Support for Rural Vo-Tech Kids

In my last two posts,  I wrote about the rural brain drain as described by researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in their book Hollowing Out the Middle.

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketCarr and Kefalas link the decline of rural communities to the fact that rural areas across America are losing their college-educated young people while retaining those vocational students with bleak economic prospects.

They believe rural communities are committing suicide by pushing the brightest young people to leave while practically ignoring those who choose to stay or who return after finding life elsewhere was not for them.

At the same time I was reading Hollowing Out the Middle, I was taking a course in data-driven journalism sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In the course, I began roughing out an idea for a data journalism project. It would investigate costs and benefits to local taxpayers of subsidizing, through dual enrollment courses, students going on to four-year colleges and compare them with the costs and benefits of subsidizing students in vocational/technical training who remain in the local area.

In the process, I stumbled on on some local information that gives credence to the thesis of Hollowing Out the Middle.

My local school district in upstate New York provides vocational training through a regional educational services agency, the DCMO BOCES. Articulation agreements between the BOCES and specific higher education providers (usually community colleges) allow graduates of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs to get college credit for courses taken at the high school level.

Articulation agreements with selected post-secondary schools are set on a program-specific basis. So if Josh is studying automotive technology, the post-secondary schools at which he could apply his college credits may be limited to two or three community colleges in the state.

I did not realize that the articulation agreements typically do not allow  students to apply for the college credits until they have completed a semester —12 hours — with a average of 80%.

Assuming the students’ high school background is good enough that they don’t need to take remedial courses (a big assumption) during that first semester,  students would be taking primarily general education courses, like English composition, math, and history.

For most vocationally-oriented students, those general education requirements are likely to be the most difficult courses of their post-secondary work.   Sending those students off to cope with general education courses on their own — sometimes without so much as one course in their chosen field to keep them engaged — is handicapping them from the start.

Side note: The state Board of Regents is sufficiently concerned about the academic readiness of CTE graduates that it is looking at options for helping CTE students with the academic component of their high school program.

By comparison, the typical dual-enrollment programs for students headed to four-year schools focus primarily on general education courses.  Often those college courses are taught to students in their home high school either via distance learning technology or by a high school teacher with adjunct status at the college.  In small, rural high schools, those alternatives mean the academically talented kids, unlike their peers in CTE programs,  get the benefit of high school support for those transition-to-college general education courses.

Because general education courses are pretty much the same anywhere they’re given, academically talented students  can apply their credits at most two- and -four-year colleges anywhere in the nation immediately on enrollment, without having to prove they are up to the rigors of college during that first traumatic college semester.

I’ve not had time to do more than take a quick look at the articulation agreements, but what I’ve seen so far suggests some interesting stories are buried in the data compiled by local educational agencies.

How Rural Schools Undermine Their Home Communities

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketAmerica’s small towns are in decline.

Most of the reasons for the decline, like technological changes and increasingly interdependent world economies, are largely beyond local control.

Local schools, however, play a significant role in the destruction of their own communities.

Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.

In a genuine desire to see their young people succeed, schools encourage the bright kids not only to do well in classes but also to participate in the extra activities that colleges look for in applicants.

Achievers start with advantages

Researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas found the kids most likely to succeed began kindergarten with advantages denied the others :

  •  parents who value education
  • parents who attended college themselves
  • parents who can get along without their teen’s paycheck from after-school work.

Photos Carr and KefalasPushing those kids doesn’t require a huge amount of effort from the school.

Underachievers begin behind

By contrast, schools put little effort into the students who require the most effort: the kids whose parents are didn’t attend college themselves and don’t  value education. Those students enter kindergarten without experiences that allow them to fit easily into a learning environment.

As economist James L. Heckman argues in a New York Times piece, good pre-kindergarten experiences don’t just develop cognitive skills: They also  develop character skills such as self-control, planning, persistence, openness, willingness to engage with others.

Without those character skills, kids get to kindergarten already a half lap behind their peer group. It’s no wonder schools prefer giving their attention to kids who led the race in kindergarten.

Drop out or pushed out?

For their book Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, Carr and Kefalas interviewed students who attended a rural Iowa high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One young man they interviewed tells how, as soon as he got his driver’s license, he began working 35 hours a week. Dave had two study halls before a class he disliked, so he found it convenient to skip that class to get to work on time.

One day when he did show up for class, but without his homework done, the teacher took Dave aside and told him he should drop out of school and stop wasting everyone’s time.

Without identifying the student by name, Carr and Kefalas asked the teacher about the incident.  “He was silent for a while, then said, ‘I’m not sure which student you mean. There are a couple; those sorts of things happened.’ ”

Those sorts of things do happen to a couple of students in schools everywhere.

