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Despite W.Va. education reform, the extraction of rural youth to continue

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Charleston – As adults in West Virginia debated changes to the education system, high school students nearing graduation were looking around and deciding if West Virginia had a place for them.

Johny Lopez, who recently graduated from Greenbrier East High School, would like to stay here. Moving would mean leaving his family behind, and he’d miss the friendliness of the people.

“It’s a place that I could call home, but there’s just not that many jobs related to what I want to do and want to learn,” he said.

Lopez has been enrolled in the automotive program at Greenbrier County’s Career and Technical Education program. The program trains high school students for jobs that federal statistics show are in demand in West Virginia.

And he is standing in a garage attached to his school. He doesn’t even have to travel to learn those skills.

But Lopez wants to work with high-technology vehicles, maybe hybrids. Besides, he said, most people around here work on their own vehicles.

Joshua Boone, an incoming senior at Greenbrier East and another student in the automotive program, wants to make more money than what jobs pay in West Virginia. He, too, would like to stay. 

“I would if there was jobs,” Boone said, “but I just don’t see any jobs coming soon.”

Several researchers who focus on rural education said that if West Virginia wants to keep young people here, they need to ensure kids can see futures for themselves in West Virginia.

That means making education policy changes alongside economic policy changes, “especially if the ultimate goal is really to support and revitalize rural places,” according to Mara Casey Tieken, associate professor of education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine..

“One thing that I think can be a real challenge with educational policy-making, and particularly rural education policy-making, is that it’s often made not in coordination with other sorts of policies,” she said.

For half a year, West Virginia lawmakers and teachers unions have battled over the state’s education system. Most Republicans, who make up the majority in the Legislature, wanted to allow charter schools in the state. Teacher unions argued those schools would take money from already under-funded schools. 

Lawmakers introduced a lengthy and wide-ranging education bill, containing charter school and anti-strike provisions alongside school employee pay raises and more funding for schools and student support workers.

That bill failed during the legislative session, but lawmakers ultimately passed an altered version during special session last month.

Dylan McComas, who just graduated from Westside High School in Wyoming County, noted he’s not an expert on education policy. But McComas, of Lynco, did witness the effect on teachers. He said he saw them “cry and get emotional because they don’t know if they’re going to have health care.”

“They do a lot of stuff that people don’t really think about and notice. They just do little things. They’ll go to the ballgames to support the kids. They stay after school. They tutor for free. They’ll offer their home if they can’t do something.”

He had thought about being a history teacher. 

No more. 

Now he plans to be a nurse. He says watching the coal miners in his family suffer various injuries influenced that decision.

He hopes to stay in West Virginia. But as business after business has closed in Wyoming County, where coal has always been the predominant industry, he’s watched family after family leave. 

Also during the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill cutting the severance tax on the coal industry, in an effort to slow the decline of the struggling industry. They anticipated a $20 million loss in state revenue the first year, $40 million the second and $60 million each year after that.

McComas wants to see lawmakers work on bringing in new kinds of businesses.

“Just anything,” he said. “Maybe hydroelectricity, solar power. Make it be more than coal. It’s just a tricky, and it can be a sensitive conversation, I think. I don’t think a lot of people want to let go of coal.”

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Tieken, whose research focuses on educational equity in rural schools and communities, noted that West Virginia has too few students going on to obtain four-year degrees, while jobs in rural places that don’t require a degree, such as coal mining, are in decline. 

According to data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 69 percent of 2015 high school graduates enrolled in college the following fall. That number was 54.7 percent among West Virginia high school graduates, according to a report compiled by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and West Virginia Community and Technical College System.

“If we’re really trying to support kids to go to college, we also need to make sure that there are jobs in rural places that can use that college education,” Tieken said.

John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said that even if West Virginia experienced a dramatic surge in the number of students going to college, the state would lack enough jobs for those graduates at the moment.

“But at the same time it’s hard for us to attract businesses that have high-paying jobs that need college graduates if we don’t have many in the state, so it’s a chicken and the egg problem,” he said. 

Meanwhile, coal production in the state stood at about 158 million tons in 2008 and declined to about 80 million tons by 2016, he said. 

The coal production number increased to the low 90s for 2017 and to about 95 million tons for 2018, he said. For this year, he expects the number to be in the low 90s again, followed by long-term declines. 

Deskins said creating a more diverse economy with high-paying jobs for college graduates is something that may require a long-term plan by state leaders. 

“I fear that the discussion has really been focused too narrowly because of all this discussion of charter schools and not a discussion of all the other issues that we face that are complex,” he said. 

In a 2014 report, Deskins predicted the state would lose 19,500 people between 2010 and 2030, primarily due to more deaths than births.

“Overall, we expect that the share of the state’s population that is over the age of 65 to increase to approximately 22.9 percent in 2030 from 16.0 percent in 2010,” he wrote. “In a similar pattern, the share of the state’s population that is of prime working age (age 20-44) will decline to 23.3 percent in 2030 from 24.7 percent in 2010. Overall, West Virginia will remain one of the oldest states in the US, which stands in sharp contrast to mid-20th century when the Mountain State was one of the youngest states in the nation.”

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With so few job options in her area, Myleigh Stewart, who just graduated from Westside High School in Wyoming County, said she feels “kind of lost.”

