Can Innovative Rural Schools Stem the Urban Bleed?

How schools and colleges in middle America are being redesigned to keep their young, skilled graduates employed — and local

By Arielle Dreher | December 4, 2018

Anna McDaniel seemed destined to be a teacher. In elementary school, she would use her homework assignments to teach her bedroom-turned-classroom of stuffed animals what she learned in school.

Now a high school senior at Scottsbluff High School in Nebraska, the 17-year-old McDaniel had to pick one of six career academies offered as part of the required curriculum for juniors and seniors. The high school started an academy hybrid model in 2016, and so far, students are graduating with college credits, job offers, and, in some cases, even associate’s degrees.

McDaniel rides the bus with other students to Western Nebraska Community College two days a week to take college courses on campus. She is currently enrolled in “Introduction to Professional Education.”

“We do a lot of observation hours — really getting into the classroom and getting involved with the students we want to teach, so that’s really awesome,” said McDaniel, who comes from a family of teachers.

Anna McDaniel’s senior portrait (Courtesy of Anna McDaniel)

In only its third year, the program is too new to produce data on outcomes. But SHS assistant principal Justin Shaddick has personal testimony that the model is working. He also believes the model is replicable in other rural districts and can be scaled down to tailor to local industry needs and the teacher workforce.

McDaniel, who eventually settled on the human science and education academy, will do an internship at a local elementary school next semester before she graduates. She plans to stay in Scottsbluff for college at WNCC, but after she completes the academy program, she could finish her full degree in just three years instead of four. Through the academy program, students at SHS can take dual-credit college and high school courses on the school district’s dime. Some of the high school teachers, who are certified with WNCC or have their master’s degrees, can even teach college classes to high school students — right there at the high school.

Shaddick says the SHS career academy’s hybrid model allows students to interact with a broader range of peers, in contrast to some career programs in high schools that keep students in the same pod — or group of students in their same academy — all day. SHS leaders looked at several programs in the Midwest before embarking on their own. With the help of an $800,000-plus innovation grant from the Nebraska Department of Education, SHS launched in 2016.

Students take aptitude exams and introductory courses in their freshman and sophomore years and select one of the six career academies by their junior year. Within each academy, there are four specialized pathways from which students can select a unique course of study. Some pathways allow students to take classes at WNCC for free. SHS’s 1,000 students took more than 950 college courses last year, Shaddick said.

Part of Shaddick’s goal with the program is to have more SHS students continue on to postsecondary education. Currently about 60 percent of SHS graduates enroll in some form of higher education. In the coming years, Shaddick wants 75 percent of SHS alumni to continue on to higher education. From trailer manufacturers to the region’s medical center, Shaddick said that local industries recognize the importance of investing in high school students by providing apprenticeships or offering support where they can to keep students in the area and place them in jobs after they graduate.

Students in the Business, Marketing, and Management academy at Scottsbluff High School can take a food class, and students compete in local culinary competitions. (Courtesy Scottsbluff High School)

“They know that right there is a huge pipeline for entry-level employment,” Shaddick said of students in the Health Sciences academy.

Those who receive medical aid certificates from the program can go straight into work at the Regional West Medical Center.

Rural America Is Bleeding

In the 16 years between 1994 and 2010, 759 rural counties across 42 states lost population, according to the Pew Research Center. Since 2010, America’s 100 largest counties have seen growth of 9.3 million new residents — but more than 1,400 of the 2,155 counties with populations under 50,000 saw population declines in the past nine years, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Counties with fewer than 25,000 residents have lost around 2 percent of their total population, or the equivalent of 274,000 residents.

Rural America is bleeding. The map of rural counties that lost more than 4 percent of their populations in the past decade looks like someone covered their hand in paint and smeared it down southwest into New Mexico, north through the Dakotas and Iowa, east to West Virginia, and southeast through the Mississippi Delta and Alabama’s open lands.

Rural America is losing young people to “brain drain,” the term used by scholars and politicians alike to describe the effect created by young people, particularly millennials, who leave communities in droves for more urban areas. A fear of this phenomenon also causes many rural families to be hesitant about sending their children off to college — because those students tend not to return. College, once a path toward opportunity, is now increasingly “a ticket out of Nowheresville” for rural students.