But rural schools can least afford to have them happen.

Unfortunately, ignoring their own suicidal impulses is often rural school policy.

Suicidal school policies

When Carr and Kefalas shared their findings with the local school board, telling them they were practically ensuring that their best young people will leave the community,  they expected people to be defensive. Instead the school board just shrugged.  The only person who responded was the school principal who said, “This is the job we set out to do.”

The effects of the school doing what it sees as its job — educating the best of its young people to go elsewhere — are evident in a declining tax base, aging populations, and in communities struggling to find medical professionals, business owners, and teachers.

Young people are now rural America’s most precious declining resource.

Related posts

[Links updated 30-Mar-2014]

Schools Complicit in Rural Brain Drain

What is happening in many small towns — the devastating loss of educated and talented young people, the aging of the population, and the erosion of the local economy — has repercussions far beyond their boundaries.

In 2001, the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, began a project to interview young adults in America. The Network chose New York City, San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Greater Detroit areas for study.

Then, feeling they were missing something, the Network decided it needed a fifth study site in a small, one-school town, far from the big cities of America’s coasts.

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacket Sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, who had spent their entire careers studying urban issues, were chosen to develop a research site. Because they already had a local connection there, they chose an Iowa town they call Ellis¹.

The researchers moved to Ellis, experienced small town life, and tracked down local high school graduates from the late 1980s and early 1990s to interview about their transition to adulthood.

To their surprise, what Carr and Kefalas  found was that the experiences of young people in America’s heartland was, in many ways, a mirror image of the experience of young people in America’s decaying urban areas. They report their findings and their recommendations in Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2009.

The biggest question facing anyone who grows up in a small town is whether he or she should leave or stay. 

Carr and Kefalas found significant differences in community support for those who left their hometown compared to those that stayed.

Those that left were  “a homegrown aristocracy.” Most were children of college-educated parents from the town’s higher socio-economic class. A few were “deserving poor” with some special aptitude or talent.

The community selected these kids, groomed them for bigger things not available at home, supported their achievements, and send them out into the world, never to return.  They became Achievers to whom the community pointed with pride.

Those that stayed in their home communities were not considered worthy of  attention. Stayers were from the lower socio-economic class, began working at early ages to the detriment of their school studies, and moved quickly into full-time work, parenthood, marriage.  In school, the Stayers’ slipping grades and poor attendance were ignored: Those kids didn’t matter.

An in-between group the authors call Seekers were not satisfied with their options if they stayed in Ellis — a dead-end job and marriage to their high school sweetheart — but lacked the money or interest to try college. Many of the Seekers chose the military, which draws a significant portion of its recruits from small towns in America’s heartland.

A little further down the road, those who make the initial decision to leave usually after graduating high school, must decide whether to return to the cozy familiarity of their hometown or continue building lives elsewhere.

Some of Ellis kids who left, came back. Carr and Kefalas identified two distinct groups of returnees.

The High Flyers were folks who had good career opportunities elsewhere but chose to come back because they had jobs they could do in Ellis, had family in the area, and valued the small town lifestyle. Ellis greeted the High Flyers enthusiastically.

The other group, the Boomerangs, started out as Seekers, eager for a more exciting life, but come home dissatisfied after a couple of years of college or a tour of military duty. The Boomerangs re-entered the community, unwelcomed and  largely unnoticed.

Although I live far from Iowa, the patterns and personalities described in Hollowing Out the Middle are familiar in my Upstate New York community. School enrollment is declining. The median age is increasing. There are rising levels of poverty, notably among working age people.

In my next post, I’ll look at specific ways rural schools are undermining the communities in which they exist.

¹ To protect the privacy of those whose stories are told in the book, the name of the town, names of the residents, and identifying details were changed in the book.

Building narratives and community from school outward

The Power of Community-Centered EducationDespite the fact that I collect stories the way a sheep collects burrs, I’ve never found a way to teach storytelling to teens and adults in ways that were effective or useful.

My students want to become accountants, or morticians, or engineers, not writers or English teachers. The best writer I ever had wanted to be a forest ranger. Those students would need to write narratives, but I didn’t know how to give them opportunities to craft narratives that were important to them. I knew that I ought to teach narrative writing, but how to do it effectively eluded me.

Michael L. Umphrey’s book The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place suggests an approach that might work with students like mine.

Umphrey became director of the Montana Heritage Project when it was, in his words, “a gathering of bureaucrats around a heap of money.” The project identified or created opportunities for high school students to do genuine scholarly research in their home communities. Umphrey calls the in-depth exploration of topics done by students in the Montana Heritage Project learning expeditions.

