Rural triangle: School, community, economy

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In November, 2015 I began posting a list of resources for folks who want to improve the relationship between rural schools and their communities for their mutual benefit.

It’s time to revisit the topic.

It’s still true that, as I wrote in 2015:

In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

And the 2015 description of rural brain drain still is largely accurate.

But rural America’s problems are getting more attention these days, most notably from rural Americans themselves who are stepping up try to reverse the decline of the rural American economy and prevent the loss of their communities and community schools.

I’ve shortened descriptions of resources I posted in 2015 and added dates for the resources so readers can quickly get a feel for the changes.

What’s happening in rural America?

(2009) The brightest students are leaving rural communities; job options for those who remain are diminishing.

(2012) The rural student population is getting larger, more diverse, and poorer.

(2013) Net migration isn’t offsetting the effects of brain drain.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

(2009) Schools and their communities each contribute to rural brain drain, setting the course for both to die. “Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.”

(2017) Rural schools are failing their communities. A college degree in rural America is now synonymous with leaving and having no way to sustainably come back. Rural schools must work with their communities, rather than seeing themselves as separate from the cycle of economic decline.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

(2011) Schools could address community problems around medical care, food access, etc. by acting as self-sustaining revenue facilities.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

(2011) A class of high school students in the poorest county in North Carolina designed and built a much-needed farmer’s market pavilion for the area.

(2012) Add skill applications to high school courses.

(2012) Greenville, NY, High School created what was, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, offering a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

(2012) Encourage entrepreneurship by showing students online training resources they can access, and (2014) teach students to look for problems that require solutions.

(2013) Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

(2013) Students in Cody NE, population 154, built a a 3,300-sq. ft. straw-bale building to use as grocery store and run it themselves. Inside, lettering on the wall above the produce cooler reads “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.”

(2014)  Capture the imagination of students who don’t see college as a path for themselves by school programs that target local economic problems.

(2015) Pell Grant experiment needs needs rural  scrutiny to make sure its rules won’t keep some rural students out of courses that fit their needs and interests.

(2017) Offer students a combination of coursework, internships, and job shadowing experiences to enable them to make informed choices about higher education, work, and place of residence. Preparing students for a continuously changing mainstream economy can give them the opportunity to return home as entrepreneurs or participants in the online space.

(2017) Schools can support project-based learning on authentic local problems that challenge students. For example, in Ness City, KS, an industrial arts class elected to design and build a tiny house. Other classes helped with interior design and marketing, and a special education class is documenting the project in a book. The classes plan to market the home across the country.

(2017) A SCORE chapter in Massachusetts collaborated with PTOs to deliver a six week, after-school program to train students in grades 4 through 8 to run their own businesses. The 72 participants in the initial program launched 52 new businesses, some of which were partnerships complete with partnership agreements.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

(2017) Public charters may offer rural communities a way to retain local schools.

(2011) Help teens get ready for the world of work with good attitudes and good skills.

(2012) Let teens work alongside adults to contribute to their communities and to develop and apply real skills.

(2012) Require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills.

(2012) Schools can grow their future teachers who will also be their communities’ future leaders.

(2014) Offer teens after-school programs that do more than distract.

(2014) Integrate non-academic services to students, their families, and even the wider community into the academic program.

(2016) Communities and schools need to work collaboratively to generate educational opportunities and economic prosperity in places where the number of voters without a child in school is a majority. Downloadable PDF from Battelle for Kids.

(2016)  School personnel and community members need to change the mindset that every kid needs to go to college. Today’s career and technical education, or CTE, can lead to a decent-paying job, particularly in those fields where employers say they are trying to cope with a serious “skills gap.”

(2017) Rural schools and their communities need to work together to turn around neighborhoods and schools long before those schools—and all the significance and services they bring with them—disappear.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

(2013) Give Career and Technical Education (CTE) students the same degree of academic support given their college-bound counterparts so they can take advantage of educational opportunities they need for their careers.

(2012) Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

(2015) The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

(2016) For years, there’s been almost no assistance for CTE students seeking post-secondary training. Three recent developments suggest the tide may be turning: An experimental program to give  in financial aid to those in nontraditional programs (such as coding boot camps), a MOOC with a graded-paper option, and the introduction of a federal law to expand concurrent enrollment opportunities for CTE students.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

SaveYour.Town Two small-town Iowans offer webinars, toolkits, and online communities to help people learn, grow and take action to revitalize their communities.

The Rural School and Community Trust ( has many resources, including Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs ( developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.

Have I missed items that should be here? Give me a shout in the comments or @LindaAragoni on Twitter

Updated June 23, 2017; March 27, 2017.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

Rural school-community-economy development resources

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

Over the last eight years, the relationships of schools with their communities has been a recurring theme in my blogging. While I was digging out some of my writing on the topic for #RuralEdChat on Twitter, I decided I ought to post a list of resources that others might find helpful. I began with my own writing, but I am starting to add resources from other individuals and organizations, adding annotations to draw attention to an unusual insight or feature.

