The class of 2001 in the tiny town of Morland, Kan., is small enough to fit at a card table. When the four seniors graduate this spring, it will mark a beginning for them — and an end for their school.

Morland High School — with 19 students — will hand out its diplomas in May, then close its doors days later, one more casualty of declining population in the more remote, rural towns of the nation's heartland.

"Some people are angry, some people are sad," said 27-year-old principal Shelly Swayne, who grew up in a nearby northwestern Kansas town that lost its high school decades ago. "It's hard for us to see beyond our own boundaries. We see this as a single phenomenon happening to us. But it's a lot bigger than we are."

It sure is.

The 2000 census is confirming long-held suspicions: Many small towns in isolated stretches of the Midwest are withering away.

Schools are closing, farmers are giving up and young people are moving out, leaving communities struggling to stay on the map.

The latest census numbers show dozens of counties in South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois lost people in the 1990s. The decline came even as these states gained population; one of the biggest surges came from the influx of Hispanics, lured by work in meatpacking plants.

But deep in the reaches of the Midwest, the century-long slide in population continues, as it does in other parts of America. In the past decade, according to the census:

About half of South Dakota's 315 towns had no growth or fewer people.

All but six of North Dakota's 53 counties lost residents.

A dozen rural Kansas counties lost 10 percent or more of their population.

The number of residents age 17 and younger declined in 63 of 99 Iowa counties.

"It ends up being sort of a death spiral," says John Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska.


On the Net: Census Bureau: www.census.gov