This is widening the urban-rural divide, where the country’s top talent is congregating in select pockets of the country and draining smaller towns and communities of the education and skills that they need — perhaps more than anyone else.

Earlier this year, as Amazon visited the 20 cities on its list of finalists to house its second headquarters, the internet giant sought out specific data on education — such as the SAT and ACT scores of their high school students. Winning Amazon’s bid for its HQ2 would have marked a huge boon for a number of cities with stagnating economies, but the web commerce and cloud computing company ultimately selected New York City and northern Virginia, both locations with high concentrations of educated and skilled workers.

Even leaders from a major metropolis with tech talent like Dallas-Fort Worth recognize the area’s educational deficiencies.

We have “to look hard at ourselves and say, ‘Why can we not beat New York City and Washington, D.C.?’” Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings said at a news conference in Dallas. “It’s all about the people…. If our state does not [spend more on public schools and colleges], then we will not be able to compete with these cities.”

Andrew Koricich, a professor at Appalachian State University who studies rural education, has looked into rural students’ access to education and how barriers like transportation or distance to the nearest institution can change the likelihood of a rural student’s chances of completing postsecondary education.

In a soon-to-be-published study with colleagues, Koricich found that rural students are less likely than students in more suburban and urban places to attend postsecondary education of any type. When rural students do get access to education, brain drain can set in.

“Brain drain in rural communities represents a paradox in which rural communities do an outstanding job of nurturing talented youth, only to have them permanently leave the community in the future. The impacts of this population loss can be devastating,” Koricich writes in research about community colleges’ role in preparing the workforce.

The challenges that urban areas face, like poverty and equity in education, also exist in rural areas. The nature of these communities being more isolated and farther away from population centers compounds these problems.

“It’s that they are experiencing a lot of the same issues as everyone else, but that the isolation and distance makes it harder to overcome those same challenges,” Koricich said.

Young people leave rural areas for myriad reasons: jobs, education, opportunities. But in Middle and Southern America, they often don’t return. Rural communities are highly aware of their challenges, but finding creative ways to combat rural brain drain and “stop the bleeding,” as Nebraska state Sen. Brett Lindstrom describes it, depends on the community.

 It’s All in the Community

Blake Greckel, a senior at SHS, might not have to go to WNCC next year because he is trying to graduate in May with not only his high school diploma but also his associate’s degree in business administration. Greckel, who turns 18 in December, is also an All-American and competitive trap shooter with a goal to make it onto the Olympic team. Earning his associate’s degree by the end of high school, he said, will allow him to focus on trap-shooting full-time after graduation.

Greckel is taking 15 college credits as a high school senior, which means he spends a lot of time at his desk at home studying and doing homework — but to him, all the sacrifice is worth it.

“Since this opportunity is here, it would be kind of senseless if I didn’t capitalize on it now,” he said.

Students in the Skilled and Technical Sciences Academy work on a robotics project during class. (Courtesy Scottsbluff High School)

For Shaddick, starting the career academies has meant constant communication with WNCC about curriculum. It has also meant convincing parents who expect their children to have a standard high school experience and go on to a four-year institution that this nontraditional model is an effective way to teach students.

The academies model still allows for a traditional track, and students can change their selected academy after junior year. This allows them to take foundational classes in two different fields so they can experience a broader range of high school courses, if they so choose.

Raphael Rios, a recent SHS graduate, got a job at Aulick Industries right out of high school thanks to his welding talent and a call from a counselor. Aulick manufactures agricultural and construction equipment and partners with SHS to provide internship opportunities for students.

Rios already has two welding certifications as a result of the Skilled and Technical Sciences academy, which provided him with the prerequisites necessary to go to WNCC and take more of their welding courses. The 18-year-old is working part-time at Aulick now as he continues his studies beyond just welding. Rios is now taking auto body and blueprint reading courses, and he hopes to take the two remaining welding classes he needs to finish the welding curriculum at WNCC next semester.

“I’m just trying to be a man of all trades,” he said.

