Tag Archives: rural

In Appalachia, Preparing for Life After Coal

President Trump has vowed to “put coal country back to work.” On the campaign trail he promised to bring back jobs to the industry. And in February, he got rid of a stream protection regulation he called a “job-killing rule.”

But many in the region aren’t counting on President Trump to solve all their problems.

Instead, new programs in states hit by deindustrialization aim to diversify local economies, retrain workers, and create a pipeline of new workers prepared for jobs, like coding, in the new economy.

Education, and “re-education,” are big parts of this picture.

In “The Next Big Blue Collar Job is Coding,” Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson thinks learning to code may be akin to learning to weld in the past—a path to the middle class. He points to local programs like CodeTN that is encouraging local high school students in Tennessee to attend coding programs at community colleges. Thompson argues that introducing kids to vocational training in computer science in high school may be a better idea than always urging four-year degrees.

“These sorts of coders won’t have the deep knowledge to craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks. Why would they need to? That level of expertise is rarely necessary at a job. But any blue-collar coder will be plenty qualified to sling Java­Script for their local bank. That’s a solidly middle-class job, and middle-class jobs are growing: The national average salary for IT jobs is about $81,000 (more than double the national average for all jobs), and the field is set to expand by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than most other occupations.”

In the Pittsburgh region, husband and wife duo Amanda Laucher and Jonathan Graham are developing programs to train coal miners to code, for free. Mining Minds, in Greene County just south of Pittsburgh, helps displaced coal miners learn to code from the comfort of their homes. Laucher, a Greene County native, saw her brother struggle to find a job after coal and it struck her that she could help. She and her husband, an avid coder, launched Mining Minds as a nonprofit coding school. “They heard from coal miners and economic developers in the region that these guys didn’t want to drive for training,” Linda Topoleski of Allegheny Conference on Community Development told us. So they brought coding to them. Not only can miners learn to code online, but they can then become contract coders and work online from home.

These efforts are also tackling another problem: the pipeline is empty. Pittsburgh’s local institutions are working closely with businesses and technology firms to address the region’s “pipeline problem” —the fact that the region isn’t graduating enough children with the skills they need to meet future employer demand.

As we wrote on this blog in the fall:

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers, for example, connects employers with students directly. The organization runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems for the business. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.”

“We aren’t so crazy to think we can just train people for jobs that don’t exist,” says Jeff Hawkins, the director of the education cooperative in Kentucky. “We have to train them in technical areas for jobs that they can get immediately.”

And who knows where that will lead. Governing Magazine recently reported on the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative, 19 school districts in the southeastern part of the state that was originally formed to pool their purchasing power and save money on basic supplies.

Now, writes Governing’s Alan Greenblatt “it runs all kinds of joint training ventures—participating in computer hackathons for rural health, instructing kids on aviation and aeronautics, helping students combine coal spores with algae to create a new biofuel. The results have been impressive. The percentage of high school students who are assessed as ready for college or careers is nearly 90 percent—up from less than 60 percent five years ago.”

Connecting Rural Schools

Earlier this year, amid a fierce legal battle, it appeared that school districts across Idaho were about to lose broadband internet access.

Luckily, schools secured individual contracts after the statewide system was disbanded. But the scare shed light on the need for good internet access in schools. Educators, students, and parents had braced for a strain on communications, changes to lesson plans, a lack of access to online information, and an inability to take standardized tests.

Shoddy or unaffordable connectivity is a constant for many American school systems. A three-part series in Education Week shows how rural public schools are struggling to provide basic internet access to their 12 million students.

In some cases, geographic isolation makes it hard and expensive to run high-speed lines to schools. Large telecommunications companies see little value in serving tiny populations. Local companies step in—often taking advantage of market dominance to charge inflated rates.

Take two western New Mexico campuses featured in the Education Week story. The schools share 22 megabits per second of bandwidth (mbps), for which a regional carrier charges them $3,700 a month. The same speed would cost most American schools $550, according to Education Week.

