
Delaplaine
Delaplaine
Delaplaine

DELAPLAINE, AR - According to "Friends of Arkansas Rural Schools and Communities," in the past 10 years 53 Arkansas high schools and 44 elementary schools closed due to Act 60.

New legislation hopes to repeal Act 60 and may help to save what small schools are left; but it can't help those that have already closed their doors.

Region 8 knows firsthand what happens when rural communities lose their schools.

Rural communities are defined by a population of 2,500 people or less, and while many can't imagine living in a small town, others consider it home.

But once a school is closed, it seems the community loses its identity.

"Where's Delaplaine?" asked Mayor Larry Myrick.

It's a common question the town's mayor says he encounters.

"We've lost a lot people that had kids that lived here in Delaplaine when the school closed," Myrick said.

Delaplaine School District closed in 2007, but it's not just the population sign that has been affected.

"It hurts on trying to get grants because we don't have the people," Myrick said.

He said it's not fair because without a school it's difficult to try to improve on what a town has or doesn't have.

Where teachers used to park, now you find tractors and other farm equipment parked on overgrown grass.

James Compton is a 1971 Delaplaine graduate, the same school where his wife once taught for more than 20 years.

"Sometimes we have to take the long way around just so she doesn't have to drive by and have all of those memories come back and just see the deterioration of what was such an important part of so many of our lives," Compton said.

After 8 years, there isn't much left. There is no restaurant or gas station. Compton said the only thing keeping things alive are the ducks.

"There's a lot of hunters here in the wintertime and a lot of out of state hunters have bought houses and things of people who've moved out of," Compton said.

Compton said much of the town has scattered to other nearby cities.

"We are down to memories now. Just wonderful, wonderful great memories," Compton said. "It's really tough to live here and to have been here all of your live and to just see it kind of deteriorate."

A town once thriving is now fighting to remain relevant. It's a sad present that could turn into another's future.

"I've seen families who have completely sold their homes and moved to other districts," said Weiner native Tisha Westerman. "I have seen empty homes. I have seen businesses close."

With 4 generations of Weiner High School graduates, Westerman's home is filled with memories.

She shared pictures and mementos symbolizing her "glory days."

Weiner School District closed in 2010, but it has made a lasting impression on Westerman.

"I think that we just have this special bond here at Weiner that is really hard to beat,"

The elementary school is still open under the direction of the Harrisburg School District, so there are still signs of life. Businesses remain open, and agriculture keeps many employed.

But with the school district gone, can it last?

"You lose that and it's like you're dying," Westerman said.

While it may be like the town is dying, Westerman said they aren't done fighting.

She said her home is right where she wants it to be.

"I really want to come home, and I really want to come home here to this community," Westerman said. "It hurts me to see it not thriving. It hurts me to see that there aren't jobs."

Back in Delaplaine, Phillip Rothe feels the same way.

"This has been my home for, like I say, nearly 53 years," Rothe said. "It's hard to go anywhere else, wouldn't think of it."

Rothe owns a business in Delaplaine and was at the front of the fight to keep their school. Rothe said regardless of the time that has passed, he's not done trying to keep the town alive.

"The community can survive but it has to kind of rebuild itself, reshape itself, around something else," Rothe said.

In fact, Rothe is opening a new business where he plans to sell the essentials like milk and bread, while also sharing Delaplaine's history on the walls.

"Rekindle some of that pride, then it will make our town stronger, not only financially but physically, mentally," Rothe said.

Delaplaine, along with Weiner, sending the message, they'll never give up on the lifestyle they say our country was founded on.

"We are going to be here until, I guess, the good lord comes and gets us," Myrick said.

Those in Weiner said they are hopeful with new legislation for an agricultural school could be in their future, and Rothe plans to open the new gas station and café in August. While still fighting and having hope, those still living in rural communities insist it's their right to live in a small town.

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