CUSHMAN — It’s a cold and drizzly Saturday morning, yet nearly a dozen residents have gathered in the small and cozy library watching Becky Wood bounce around, voice rising and falling, as she animatedly reads a book to the children who have come for storytime.
The library has only been open for a week. It is somewhat of an experiment in a community whose close-knit threads unraveled ten years ago.
“I was librarian here at the school for 35 years,” Wood explains after storytime. “And some of these mommas heard me read when they were kids, and they wanted their kids to hear, too.”
Indeed, there they were, a handful of former Cushman students, now moms, attempting to carry on the traditions of their youth and community with their own kids. But Wood admits that efforts at carrying on community are just that — efforts.
Community doesn’t just happen naturally anymore, since the school was lost to consolidation in 2009.
The mood in the community afterwards: “Depressed,” Wood says.
“You know you go through all those grief emotions — being mad, being disappointed. It was overwhelming… Still. Still it’s hard.”
A 130-YEAR LEGACY LOST
Cushman had its own school since 1880, then first just a one-room log cabin.
At that time is was a mining town. One Detroit newspaper described it as “the town that thrives on war” because of its importance in shipping out the materials that fueled the military during WWI and WWII. Originally called Minersville, an explosion that killed a miner set off a chain of events that cause the whole town to shift about a mile south and change its name sometime between 1886 and 1889 to Cushman.
The train was called the Cushman Local; it had a turntable that it stayed on overnight, and went out the next morning, hauling out both materials as well as residents on the passenger car. The town was complete with a depot, hotel, stores, churches, and Odd Fellows Hall, and more.
In 1900 an improved schoolhouse was built on “Germany Hill” in town, and was reportedly a nice structure of two stories with a bell tower. Eventually that location gave way to the “Little Red School House” built on the modern campus’s current location. Buildings were added, remodeled, and improved along the way, at least up until the 2000s.
In 2004, the Arkansas State Legislature passed Act 60, an aggressive and blanket move to close all schools under 350 enrollees, regardless of student test performance, community engagement, or other wellness metrics.
Around 120 school districts fell victim to the legislation. Cushman was one of them.
“Our campus was in such good shape. Our test scores were excellent. But we were down (that year) about 3 to 4 kids in numbers, so they closed it,” Wood remembers. “It was heartbreaking.”
Students and teachers scattered to Melbourne, Mount Pleasant, Cave City, Batesville, and Southside. Wood recalls few felt at home again after that. And she unfortunately had to go through the process twice: she went on to become the librarian at the Mount Pleasant Elementary School, which was merged into the Melbourne Elementary campus in 2016.
“The feeling of being a family, of being part of something, was not there… It was really really hard on our kids.”
A review of a decade of consolidation conducted by the University of Arkansas revealed that consolidation disproportionately targeted low-income communities, rural communities, and the Northeast Arkansas region as a whole (a total of 71 school closures, more than any other region).
The same review acknowledged the consolidation was guilty of closing some of Arkansas’s highest performing schools (again, often in Northeast Arkansas), noting:
“Five (currently at-risk) districts boasted better proficiency rates in all three subjects of the benchmark. The five districts are Calico Rock, Concord, Norfork, Weiner, and Viola.”
Cushman was a similar story, as was the neighboring Mount Pleasant School District: both high-performing schools, both close-knit central hubs to the rural communities they served.
HOPE RETURNS. SO DO THE SCHOOL GROUNDS.
Last year the Batesville School District, which inherited all of Cushman’s school assets during the consolidation, turned the school grounds back over to the community that built it.
With the return of the school, signs of life are popping up in the community once more. The city itself occupies part of a building as a town hall. Woods’s new little library is situated just down the hall, and so is a food pantry. On the site of the former ballfield is a new fire station under construction.
The local community center hosts Bingo and lunch for seniors on Tuesdays, and the Cushman Heritage Museum holds genealogy records for dozens of families, as well as other records spanning back to the 1800s.
The museum also recently bought back the old bell from the Germany Hill schoolhouse, and has plans to move from its current cramped space to a larger accomodation — within the returned school.
“I have a friend who is also a retired librarian and she’s been helping — she found us a catalog program that we were able to get,” Wood describes excitedly as the morning’s storytime visitors check out their books and catch up with neighbors they haven’t see in years.
“And as soon as the city gets Wi-Fi in this building the catalog will be able to be online,” Wood continues, adding that they’re expecting a donation of 3 computers soon.
“We’ve changed our hours around trying to find the best time. Tuesday we’re open 9 (a.m.) – 3 (p.m.) because that’s the day the food pantry is open, so people come in for that and can come to the library at the same time. And we changed our hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays so kids can come in after school.”
But as the locals visit and gradually disperse, one conversation between neighbors soon turns to how their young family has sold their house and will be moving to Batesville.
After all, it’s closer to the school where their children go.