At one school it takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system.
Or consider a district in Calhoun County, Mississippi, where a single wire brought the school system 1.5 mbps (the average connection speed in the United States is 11.9 mbps). When the schools bought new computers with federal stimulus money, the infrastructure could not support them. Their service providers added three mbps for an additional $5,000 per month, but little improved. It still takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system. An administrator described the “gut-wrenching” feeling of watching students trying to take a standardized test and running out of time because the video-based questions and online calculators would not load.

Students who lack regular internet access don’t have the same opportunities as their national peers. As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.

Clemmie Jean Weddle, a 17-year-old Calhoun County student who wants to go to Mississippi State, is well aware she is missing out. Passionate about learning, she joined the quiz bowl team and studied hard at the school’s computer lab before the first state competition. But the 15-minute lag each time she opened a webpage put her leagues behind her competitors, Education Week reported.

Those struggles hit close to home. Just hours outside Pittsburgh, rural districts in West Virginia face challenges getting connected. Last year, we reported on major leaps in digital learning opportunities in the region, thanks to a combination of grants, public money, and partnerships with Pittsburgh programs. Most schools in West Virginia, half of which are rural, have decent internet access now. The same is not true for the students’ homes.

The 2013 American Community Survey puts West Virginia in the bottom 10 states in terms of home internet access. Only 71.8 percent of individuals live in homes with high-speed internet, compared to a national average of 78.1 percent and a high of 85.7 percent in New Hampshire. The federal ConnectHome initiative brings internet to low-income housing, but so far the program includes only 28 cities.

As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.
The benefit of internet access at school is diminished if the students cannot continue their work at home, said John Ross, an edtech consultant and researcher who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document,” he said. “It’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

There is some hope for improvement. The federal program E-rate program uses fees on consumer phone bills to help cover internet and phone service at schools and libraries. As of this fall, Education Week reports, more money is available through the program, and telecoms will be required to reveal their school rates. The noncompetitive companies may risk losing government subsidies. The overhaul of the E-rate program is part of Obama’s 2013 pledge to bring high-speed internet to 99 percent of American students by 2018, but critics say the market-based solution is not enough.

Much of the conversation today about the “digital divide”—the disparity between students who have access to technology and those who do not—is focused on devices. Which schools can afford laptops? How should teachers incorporate donated Chromebooks into their lesson plans? Are cellphones a distraction or a useful learning tool?

But in swaths of the country, those questions are far from central. When schools cannot provide basic internet connection, their students are at a disadvantage in a society and job market that increasingly demands digital competency.



For Rural Kids, Technology Opens New Horizons

Only three years ago, a stretch of land off King Coal Highway in Mingo County, West Virginia, was a deserted strip mine. Today, it’s Mingo Central Comprehensive High School, complete with a 3D printer, a 1-to-1 laptop program, interactive whiteboards, and a hands-on pre-engineering program that gives students free college credit from West Virginia University.

As a rural county at the southern tip of the state, Mingo County has relied on grants, and state and local funds to infuse its classrooms with modern technology. (In West Virginia, each county is one school district.) It’s been no easy feat for the county, which has been hit hard by the recession, on top of its small tax base. But, as Mingo County STEM Coordinator Richard Duncan puts it, “Somehow we beat that.”

In Pittsburgh and nationally, educators have seen how integrating meaningful technology into schools and informal learning spaces engages kids, introduces them to career paths, and equips them with critical 21st century skills. But for rural communities like Mingo County, providing students with the same resources comes with a bevy of extra challenges that make access tougher, and at the same time, all the more critical.

A little over half of all schools in West Virginia are rural, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. Many of these rural communities’ economies have revolved around coal since the early 19th century. Mingo County is no exception, and the area’s ties to coal are evident in the mascot of the two-year-old high school—the miner.

But over the last two decades, the downsizing of the coal industry has caused Mingo County and the surrounding Appalachian region to fall on even tougher economic times. As coal jobs drained out of the area, the poverty rate climbed to the point that Mingo County’s schools now participate in a community eligibility option, meaning the poverty rate is high enough for every student to automatically receive free breakfast and lunch. Economic opportunity was elsewhere.

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here.”  

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here,” Duncan said.

Duncan, who is an area native, says as coal jobs continue to dwindle, access to new technology and programs gives kids the chance to see the opportunities outside the area in a way they haven’t been able to before.