Rios has no plans to leave Scottsbluff and does not mind the western Nebraska area, calling it a “mellow town.” But keeping students like Rios — the next generation of workers — in the rural communities that need them is no easy feat.

“Without a School and Without a Community Bank, Those Towns Die”

In some rural states, lawmakers have adopted or attempted to adopt policy changes to combat millennial brain drain. In Mississippi, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a “brain drain” tax credit in 2018 that would have offered new graduates an income tax break for two to three years after graduating if they stayed in the state for work. Although the Mississippi Senate killed the measure, its passage signals the seriousness of how brain drain affects rural communities.

In North Carolina, a teaching fellows program attempts to keep the talent that educates the future generation in-state. Those who commit to teaching in a special education or STEM field in a North Carolina public school can receive up to $4,125 per semester for eight semesters at a top in-state education program.

Many policies to keep young people in rural America are driven by millennial lawmakers. The Millennial Action Project has launched “State Future Caucuses” in 27 states, where bipartisan caucuses of millennial-age lawmakers come together to work on policy issues that impact young people.

Republican state Sen. Brett Lindstrom and Democratic state Sen. Adam Morfeld chair the Millennial Future Caucus in Nebraska. Technically there is no caucusing allowed in Nebraska, but as a group they meet to discuss bipartisan policies.

Scottsbluff is a bright spot in a state where several counties are losing residents, with one county losing more than 10 percent of its population in just a decade. Lindstrom and Morfeld both have ideas about what could work to keep young people in-state or entice them to return.

Democratic state Sen. Adam Morfeld (left) and Republican state Sen. Brett Lindstrom (Courtesy of Facebook)

Lindstrom, who serves as the banking chairman in the Nebraska Legislature, visited 26 small towns to see what the bankers in these places were concerned about.

“I did get a sense where people are at,” Lindstrom said. “People are pretty nervous about some of those towns dying, and what my observation is, [is] that without a school and without a community bank, those towns die.”

Nebraska’s incentive program sunsets in 2020. Lindstrom, who is running for revenue chairman, envisions new incentives that target industries that Nebraska is strong in — like agribusiness and biotechnology. And with those programs, the state is enabled to educate its residents “with the younger individuals to be ready in case we have some of those opportunities,” Lindstrom said.

Meanwhile, communities like Scottsbluff have taken their school-to-workforce pipeline into their own hands.

The Last Place She’d Go

Robin Bonatesta wanted to be in the fashion industry. Growing up in New Jersey, just outside of New York City’s alluring reach, Bonatesta would take courses at fashion schools in the city during high school, assuming that she would live in the city through her college studies and beyond.

At Somerville High School, Bonatesta found that computer programming courses came naturally to her, but she had never considered that to be a career option until she visited Kent State University, in the middle of Ohio, with her father. Kent State has a strong fashion program, but Bonatesta’s father suggested that she should do a double major.

“On that cold, rainy campus tour in the middle of Ohio, I decided that that’s what I was going to do,” she said.

Her passion for both fashion and computer science continued throughout college, and just before her graduation in 2016, Bonatesta was insistent on finding a job that allowed her to be in both fields simultaneously. Knowing this, she applied to Venture for America as a backup plan so she could find startup companies where she could do both.

“I was searching for fashion tech companies with 10 people or less where I could do software development and be on a fashion team and not be in Ohio,” she said. “That was my list of criteria, in that order; that was what mattered.”

Venture for America is a two-year fellowship program that matches recent college graduates to startup companies in one of 15 cities, primarily located in middle America. The program was launched with the intent to spread talented graduates across the country, diversifying the workforce beyond the coastal cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, where young people gravitate for work. VFA’s mission is to contribute to startup ecosystems in smaller, less-known cities across the U.S., from Baltimore and Charlotte to Birmingham, Kansas City, and Cleveland.

VFA opens an employment portal for its fellows to apply for positions at hundreds of companies around the U.S. that pay a placement fee. Partner companies guarantee fellows a minimum salary of $38,000.

Carson Koser, development and communications manager for VFA, describes founder Andrew Yang’s vision for the program as a way to change that coastal draw.

