Guest column: Rural investments pay off via schools

By James J. Turner/U.S. Agriculture Department

The academic success of small schools in Michigan comes as no surprise to USDA Rural Development (“Small schools dominate championships" -- Nov, 17, 2011).

Our agency has long known that rural Michigan residents are resilient and resourceful – and the most important resource in our state.

USDA Rural Development takes particular pride in the fact that we have provided assistance to many of these top-achieving community schools. Yet, like rural academic achievers, the role of our agency is not often known.

For example, Bridge Magazine noted that the Niles School District claimed the Division 2 title for 8th Grade Science and Lakeshore Public Schools was the Division 4 state champion in 8th Grade Reading. In 2005, USDA Rural Development provided a $350,000 Distance Learning grant to Berrien County Intermediate School District, linking 35 elementary and middle schools in Berrien and Cass counties with a video-over-IP conferencing system.

Walkerville students rated the highest 8th grade math proficiency scores in the state, and it comes as no surprise to me. In March 2010, I attended the ribbon-cutting for the new playground, made possible in part through a $35,000 USDA Community Facility grant. I saw first-hand how attentive the community was to student needs.

While Houghton-Portage and Adams Township may be remote and distant to downstate residents, they are valued partners with USDA Rural Development. Through the Community Facility and Water and Waste programs, we have invested more than $3 million in recent years for police, fire and emergency vehicles and water and sewer improvements in that area. These investments in key infrastructure did not directly translate to the success of their local schools, but they provided the necessary foundation for the community’s students to achieve their full potential.

Whether consisting of water and sewer pipes or high-speed broadband Internet, infrastructure is the often-invisible element that makes our increasingly complex economy work. Without it, modern society cannot function.

The achievements of these schools are a reflection of their communities, and when it comes to supporting rural communities, USDA Rural Development is second to none.

Last year, USDA Rural Development invested more than $929 million in rural housing, infrastructure and support for local businesses.  That translates into 7,000 rural home purchases, 137 rural business investments, 75 emergency vehicles, and 29 water and sewer projects. In personal terms, it means that the high-achieving schoolchildren in Walkerville now are protected by updated fire and emergency equipment thanks to a $250,000 Community Facility loan.

By making these investments in our rural cities, towns and townships, we lay the foundation for a brighter future, and communities that are thriving, prosperous, re-populating places. President Obama called for exactly these types of investments, and Rural Development’s investment shows that they do make a difference.

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