As early as the second grade, I can remember the teacher asking my classmates and me what we wanted to be when we grew up. We had been studying space, so one of my friends said he would be an astronaut. A fair share of us wanted to be professional athletes and doctors. I said that I wanted to be a teacher and write children’s books. Two decades later, I reflect on what we were really being prepared for growing up in a rural community and attending rural schools. As I grew older, I heard many peers complain about small town life and express impatience to leave it behind. Though I could empathize with their concerns, I also began to believe that if everyone who recognized those problems left home to pursue educational and career opportunities, the cycle of stagnant employment and development would never be broken. Every community needs young and dynamic leadership, perhaps rural communities most of all.
Earlier this month, I heard similar concerns expressed at a SCORE convening hosted to discuss implementing the Common Core State Standards in rural communities. The convening brought together teachers, principals, and superintendents, as well as members of the non-profit community and leaders from across the South. The convening was an opportunity for educators to learn, but also to voice their hopes and concerns for the changes Common Core can bring to their rural districts. One theme that emerged from those discussions was the conflict of beliefs sometimes present in smaller communities with regard to education. While parents want the best possible education for their children, they are also apprehensive about the possibility of losing their children to opportunities far away.
A book mentioned at the convening explores these values. Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas outlines the ways in which manufacturing and agriculture have out-sourced or used technology to eliminate quality jobs and what that means for the prospects of young people growing up in America’s rural towns. Carr and Kefalas said they were surprised by the ways in which educators and other community members pushed “achievers” to seek out opportunities away from home. It makes one wonder if such encouragement is happening in Tennessee or other places in the South. Many of the “achievers” from my class moved away for work or college and have yet to return. In my community, those with brighter prospects were not expected to stay.
Though Hollowing Out the Middle speaks to a problem most prevalent in Midwestern states, the underlying values and challenges are familiar to us in the rural South as well. When SCORE’s President and CEO, Jamie Woodson, wrote about rural education in Tennessee, she noted that while statewide unemployment is approximately 9.7 percent, some rural counties have faced jobless rates near 20 percent. More than one-third of Tennessee’s K-12 students attend schools in rural communities, where poverty is well above the national median.
With the unique challenges of rural communities also come opportunities, including close-knit communities, mutual interest in community development, and ease of communication facilitated by those relationships and values. Education can be another vehicle for opportunity. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that well-educated workforces in rural communities ease the adoption of innovative practices in local businesses, both for manufacturers and service providers. A well-educated labor force can be an asset in luring prospective employers. Looking at the issue from the opposite angle, highly skilled personnel want to live in communities with good schools. Regional clusters of industries drive economic growth, which is linked almost exclusively to higher education levels in rural areas.
To attract business and opportunity to our rural communities, towns need education and talent, but to attract that talent, there must be enticing career opportunities. To break the cycle of brain drain, rural communities must attract some of their young leaders back to their towns. Carr and Kefalas write that if it takes a village to raise a child, the village should be the one to enjoy the return on its investment. Previous contributors to the SCORE Sheet have discussed some specific ways to achieve this: Dr. Dale Lynch wrote about how rural districts can partner with each other, Margot Fosnes wrote about her local Chamber of Commerce’s interest in education, and Jan McKeel wrote about how community organizations can facilitate the connection between students and businesses.
These are the types of coalitions between schools and community organizations that can make a difference. Rural communities might also tap into the resource of the young people who do choose to return. Learning from Carr and Kefalas, instead of selling themselves short and focusing on limitations, rural teachers and leaders should concentrate on the benefits available in smaller communities when educating their students. A positive outlook and emphasis on opportunities to lead might persuade more of those students to return and keep their towns vibrant, relevant, and flourishing.