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What’s Happening in Rural America

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

As originally reported by the Atlantic, Fentress County, Tennessee sits a stone’s throw south of the Kentucky border. It’s a relatively small town - with a population just over 18,000. But what it lacks in human capita, it makes up for in countryside. The area is illustrated with winding creeks, rolling plains and lush forests.

But Fentress County is deceptive. The landscape may exude abundance from the outside, but it is not symbolic of the widespread poverty, limited opportunities and low college-attendance rates plaguing its inhabitants.

Rural school systems make up more than half of the nation’s operating school districts

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, rural school systems make up more than half of the nation’s operating school districts. So, why is it then that most educators and pundits focus their attention on urban centers? There is no denying that problems permeate both, but it can be argued that the conversation has been greatly one-sided for quite some time.

Fentress County is a symbol of the education system in rural America. It is not alone in its struggles. In 2015, the Southern Education Foundation found that a majority of school children attending public schools come from low-income families. This means that these students are more likely to come to school hungry, may not have computers or Internet access, and may be homeless or lacking medical care. These issues exist across urban, suburban and rural areas - and the repercussions are serious for all.

Students are more likely to come to school hungry, may not have Internet access, and may be homeless or lacking medical care

But when compared to their urban peers, students in rural areas are less likely to attend college. Part of this is because families simply don’t have enough money. In Fentress County, almost 40 percent of children live in poverty, and, according to former President Obama’s administration, it’s one of 301 rural counties (compared to 52 non-rural ones) that suffer from “persistent poverty.” This means the poverty rates have been above 20 percent in every census since 1980.

Another reason for this low-attendance rate is because, historically, students didn’t have to obtain a college degree to get a job. Previous generations could more easily find work in factories or agriculture. This is why just over 74 percent of Fentress County residents only have a high-school diploma. Only around 10 percent have a bachelors degree or higher.

But times have changed. Many of the jobs that had once sustained older generations are not making good on their promise to those coming after them. Coal mines are dying out, logging and paper manufacturers have shut down, and farmers are struggling to compete with corporate agribusiness. According to AdvancED, if you aren’t working in a school or a hospital, the biggest job market is your local Walmart.

The biggest job market is the local Walmart

So, what does this mean for Fentress County and other rural communities? Sadly, it means that the most educated and talented young people will flee as soon as possible. They will run to urban centers, which have been growing by 2 million people a year. This happens while rural populations continue to decline. It’s a brain drain. And you can’t blame them. If we do not have enough to satiate the appetite of the most hungry and capable among them, they will escape to places that nurture their ever-growing ambitions.

How does Education Unbound plan to solve this?

Education Unbound is building up STEAM in Education in rural American. The importance of creativity in the workforce and life is persisting, thus exposing students to hands-on learning to think critically and creatively, and allowing to them apply essential content knowledge in meaningful ways to gain the focus on higher-order thinking skills. Not every child needs to grow up to become a scientist, engineer, or designer, but every should know how to think like one. With STEAM, the world where "Every Student Succeeds" will not be just an aspiration.

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