“His whole thesis is, ‘How can we change that, and what would the country potentially look like if we were able to create a program that worked to specifically address this issue of brain drain and talent distribution across the country?’” she said.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is the last place Bonatesta, who is now 24 years old, thought she would begin her career in fashion, especially since she had just spent four years in northeast Ohio. But VFA connected her to a tech startup with a role that combined fashion and computer science perfectly. Three years later, she is still at it, working as a full stack developer at Cladwell, a startup whose mobile app dresses its users from the clothes they already have in their closets.

In 2017, state lawmakers attempted to use legislation to address the brain drain in Ohio, especially in STEM fields. A bill to create a STEM loan repayment program for recent Ohio university or college graduates with associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees in STEM fields stalled in the state assembly, but both Republicans and Democrats in the state understand the significance of losing talented graduates.

“This legislation addresses a convergence of two problems that are dramatically impacting Ohio’s economy: we are among the worst in the nation for student debt burden, and we continue to hear from the business community about Ohio’s lack of STEM-related skilled labor,” Republican state lawmaker Rick Carfagna said in a news release. “Ohio has the 10th-highest average student debt, while our continued brain drain of STEM talent continues to hamper Ohio employers’ ability to grow facilities and add workers. I’m eager to begin discussions on how we can best retain our skilled talent in a way that provides economic opportunities for our graduates, stimulates STEM entrepreneurship, and grows emerging technology sectors right here in Ohio.”

Making Middle America Home

The VFA fellowship requires a two-year commitment, but some fellows stay at their companies — and in their cities — long past their VFA “graduation” date.

For Adam Rukin, VFA offered an opportunity to try his hand at business after studying mechanical engineering at Ohio State University. Rukin is 14 months into his VFA fellowship at a company called Pepper, which creates software to connect home devices.

“I didn’t know I was going to be in Kansas City, but I interviewed with a whole bunch of companies in the network,” Rukin said. “… [I] never really had an interest in going to New York, Chicago, or the Valley, because ultimately, I wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and that’s what you can get through the VFA program.”

Rukin, 24, wants to start his own company someday, and he has found that working in America’s heartland provides a small-knit network and community he would need to do so.

“You also need some capital and a town you can hire people from, and in smaller markets like this, it’s a lot more rah-rah community building — so less cutthroat,” he said. “There’s a lot of niche companies out here that focus on very specific industries that aren’t sexy, that a lot of people don’t know about, but have serious opportunity and problems to fix,” he said.

Michael Harrison finished his VFA fellowship in 2017 with Fleetio, a startup that works in more than 50 countries, helping clients manage vehicle fleets of varying sizes.

He stayed on with Fleetio after the end of his two years and still works there today. Harrison, 26, has grown to love Birmingham, Alabama, where Fleetio is headquartered. When he visited the Southern city for his interviews, he liked what he saw — the company is headquartered in an old Sears building in downtown Birmingham.

“That was extremely attractive to me when I came and visited, because I knew even if Fleetio failed, I was in an ecosystem where I could network and meet other entrepreneurs,” he said. “And I also knew there were enough people that cared about small business and entrepreneurship that there was a whole building and structure dedicated to that.”

Venture for America fellows placed in Southern cities, like Birmingham, go on road trips together around the South, VFA alumnus Michael Harrison (pictured second from left) said. A group of fellows is pictured here in Sheffield, Alabama, where they visited the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where artists such as Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones recorded albums with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. (Courtesy Michael Harrison)

Technological environments can make a town competitive for employers and potential workers, but U.S. job statistics show that there is record-high demand for workers in the country. There are more job openings, about 7 million as of September, than there are unemployed people in the U.S., driving up competition for talented workers and increasing demand for certain skills.

Economists told Reuters in September that job openings that remain unfilled could be problematic for the U.S. economy down the road, especially for business growth and expansion. With companies vying for recent college graduates and skilled workers, rural areas have to work even harder to compete with urban areas that need the same talent.

Harrison, who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, never expected to live in Birmingham, let alone stay.

“It’s been a really, really good experience to learn that [I could move to and become passionate about] a city that I would have sort of looked over and never thought twice [about],” he said. “And a ton of that has to do with the people and just the fact that this is a city where … people have such a collective pride for where they live.”