What’s happening in rural America?

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketThe changing face of rural schools The number of students in rural schools in America is growing, becoming more diverse, and a significant number of those students are poor.

The rural brain brain Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas study of rural America showed a hollowing out: a loss of its most talented young people at the same time the rural economy has been transformed for those who stay.

Will new blood cure rural brain drain? The net migration rates suggest not enough people are immigrating to rural areas to offset the losses caused by young people moving away for college and jobs.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

Schools are complicit in rural brain drain Researchers found rural schools and their communities groom their brightest students for jobs and lifestyles not available locally, while giving almost no support to students who remain in the local area.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

Communities as school revenue streams Thinking of school as “a self-sustaining revenue facility” is a way to address school budgetary problems as well as wider community problems around medical care, food access, and community programming.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

Beating the brain drain Changes to the education system can help alleviate the rural brain drain in small-town America, experts say.

Could schools grow a local economy? Greenville (NY) High School created what is, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, giving a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

Entrepreneurship as rural economic key Creating their own jobs is a way for rural students to remain in rural communities. The Internet makes it possible for them to get advanced training, often for little or no cost.

Add skill applications to high school courses When teachers insert the question, “What you can do with this skill?” in coursework across the curriculum, they encourage students to graduate high school with entrepreneurial mindsets.

Teens see challenges, build solutions, even make money Examples of teens who have looked around them and found problems they wanted to solve.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

The challenge of providing challenges to adolescents Schools, businesses, and communities need to give teens opportunities to work alongside adults, to contribute to their communities, and to develop and apply real skills.

Integrating life with school for adult high schoolers Adding non-academic services helps dropouts get on track to diplomas and jobs.

Expand learning at shrinking playground Let’s require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills. [corrected link 2017-01-26]

This school grows its future teachers A two-course program allows students considering a teaching career to find out what being a teacher entails. The program not only develops teachers, but helps prepare future school board members and business leaders knowledgeable about how to support schools.

Teen after school programs that do more than distract Communities have initiated a variety of programs modeled after adult continuing education courses, apprenticeships, internships, and businesses to give their young people opportunities to do work that’s valuable in their home communities while developing skills and a work ethic.

Helping teens get ready for work Many first jobs aren’t fun. Students need to be taught how to adjust their attitudes and their jobs to make them opportunities to find challenge, enjoyment, concentration, and deep involvement.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

Support for Rural Vo-Tech Kids Articulation agreements may handicap the career and technical education students’ chances of success as compared to the chances of their academically oriented peers.

Ideas for businesses that require no college Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

Skill acquisition without schooling The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

Building narratives and community from school outward  Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

Rural schools as community centers A grassroots movement in Canada that opposes rural school closures and consolidations is attempting to convince the government that in a rural landscape, education cannot be regarded as separate from health, economic development, or tourism.

The Rural School and Community Trust has compiled Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs ( developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.

The rural school-economy-community triangle

The 2015 Rural Education National Forum was held this week, drawing attention to the challenges faced not only by rural schools but also by their communities., which partnered with the Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia departments of education in sponsoring the conference, wrote this on the organization’s website:

If we are to transform educational and economic opportunities across rural America, then rural schools must become much more than a place—they must become the driving force where things take place.

Battelle recognizes that rural areas are different from urban and suburban areas in more than just population density, but rural America has the same need for meaningful and adequately reimbursed work as more densely populated areas.

Cover of white paper "Making Rural Education Work for out Children and Our Future" shows straight path into far distanceBattelle says rural areas need to create a “collaborative leadership ecosystem from the bottom up around an integrated education, economic, and community development strategy.”

If you’re one of the subscribers to this blog, you know the intertwined problems of rural schools, rural economies, and rural communities are one of my soapbox issues.

Making Rural Education Work for Our Children and Our Future, a free 12-page white paper from Battelle sketches the problems of integrating the three aspects of rural life. It also outlines a framework for developing solutions that solve local problems in ways that are both sustainable and scalable.  I recommend you download and read the 12-page PDF.

Teen after-school programs that do more than distract

As its brightest young people go off to college never to return and the remaining population dwindles, my Bainbridge, NY, community is wrestling with how to salvage the teens who remain. An ad hoc group has been investigating programs offered in nearby communities.

Male youth with hands in pockets
Small town. Not much to do.

Types of teen programs

Programs for teens fall into three main types: distractors, skill builders, treatment programs.

  • Programs to distract give youth something to do that keeps them out of trouble for as long as they are doing it.  Such things as a computer lab, crafts and games,  movies, fall into this category.
  • Programs to build skills include a wide range of education, training and employment programs from homework help to nutrition to conflict resolution training.  They also include mentoring programs in which a teen is mentored by an adult or a younger child is mentored by a teen.
  • Programs to treat problems include youth courts and programs for alcohol and drug abusers.