One of the new programs Mingo County is leveraging is a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Through a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the CREATE Lab is expanding its Arts and Bots program into all Mingo County middle schools as well as Springdale Junior-Senior High School in Pennsylvania. Arts and Bots lets students build and program their own robots using a mix of robotic components, a visual programming tool, and traditional craft materials.

“It’s tough to show the kids, ‘Hey, you’re going to use this somewhere,’ when they’ve never seen that job,” Duncan says of making STEM skills seem applicable. “That’s why we’ve been pulling on the CREATE Lab and our other partners, because we want the kids to see what else is going on outside of this area.”

Geographic isolation, over mountains and sometimes even roads in need of repair, makes it harder for rural kids to get exposure to the types of careers Pittsburgh kids might see. But isolation and distance also make it tougher for teachers to be exposed to learning innovations.

One of the main resources for rural teachers is Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development, which provides a myriad of unique professional development opportunities. It’s also one of the CREATE Lab’s satellite locations, meaning it helps expand the lab’s projects into rural places.

Photo courtesy of Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco

“That technology from Pittsburgh is here in the coal fields of West Virginia, thanks to the funding that we’ve gotten so far. Otherwise, teachers would have never had the chance to be exposed to these things,” says Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco, a language and international studies specialist and CREATE Lab’s point person at the Harless Center. She recalls an Arts and Bots workshop where a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot because the equipment is so hands-on.

The Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University provides rural teachers support to help them incorporate the arts into different disciplines.  The center also partners with the Mattress Factory and the City Theatre to offer professional development and cover the expenses for field trips to their locations. However, those trips can take hours out of a school day, which is part of the motivation for also placing teaching artists in classrooms.

“I think it’s important to go to the schools and to the teachers as well as them coming to one of our partners or us,” says Lou Karas, director of Center for Arts and Education. “That’s really important when you’re talking about working in smaller, rural communities. You have to go both ways.”

Lynne Schrum, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University (WVU), also sees the importance of ensuring rural educators don’t have to travel hours to connect with high-quality resources. She has  developed a new program at WVU where education students return to their home county to student teach in their last year and submit their coursework electronically.

“It’s really important because some rural areas have trouble getting people to move there to be teachers, or speech pathologists, or counselors, because they don’t have roots there,” Schrum says. “So what we want to do is keep people in their home communities, doing as little up here in Morgantown as necessary, in order to have sustainable jobs and quality educators.”

It’s a prime example of how technology can bridge gaps across geography in a way that was never possible before. And Schrum adds these links are especially crucial for kids living in rural communities. It can open a whole new world for them.

“In a lot of rural West Virginia, people don’t have the possibility of seeing and visiting things, or exploring things in person that people in the city might have,” says Schrum. “But they can do all those things online. They can virtually see and experience things that were never possible before.”

At one workshop a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot.

Of course, to virtually see and learn, students need access to high speed internet, another hurdle for many rural families. Only 59 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to broadband service, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Commerce. Comparatively, the national average is 68 percent. Therefore, although every public school in the state is now equipped with broadband internet, digital learning can’t really live up to its potential if students lack high speed internet to continue with homework and projects at home.

“They’re going to an environment that’s digital, but they can’t necessarily extrapolate that if they go home and they don’t have access,” says John Ross, an EdTech consultant, researcher, and author who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document, it’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

Mike Green, vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education and head of its technology committee, sees expanding high-speed internet access into more rural homes as a top priority in making learning a seamless experience.

“The ultimate goal is to provide sufficient, broadband internet access to our children regardless of whether they’re in a brick-and-mortar school or they’re in their home or local library. The goal is to be able to provide 24-hour learning in the state,” Green says. He added that there are a number of possible long-term approaches to increasing access, including potentially partnering with local service providers or foundations to offer subsidies.

Plus, Schrum says being connected helps students see value in further education.

“I think that sometimes in rural counties, the idea of going to college doesn’t seem viable on multiple levels, emotionally, financially, purposefully,” says Schrum. “But as more and more jobs traditionally in rural areas disappear, like coal mining jobs for example, then we have to prepare those people for new careers that will allow them a full measure of a real quality life.”

Top photo/Jimmy Emerson