Fleetio has grown since Harrison joined three years ago, and he is now the head of product management at the startup. Having found a community in the heart of the deep American South, Harrison does not plan on leaving anytime soon.

“Every single time an opportunity that has come up or that urge to leave has come up, I’ve stayed here for some reason, and definitely a huge part of that is Fleetio … But another huge part of it, for sure, is that I really do feel like Birmingham is home, at least for now,” he said.

Harrison said moving to Birmingham has brought him a new perspective that he never expected to find.

“I definitely thought I was coming here for the job alone, but I’m leaving with a much better idea of urban development and how important it is and how complex it is,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s taught me one thing: It’s taught me that everywhere has a story. It’s impossible to make a snap judgment about a city or a town from afar.”

When the Corporation Pays for the Degree

Community colleges are often the only postsecondary option for rural students. They also can be great connectors to good jobs for graduates.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Shelton State Community College boasts several programs that combine education with a future job for their students. The college teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to create specific programs that funnel right into the car manufacturer’s labor needs.

In 2012, Mercedes-Benz approached Shelton State and asked if the school could help train workers it needed for its plant, located 20 miles east in rural Vance, Alabama. The partnership resulted in the Mechatronics program, which is about 101 credit hours and the equivalent to an associate’s degree, as well as a certificate in industrial maintenance. Students apply to Shelton State and directly to Mercedes-Benz for admittance to the program. Now the company also offers an automotive program through Shelton State. Since 2014, Mercedes-Benz has offered more than 160 students full-time positions at its plant in Vance.

Students working in Shelton State Community College and Mercedes-Benz’s Mechatronics program in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Courtesy of Shelton State Community College)

The competitive programs show that companies are willing to pay to help educate their own workforce, as Mercedes pays for more than half of tuition, provided the students maintain a 3.0 grade point average or higher.

Jason Moore, dean of workforce and economic development at Shelton State, said the program is competitive because the best jobs go to the best students in both programs, even though passing with a 2.5 GPA or higher means a guaranteed job.

“Only the top completers go to maintenance. The ones that are not offered a job in maintenance are offered a job in production in the paint shop or the body shop,” Moore said. “[Mercedes-Benz tries] to employ as many people as they can because they spend a lot of money on them.”

Mercedes-Benz has also paid for a lot of the equipment that students train with on Shelton State’s campus. The Mechatronics program lasts a little more than two years, but successful students have a job offer — hourly pay well above minimum wage with benefits — waiting for them. Moore described the demand for workers as “crazy,” and he said that as Mercedes-Benz expands or needs more workers, the pressure grows for Shelton State to produce a competitive workforce.

A student working in Shelton State Community College and Mercedes-Benz’s Mechatronics program in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Courtesy Shelton State Community College)

“When Mercedes starts hiring people, they hire people from other companies, and then they need people. It’s just a ripple effect,” he said. “[In] Tuscaloosa County right now, there’s a huge demand…. It’s a good place to be, but it’s tough because you know employers put pressure on us.”

Jonathan Koh, director of grants and governmental relations at the college, said Shelton State is now running a program for eighth-graders that brings them on a campus visit to see four different career areas and programs. That exposure to job opportunities available to them after college and a program like Mechatronics has led to a doubling of Shelton State’s career and technical dual enrollment programs, Koh said.

Koh thinks the programs and partnerships with companies like Mercedes-Benz have reversed trends of brain drain in the area.

“Especially with the Mercedes program, they may come from out of state, but they are going to stay here when they complete it, for sure, because they’ve got a great job,” he said.

Disclosure: This is the third in a series of Future of Work cover stories sponsored by Pearson exploring how automation and evolving economic forces are impacting education from kindergarten through college. Read previous installments here and here.

Lead image: Venture for America fellows placed in Southern cities, like Birmingham, go on road trips together around the South, VFA alumnus Michael Harrison (far right) said. A group of fellows is pictured here in Sheffield, Alabama, where they visited the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where artists such as Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones recorded albums with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. (Courtesy Michael Harrison)

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