Small Scale Community Development Work

If you are in a small community, you may feel that "planning and development" work are out of reach. You may feel you simply don't have the resources to do any such thing.

If you are feeling that way, you probably are confusing the bureaucratic window dressing of big city planning processes for "planning." But that's not what planning and development are.

That's just how big organizations manage a process at scale that involves a large number of people. It's mostly not relevant to your needs.

At a smaller scale, planning and development can be boiled down to the essentials of doing some research, setting some goals and executing. It can potentially be done by one person part time with no official title.

I homeschooled my two adult sons. So for some years I ran a small school under the laws of the state of California with just two students.

My husband was listed as the administrator but I did most of the work involved in educating our sons and running a small school under the laws of the state of California. I researched the curriculum and did most of the teaching and so forth.

People tend to be intimidated by the idea of teaching their own children because they look at what public schools do and it looks overwhelming to try to replicate that with the resources available to a family. People imagine they need to actively teach their kids for eight hours a day every day, plus grade everything and design the curriculum and so forth.

The reality is that homeschooling is unlike sending your kids to public school because a lot of the things that public schools do are done to manage the scale involved in having so many students. A lot of that is not only unnecessary if you homeschool your own children, it is actively counterproductive and has no place in a homeschool setting.

When students get to public school, they may line up outside the classroom waiting for it to open. When you homeschool, your kids will already be in the building.

When the day starts at public school, the teacher takes roll call to make sure all their students are accounted for. If you have two students, you don't need to do roll call. You know if both of your kids are present without reading out their names from a list and having them answer back that they are "Here."

Assessment at public schools often involves multiple choice tests because those are easier for a teacher to grade when you are trying to assess twenty or more students and you get a different set of twenty or more students every year. It's not necessary to follow that pattern when you have just two students and they are the same two kids every year.

Assessment in my two-student school involved printing off state standards twice a year for the grades of my two sons and checking off all the things I knew for a fact they could do competently. If I wasn't sure, I just observed them for a few days.

Once in a while, I had to actually ask them a few questions or otherwise check to see what they could do, but it was rare. I basically never gave them tests of the sort found in public school.

One study found that in an eight hour day at public school, most students spent only an hour or two actually learning. The rest of their time was spent changing classrooms, taking roll call, having lunch and so forth.

This fits with California state law at the time. When I was a homeschooling parent, one option to be legal was to hire a tutor for your children for three hours a day.

Not eight hours. Just three hours.

The one-on-one attention a parent or tutor can give to a child accomplishes a great deal more in a short period of time than what happens when a public school teacher has to keep track of and deal with twenty or more students.

Not only do you not need to actively teach your kids eight hours a day, it's too intensive to try. You and they would soon both suffer burn out at that pace.

Eight hours a day of schooling only makes sense when much of that time is spent on lunch, recess and bureaucratic processes. It is absolutely overkill if you try to spend that much time actively teaching a child one-on-one.

Of course, there were some bureaucratic processes we could not escape. We did have to file paperwork with the state of California annually. We did have to pick a name for the school and we did have to officially assign roles where I was listed as the teacher and my husband was listed as the administrator. We did keep records of their schoolwork.

Generally speaking, planning and development work for a small town or unincorporated community should look more like homeschooling than like public school. The bureaucratic processes found in bigger cities mostly are not going to be helpful at a very small scale.

Just like with homeschooling, most bureaucratic processes will be actively counterproductive for small scale development work. Of course you will need to comply with certain things, just like we needed to file paperwork annually and keep some records to legally homeschool.

But you should actively seek to avoid having your valuable time consumed with the bureaucratic window dressing parts of planning and economic development. If you want to be effective doing small scale development work, you want to identify the parts that matter and actively ditch the parts that are merely bureaucratic processes aimed at managing a planning process on a large scale with many people.

Metaphorically, you want to keep the "three hours of learning" and ditch the "five hours of bureaucratic processes" like I did as a homeschooling parent.
  • You will want to put together some basic information about where the community stands currently and what some of the pain points are.
  • Based on a list of assets and pain points, you will want to set some goals.
  • From there, you should seek to provide solutions for the least amount of time and effort possible.
Try hard to avoid scenarios where you tell yourself "First, we need x before we can do y." In many cases, that amounts to making excuses rather than making plans.

If poverty is an issue, try to find answers in the here and now, such as earning money online or helping locals raise some of their own food. You could start a community garden or even just check your local County Extension office for help putting out information on container gardening.

If physical health is a concern, don't tell yourself that your tiny town needs a doctor or hospital that it can't possibly support. Instead, start a healthy recipe club, a community garden or a walking club. Diet and exercise are both first lines of defense for good health and are immediately accessible by anyone.

Of course, as you grow your needs and processes may need to change and there can certainly be value in jumping through the hoops to do things in a more formal way. Sometimes, that's the only way to access state funds, federal technical assistance and similar.

Just make sure you have a good reason to jump through those hoops and you aren't doing it because you imagine "That's how development works because that's what they do in bigger cities." If there isn't a concrete payoff that cannot be achieved without jumping through those hoops, it's possibly just bureaucratic window dressing that your small community can ill afford to waste its limited resources on.

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