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

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)
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)

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.

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.

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

“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.

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

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.

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.

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)

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.

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

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