We are used to a certain narrative about concentrated poverty and education: it takes place in the inner city, features students of color, and often includes a supporting role for public housing projects.
There’s no doubt that these cities, and their schools, face serious problems that deserve our attention. But a set of very different communities are virtually invisible in narratives about education and poverty in America. These are mostly stories about white children in rural, isolated communities from Alabama to Virginia—in Appalachia. As The New York Times reported in its series on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Appalachia is one of the only corners of our country that was virtually untouched by that massive effort. And it shows.
This region has long been among the poorest in the country, and it was hit hard in recent decades by job losses in manufacturing and coal mining. Because those industries, along with agriculture, formed the backbone of Appalachian economies, higher education was a low priority—and that attitude hasn’t changed with the new economy.
Fortunately, new strategies are emerging to improve the prospects of children and families in these communities.
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One of the most pervasive barriers in Appalachia is the isolation. Towns and homes are far from one another, roads can be treacherous, and public transportation is virtually non-existent. In the northeast corner of Tennessee, Unicoi County High School Principal Chris Bogart describes the challenges of delivering the tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment activities that his students need.
“[One new staff member] suggested just giving the kids bus tokens to get home from afterschool activities, like in her prior district. Sure, I said, that would be great if Unicoi had buses,” Bogart said.
As a way to work around the lack of afterschool transportation, the school piloted an hour-long lunch. Students eat wherever they want, which gives them the opportunity to visit the media center, get help with math homework, or rehearse a skit with their fine arts teacher, among other activities. The faculty—who had been skeptical about the change—reports that their relationships with students, and the school climate, improved noticeably.
Isolation and a lack of transportation options also mean that many children—and adults—have never traveled beyond their immediate area. During one Unicoi High School class trip to Nashville—the first time most students had left the region—one student’s parents were so worried that they drove alongside the bus for the entire five hours. Staff at Unicoi are now researching grant possibilities to fund similar trips—including to college campuses and Washington, D.C.—so that their students have a better sense of the world and its possibilities.
According to the teachers, school board members, and social workers whom I spoke with, this kind of exposure is critical to getting their students “across the finish line” in high school and thinking seriously about college. They recounted the challenge of their own relatives having less-than-positive reactions to their declarations that they wanted to be the first in the family to go to college. “You’re getting above your raisin’,” was one common response.
Just 22 percent of adults in Appalachia have bachelors’ degrees—fewer than in any other area of the country—because working in factories, railroads, and coalmines was the norm. The widespread loss of these employers—including the abrupt shuttering of CSX’s Erwin, TN terminal in October—is devastating Appalachian communities. And yet, according to several Erwin community leaders I spoke with, many parents still view post-secondary education as unnecessary or even a sign of snobbery.
But educators across Appalachia are trying to change this mindset. At last month’s Appalachian Higher Education Network conference, there was a focus on helping schools create a college-going culture. Innovative ideas include annual trips—beginning as early as elementary school—to both community and four-year colleges; and partnerships that allow students to accrue college credit in their high schools, at a local college, or online. A growing number of schools host college and career festivals where teachers and principals offer testimonials about overcoming their own fears of being the first in their families to make it past high school.
When new strategies like these are bolstered by a higher education institution that is working to address the region’s needs, the impact can be even greater.
Berea College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky, enrolls only “academically promising” students from low-income families—mostly from Appalachia—who attend entirely tuition-free. It is also home to Partners for Education (PfE), where dozens of outreach and support staff—many of whom are Berea graduates themselves—provide students and their families with a range of supports, such as Skype mentors for at-risk students who are physically isolated, mailing books to students and online book clubs to avert summer learning loss, college preparatory services, and targeted professional development for teachers. These are exactly the kinds of activities that Unicoi and other schools seek as part of creating a college-going culture.
All of these services are reinforced by smart state policies. Thanks to a well-funded state early childhood education initiative, one-fourth of Kentucky’s 4-year-olds attend high-quality pre-k programs (compared to fewer than one-fifth in neighboring Virginia, where programs are also of lower quality). And the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act created Family Resource and Youth Services Centers (FRYSC) across the state to advance the goal of “removing nonacademic barriers to learning” through physical, mental health, academic, and family support services tailored to each community’s needs. For example, the FRYSC in Berea offers afterschool and summer enrichment activities as well as crisis counseling.
All of this creative work and community engagement is paying off. A recent study of the 26-county region served by Berea documented key steps toward making college a reality for many more students: better quality among early childhood education providers, more children participating in arts and tutoring programs, teachers receiving strong professional development, and math and reading scores that are rising faster than the state average.
Unique, place-based challenges require innovative policy solutions. Berea and Unicoi are showing us what some of those solutions look like. Maybe fifty years from now if journalists return to this region, they will report on this moment, when new policies began to change the prospects of children and their families.