Learning expeditions

Going on a learning expedition sounds much more exciting than doing a term paper, doesn’t it? But when you sign on to an expedition, you expect more than excitement. On an expedition everyone is expected to do their share and then some, to work together for the good of the expedition, to keep up with the group on a forced march to reach safety before a blizzard breaks.

Unlike internships, which put individual students into job sites where they may or may not be involved in the organizations’ real tasks, the Montana Heritage Project put classes to work studying curriculum subjects—biology, history, economics, for example—in the laboratory of their own communities. There is nothing wrong with having students in North America develop ways to market rain forest projects, but community-centered education projects do more than give students collaborative projects on popular topics.

Community-centered education projects provide students with a sense of identity. Students’ research is more than just study. It’s work that they share with others in their local community.

As they study about the local community and build connections to its people, their world expands from their family and their school to a the more diverse community reaching back in time. They produce tangible products of their research that present residents and and future researchers can build upon. Umphrey calls these outcomes gifts of scholarship.

School-community partnerships

At least in my rural area, most of what schools term partnering with the community refers to schools asking the public donate money, or buy ads, or attend spaghetti dinners. The schools’ contribution to the community seems limited to subsidizing the best students through dual enrollment programs so they can afford the college educations that will allow them to move to a state with more vibrant communities.  By contrast, community-centered education projects focus on helping students to learn while helping their own community to become more vibrant, to become the kind of place they want to live in and participate in.

Umphrey writes:

Students doing heritage projects have assisted libraries and museums in building their oral history collections and in improving their historical photograph archives; they have done field archaeology and data collection for state natural resource agencies; they have assisted local people in completing the research to nominate community buildings to the National Register of Historic Places; they have created audio tours for local museums; and they have compiled histories of local organizations. Such projects allow students to gain crucial skills at the same time they accomplish work that benefits the community.

These projects are real work, not make-work. They strengthen the communities in ways that fundamentally support the schools’ learning-teaching function.

I suspect that adopting a community-centered approach to education is not without its difficulties. The projects have to fit the school and the community. Finding community experts who willing and able to teach teenagers to do a good job at boring research tasks could be challenging. Meshing the community work and the demands of the educational bureaucracy could make organizing a trip to the International Space Station look simple.

Despite the risks and challenges, the kinds of community-centered education projects Umphrey describes seem to me to hold real potential for engaging students and encouraging communities.

Pick up a copy of the book and see what you think.

Related posts

[Updated links 2014-04-25]

Rural schools essay contest 2013

Students in rural US schools can try for cash prizes in the 2013 National Rural Education Foundation Essay Contest.

Two elements make the NREF contest particularly attractive. First, the contest has an unusually long lead time. Deadline is September 1, 2013.

Second, the pdf containing entry information includes a rubric for evaluating the entries.  That allows a classroom teacher to choose essays to enter that best meet the contest criteria.

The contest is for three clusters of students: grades 3-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12. A single nonfiction essay topic is used for students at all levels:

Think of people past and present that attended your school. Think of something that you want others to know about them.

Essays must have a thesis/main idea (the directions call it a topic) supported by accurate facts. The difficulty for writers will be to find something significant to assert about their chosen individual’s impact or influence.

Students couldn’t write “Judge Gavel left an endowment to Bugtussle High School.” That’s a statement of fact and leaves nothing else to say.

They could, however, say, however,  “Judge Gavel enabled Bugtussle High School to maintain high academic standards through difficult economic times.”

Entries from students grades 3-5 can be up to 250 words; those for students grades 6-12 can be  up to 500 words.

The first prize in the  elementary cluster is $250. First prizes of $400 will be awarded in both the middle/junior high cluster and the high school clusters.

Tools to fight rural school closure, consolidation

The Rural School and Community Trust has compiled a toolkit of 22 documents to help citizen activists facing the threat of school closure or consolidation fight back with facts.  Although the focus is on rural American schools, the underlying problems are not just American nor are solutions just for rural America.

Titles in the toolkit include:

Besides documents like these available for online reading, the toolkit also includes PDFs.

[links updated 04-02-2014]

Rural schools as community centers

A grassroots movement  in Canada is attempting to get the government to rethink the role of rural schools within their communities rather than to close schools and bus students to bigger schools.

An article in Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald today reports that a group called the Small Schools Delegation has asked the province to make schools the economic engines for their rural communities. The group says that in a rural landscape, education cannot be regarded as separate from health, economic development, or tourism.

They point out, for example, that doctors are not likely to want to settle in a community without a school at its center, nor are young adults likely to want to buy homes in a community without a local school.

Other posts on this blog about the relationship of schools and  local economic development are include one asking could schools grow a local economy  and another on communities as school revenue streams.

I’ve also written several posts about the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship as both an educational and an economic tool.

Entrepreneurship rural economic key

I guest-blogged  this week for Education and Tech about six businesses serving the business market that a youngster with some computer and art skills could start while in high school.