Programs for teens in our area appear to aim primarily to distract — “While they’re with us, they aren’t doing drugs” — and to give homework help.

What funding sources want to see

Community groups typically think they can fund programs for teens using grants. That might have been true last century, but funds are not as readily available now.

The federal government speaks for many funding organizations when it says:  ‘More and more, funding sources for youth programs require the implementation of evidence-based programs.”

The federal site gives this advice:

Clearly identifying what you are hoping to address and analyzing the potential causes and effects are essential before selecting and implementing an evidence-based program. You want to define

  • the problem you are trying to address or the behavior you want to promote,
  • potential causes or gaps that might be creating the problem, and
  • where you are hoping to intervene.

The implication seems to be that funding agencies are passing over applications from programs aimed at distracting youth from inappropriate behaviors.

Programs with rural potential

female artist stoops to work on floor
Artist at Work

In looking for ideas from other communities, I ran across some that struck me as having real potential for rural communities with limited resources.  Readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to see the programs are biased toward those that involve teens in their communities in ways that build the teens’ skills and return a benefit to the community.

Here are three program ideas that I found attractive for rural areas for varying reasons.

Teen continuing ed classes

The Friendly House offers teen programs on model of adult continuing education courses. Classes of 60-90 minutes are offered once or twice a week for a set number of weeks in things like physical fitness and art.

Classes offered by other teen programs that might fit easily into the continuing ed model are readers’ theater, creative writing, science discovery, financial literacy, entrepreneurship. Teens get a chance to try something that interests them that the school may not offer. Neither the instructor nor the sponsoring agency has a long-term commitment.

chef observes youger chef

Teen apprenticeships and internships

After School Matters has a scholarship program for apprentices and interns. The organization selects uses a request-for-proposal process to select providers. Providers have to detail how they will make the apprenticeship or internship a learning experience.  Participants can develop portfolios and earn digital badges that can help them get their first real job.

Teens have to apply for apprenticeships and internships at nonprofit organizations (only for those who completed apprenticeships) just as they would for a job.  Apprenticeships the program offers that could be replicated in a rural area include:

  • cooking with local chef
  • growing a community garden and selling products at a farmers’ market
  • developing sports skills and mentoring youth in preparation for a recreation leader job

It wouldn’t be hard to come up with other possibilities that fit a specific rural community.

Manor Ink logo
A local newspaper

Livingston Manor, NY, a hamlet with a 2010 population of 1,221,  has a monthly newspaper coordinated by the local public library  and produced by teens and some kids as young as 8 years old. Manor Ink is available globally online and in a local print edition. Through the newspaper, youth can pursue interests  in writing, sports reporting, selling, photography, art, graphic design, and videography.

The Manor Ink project is supported by the local news preservation nonprofit  Community Reporting Alliance and receives funding from the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, which also supports the Watershed Post.

Start-up funds for a project such as this are less of a problem than adult supervision.  A project like Manor Ink requires a cadre of adults with relevant skills, ability to mentor teens, and a willingness to shoulder a long-term commitment.

Assistance with start-up costs are available from newspaper foundations such as the Knight Foundation and the Patterson Foundation, educational organizations, and government sources have funds are available to assist with start-up costs. As a newspaper gets out of the incubator stage, it has the potential to develop into a LION that supports itself by delivering news and which creates jobs for the community.

Teen programs that work

After hours of reading about after school programs for teens, I concluded what I could have guessed: Programs that work are developed in communities, by communities, for communities.

In rural areas being hollowed out by the brain drain, the need is not only to provide distractions but to provide skills and community connections that turn the kids who remain into productive, contributing citizens. I believe that starts by finding where needs of all residents in the community (not just their desires) intersect with the needs (not just the desires) of the teens in the community.

We’ll see soon if mine is a minority opinion.

Some other teen after-school programs:

Related posts on this blog:

Photo and graphics credits:

[removed non-working link 2016-01-31]

Will New Blood Cure Rural Brain Drain?

Teaching, learning, and scratching out a living in America’s rural areas is not terribly different from the problems of teaching, learning, and scratching out a living in America’s inner cities except for one thing: There are significantly fewer people in rural areas.

We know from observation as well as from research that America’s rural communities are shriveling. Kids selected as the brightest and best are encouraged to go to college and then to where the good jobs are.

And rural America is not where the jobs are.

To see how population shifts are effecting where you live, visit the Net Migrations website.  The site provides reliable estimates of net migration broken down by age, race, Hispanic-origin, and sex for all U.S. counties each decade from 1950 to 2010. You can select your state and up to three counties to compare.The graph below shows the migration rates in my local area during that 60 year period. graph showing declining immigration in 3 New York State countiesCommunity and school leaders might do well to look at the NetMigration data to see what messages it holds for them.

Other blog posts I’ve written about life and learning in rural America include:

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.