There are nine students in all. Community residents and the students know each other by name, and local farmers help students to grow vegetables in their schoolyard. The students carefully package their crops and sell them by themselves at the morning farmers market. This small public elementary school in rural village of Takaoka [ja], a mountainous area of Toyama prefecture, the only one providing unique education in a sparsely populated area, is closing next March[ja] because no more children are expected to enroll.
Every year, about 500 public schools [ja] in Japan take the same path as Takaoka Municipal Nishihirotani School: closure due to a shortage of children. Japan's declining birthrate with the exhaustion of domestic rural labor power are hitting rural villages hard. And the cost of education per student is practically not affordable for rural public schools to operate. While local residents make efforts to keep schools afloat, many of them are forced to close.
Takaoka Municipal Nishihirotani School, which celebrated its 120th anniversary last year, is located about 30 minutes by car from the center of the city. It once had an adequate 47 students in 1988 [ja], but has continued to dwindle since. After community residents fought for its continuance in 2009, the school applied for Special Unrestricted Small School program [ja] in order to enroll more students from outside its school district. Usually, Japanese elementary schools accept students from within walking distance of their school district. The Special Unrestricted Small Schools program is a system which removes the district restriction for schools in which the number of children enrolled is extremely low so that they can continue operation.
Thanks to adoption of this system, children from the entire area of Takasaki City have been accepted at Takaoka Municipal Nishihirotani School, and some parents drive to drop off and pick up their children from outside of the school district. With small class sizes, a rich surrounding natural environment, and support from the community residents, the school offered the students original experiences that would never be possible in urban schools. Both students and parents were highly satisfied.
However, it did not stop the school from closing. The Takaoka City Board of Education decided to close [ja] the Nishihirotani school during an extraordinary meeting on September 10, 2012. The reason stated was that all the children within the school district will have graduated by March 2014, and no new students are expected to enter from the area.
The closure of the Nishihirotani school is a symptom of the country's population shift to cities as well as the declining birth rate. Japan had been an agricultural country since ancient times, and rural villages with farming population, such as those in the area around the Nishihirotani school, were seen everywhere in the country. After the Second World War, and throughout the period of high economic growth, the population became increasingly concentrated in cities and declined in rural areas. The declining birth rate producing fewer children is a serious social issue for Japan: Its young population percentage, being 13.1 percent [ja], is the lowest among major nations. Although the declining birth rate and aging population are a national trend, the effect is more pronounced in rural areas.
On the other hand, schools in urban areas have their problems too. Bullying, suicide and truancy in elementary and middle schools also have been serious social issues throughout Japan in recent decades. In urban public schools, there are far fewer teachers per student, and not many opportunities to interact with adults in the community. When 30 to 40 students of the same age spend every day in class, it becomes stressful for children, and not all of them get along with each other. With more time occupied in specialized schools known as cram schools, they have little occasion to play their own role in society with pride, and even during playtime they may prefer to play in unsocial ways, such as with video games or Internet. These social environments are considered to be one cause for problems in schools.
Small class sizes in rural villages seem to provide the exact opposite environment. In Nishihirotani school, teachers watch students carefully, residents are in close contact with students, and children of various ages play together in the midst of nature. Some believe these schools are a place where truant children might be able to feel at ease and express their own identities again.
The Special Unrestricted Small Schools system gives hope for the continuance of elementary schools in depopulated areas, and is a ray of light for families troubled with truant children in urban areas. However, the system is a financial burden to the educational administration because of the high cost per student.
In June 2012, the City Board of Education convened [ja] a school district deliberative council. During the meeting, they examined the cost, and showed concerns that even if the school continued inviting new children from other areas, it would be difficult to gain support from local residents once there were no children from local families.
In response, community residents and parents quickly collected 409 signatures in a petition for the school's continuation, more signatures than the regional population of 270 persons. It was to be submitted to the mayor and the superintendent of education, but the council did not consider the petition at all, and submitted a recommendation a month later on July 23 to close the school [ja]. Following the recommendation, the Board decided to close the school during the meeting on September 10, held behind closed doors, without informing the parents about the meeting.
One of the parents, “karisumasuu”, expressed dissatisfaction with the decision process on his blog[ja]:
Many meetings between the Board and the parents, the petition campaign, and finally appeals to the superintendent of education couldn't change the Board's policy of preferring money to true education. The school will be abolished, and consolidated with Kuniyoshi Elementary School two years later. Though the school has been highly praised by the principal, vice principal, and teachers in the district, the Board never held a hearing with the school teachers of the district.
Staff members of Community House Hitonoma, a group of facilitators and citizens working to bring the community together in Takaoka City, also opposed this process:
It must not be the Education Board, nor the deliberative council, who decide what is necessary education for children,
but the parents who are raising children, the children themselves,
the teachers who work in the field,
the adults in the community,
and each of us, citizens.
Instead providing us an opportunity to discuss education in Takaoka city, the decision was made silently, as if to conceal it. I don't think that is good process to make changes affecting the educational environment in Takaoka City.
Even though it won't change the school's closure, local members and parents are keen to keep the spirit of the school alive. In September 2012, Hitonoma held a “Think About School“[ja] meeting to hear stories from the parents of Nishihirotani Elementary School. Some parents, like Noriko Kodama and Rie Sano, have been taking such opportunities to let people know about the benefit of small school program. They spoke at various events, including giving speeches during the intermission of the lecture seminar held by “Toyama Itazura-mura Kodomo-Asobase-Tai’ [ja], a non-profit organization supporting parenting, in September 2013, and at the conference by Four Winds Association for Infant Mental Health [ja] in Hiroshima in November. She insists, and shares one example of truant child's change after entering small school, in her presentation document [ja]:
Younger children inherit cheerful greetings and a polite manner of speaking from elder children, they learn rules naturally. The elder are proud to lead the younger, and the younger trust and admire the elder. [...]
Parents won't lose opportunities to talk to, write to, and convey the joy of being accepted and praised to, the growing children. When they hear the praise “What a wonderful school!” from many people, children grow up with a belief that they should be happy to study at that school. Children who were truants at their former school start smiling again. They regain the voices which they had lost due to stress, and speak loudly after transferring schools. Children who found it hard to adapt to their group, and had lost self-confidence, now play an important role at their school. Teachers regain the feeling of enjoying teaching with a fresh mind. It's a small school where you can see rich growth. [...]
“Being watched over by teachers, community residents and parents, children themselves make a small society, may sometimes be in trouble or hurt through conflicts, develop their viability, and prepare to go out into a larger society. That is true education, isn't it?
Noriko Kodama has a dream to make a new school at the site of closed school where “children would pester their parents to go to”, and accessible for children including mentally challenged and truant children with hybrid of public construction and private management for a consistent education for elementary and middle school.
Update:Images of the school has been replaced due to request by author and parties involved.