I see entrepreneurship as the most likely way for a rural area to retain of its young people after high school. Students who go off to college with an eye to getting a good job are unlike to return to rural communities where there are few good jobs to be had. That loss of young people is a significant concern in the rural areas, as this 2011 survey in the Guilford, NY, community shows.

If students need more training than their high school provided—as they almost certainly will—the Internet makes it possible for them to get advanced training, often for little or no cost.  And those who want more than just vocational training can get that in a rural area, too, if they have access to the Internet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone has 2000 free college-level courses available.

{Broken link removed 04-02-2014]

The changing face of rural schools

Although you’d never know it from the national media, the number of students in rural schools in America is growing, becoming more diverse, and a significant number of those students are poor.

Writing in Education Week, Marty Strange reported:

Between 2004 and 2009, rural schools grew 11 percent, from 10.5 million students to 11.7 million, and the rural share of the nation’s students increased from 22 percent to 24 percent, according to data from the Department of Education.

The stereotype of rural America as overwhelmingly white is also changing. Blacks, Strange reports, now make up almost a third of students in rural schools.

And  a significant number of the non-white rural school population is as poor as any from the inner cities, Strange says:

Fifty-nine percent of students in rural districts ranking in the top 10 percent of poverty are students of color—28 percent African-American, 23 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Native.

It’s hard to see the changing demographics of rural schools because immigrants to rural districts are scattered all over the country, a few here, a few there. The changes and their impact on rural schools go almost unnoticed. It’s easy to see the need for such things as English as a second language training for teachers when a district is 30% Hispanic, for example, but far more difficult to see teachers need that training when only a handful of students in a district are non-English speakers.

Communities as school revenue streams

It’s school budget season in New York. On my news job most days I see a half dozen stories saying the school revenue picture is bad and likely to get much worse in the next couple years.

In the midst of the gloom, a few schools looking at different ways of operating that are less dependent on state and federal money and more responsible to identified local needs. The project at Greenville High School I discussed in an earlier post is a case in point.

In “The self-sustaining school system,” which ran on the GateHouse News Service this week, Barry Greenfield offers some other options.  Greenfield is editor and publisher of and a selectman in Swampscott MA.

Greenfield says in communities of under 50,000 (which describes the home communities of most upstate school districts) rethinking a school as “a self-sustaining revenue facility” presents a way to address school budgetary problems as well as wider community problems.

He suggests several specific areas ripe for development by entrepreneurial-minded school districts.

Community programming

Schools could become places where new and existing programs, non-profit or for-profit, could find a home. If day-care, sports programs for children and adults, and instruction in arts and music were moved into school settings, they could generate revenue for the schools.  The Canajoharie NY  Central School District does this in a modest way with its  Fitness Center.

Greenfield also suggests the educational component include “serious computer training” that would enable students to graduate high school with saleable skills even if they don’t go on to college: CAD/CAM, computer programming, graphic design.  He says:

All children should leave high school with the ability to NOT have to afford college and still play a role in the information economy, which is now global.

I’d add web business skills such as search engine optimization and social media marketing to his list.

Surely if schools can sell ad space on school buses to subsidize their programs, they could rent space for a karate instructor or piano teacher to give lessons, possibly requiring some donated lessons for district students.


Greenfield suggests schools create opportunities for children to grow food—from gardens to fish farms—both as a learning tool and as a step toward school self-sufficiency. He thinks students ought to have opportunities to learn to cook as a life-skill and a way of opening students to job opportunities for those who don’t go to college.

Especially in rural districts, when students don’t know where milk comes from before it gets to the grocery store there’s a serious educational problem.  And studies show when students are involved in growing their own produce, they are more likely to eat foods outside the three main food groups (by which they mean pizza, burgers, and fries).

Medical clinic

Greenfield suggests schools outsource medical care, so they don’t have the expense of hiring an RN but parents get the benefit of a “doctor’s office” at the school. Inexpensive rent might lure a doctor to a rural, medically underserved area when combined with a ready-made market on the doorstep.


Most school facilities are used only part of the day, but must be heated, cooled and maintained 24/7, 52-weeks a year.  In many communities, the school sports programs have the expertise and infrastructure to operate year-round sports programs that could provide a significant revenue stream for the school. When municipal budgets are squeezed, schools could pick up the slack and do it profitably, Greenfield suggests.


Most communities of any size have a public library and a school library. By having a community-school library instead, tax dollars could be saved. And if the library has ample computer equipment, serious computer training of both students and adults could take place at the library.

Clearly some folks are getting serious about providing education at the community level. The rest of us have not yet begun to think.

It’s time we did.

[2017-01-26 updated link to “The self-sustaining school system.”]