Stewart, of Oceana, is considering becoming a psychologist. Through her volunteer work with a summer feeding program, and with Students Against Destructive Decisions, she has realized there is a need for more mental health and addiction treatment in West Virginia. Her aunt Kathy Brunty, who is the director for the Wyoming County Family Resource Network, also helped her to understand that need.

“I just see how good the people around here are because there are no other people like the ones from West Virginia, and everybody’s so hard-working, and I know that this is my home,” she said. “I know that I’ll always come back here.” 

Have previous generations done a good job making West Virginia somewhere young people would want to live? She paused.

“Well,” she said, “I personally can’t say that I would have done a better job because I know that you don’t really know how it is until you’re in that position, but I personally don’t feel like they’ve done all that they could to make West Virginia better for my generation and for generations to come.”

She’d like to see more focus on the addiction crisis. As of now, though, she anticipates she’ll watch most of her classmates leave their families behind. 

She hasn’t heard many say they want to be a coal miner, although that may be all their parents have ever done.

“Some of them may not have graduated high school,” she said. “And then they’re just kind of stuck because they don’t have anywhere to turn without the coal industry. They probably didn’t see that it wouldn’t last forever, and I don’t fault them for that at all, because they made money and they were doing what they thought that they needed to do.”

According to the United States Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey, an estimated 16.2 percent of people 25 and older had four-year college degrees in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, compared to 20.2 percent of people 25 and older statewide, and 32 percent nationwide.

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Kai Schafft, associate professor of education and rural sociology at Penn State University, noted that there is “less of a family legacy of college-going” in areas that used to rely on industries like coal and oil and gas. And the young people who do go to college, he said, are more likely to leave.

“In many places schools can be seen as sort of factories of human capital to export for the development of other places,” he said. “That’s sort of a fancy way of referring to what many people call the ‘rural brain drain.’ “ 

Schafft, who directs Penn State’s Center for Rural Education, suggested policymakers might “come to the understanding that healthy communities produce healthy schools,” and vice versa.

He also noted that in many rural areas, schools are the major employers. They also improve quality of life in communities. 

“Schools are pretty important to local communities,” he said. “It seems to me that a policy implication could be to expand the vision of the purpose of schools, and in particular rural schooling to encompass not only academic outcomes but local economic and well-being outcomes.”

He said that some rural school districts focus on recruiting local students to teach, he said. Others work closely with local business on job shadowing and mentoring programs, he added.

Schafft said school districts could take the lead on those types of projects, although they’d need funding.

“I think that making resources available and providing infrastructure to see to it that this is taking place in a more systematic way would – I think – be a real assistance,” he said.

Multiple calls to the state Education Department were not returned. Debbie White, director of career and technical education at Greenbrier County schools, said though that her program does partner with local businesses.

“If there were easy solutions, I think people would have found those solutions a long time ago,” Schafft said.

Erin McHenry-Sorber, an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies at West Virginia University, suggested that to retain teachers, state leaders could focus on building “virtual networks of support” for rural teachers and school leaders, as well as creating teacher leadership positions. Effective teachers could spend part of their time teaching, and part of their time training others.

In other words, “treating teachers like professionals,” she said. 

McHenry-Sorber said that in some states, leaders in education and state legislatures have worked together on incentives, such as loan forgiveness, to recruit and retain teachers in rural areas. 

She said state officials could also be working with school districts and colleges to identify unemployed people or displaced workers who might be good candidates to become teachers.

“You have the state Department of Education, the state Board of Education, we have the Legislature, we have higher education institutions and we have K-12 institutions, but we all have the same goals, and I think we need to have spaces or conduits by which we can work together, because we all have different strengths that we can build on,” she said.

Meanwhile, poverty, she said, is “just one of those kind of wicked problems that requires collaboration.” 

“The students that I’ve interviewed in my research really want to stay in West Virginia,” she said. 

“They have a real love of their home communities, and they want to give back and so this seems like something the Legislature should be able to capitalize on.”

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Michael Belcher Jr. graduated from Westside High School on June 1. He signed up to work at a coal preparation plant on June 5 and went to work. 

That’s where his dad works as chief electrician. That’s where his grandpa worked.

He works ten hours a day, he said. 

“Some days I hardly get a lunch.”

But he enjoys the work.

He said he watched how his father and grandfather “built our family” working there.  He also said he makes good money for someone just out of high school.

“It’s my home state and I always wanted to live here,” he said.

In Wyoming County, among the “beautiful mountains,” he said, he’ll be walking down the street and everyone waves hello.

“Everybody’s just always nice, and you just know everybody by name,” he said. “No one ever acts like they’re too good for another person around here.”

Belcher said he sees some mines opening up.

“That’s probably the number one job around here anymore, still, even with it being declined as bad as it is,” he said.

Even Belcher agrees, though, that the adults who came before him could have done a better job working on diversifying the economy in southern West Virginia. Maybe they could have brought some more blue collar jobs to the area.

He expects to watch most of his classmates leave.

“I feel excited for them, for a new adventure, but I hate it for the economy and I feel bad for the family that they have to leave just to find work and school,” he said.

Some will first take advantage, he said, of another law the Legislature passed, allowing students to attend community and technical college for free. That bill requires students to stay in state for two years after graduating. 

But Belcher still expects they’ll eventually take off.

“I believe that will help out a lot,” he said, “but if we can’t get more jobs here, that degree is not really going to affect anybody around here.”

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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