Re-thinking Education: Focus on University Students Comes at Expense of Everyone Else

Every child deserves a chance at a college education, but does every child need one? It’s not a popular question to ask in policy circles, but it’s one that one author argues must be asked if we’re going to keep America’s small towns alive.

To write Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, authors Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent a year in a small Iowa town to discover why America’s small towns are dying – and how to save them.

Populations are dwindling and aging, and young people are fleeing small towns in droves, a problem Door County has faced in extremes.

Sevastopol Junior High and High School principal chats with students between classes.

Kefalas and Carr’s book became largely a critique of an American educational system increasingly centered on what he calls Achievers, those on the path to college, at the expense of Stayers, those who will enter the workforce or local technical colleges.

“Our educational resources and collective community resources are allocated to people who are likely to leave and not come back at the expense of those who will stay,” Carr told me. “The Stayers are the most overlooked resource and have the most potential to help these small towns, yet, relative to the Acheivers, we do so little for them.”

In essence, our communities invest the fewest resources in those who have the potential to be our neighbors, our town board members, and our local business owners.

“It’s not a bad thing to help people go out and achieve things, but to do it at the expense of everyone else is wrong,” Carr says. “To say, ‘the rest of you just go get a job’ is not acceptable.”

Carr says schools must incorporate more apprenticeship and mentoring programs and think of things that can be useful for those not bound for college.

“It’s not a bad thing to help people go out and achieve things, but to do it at the expense of everyone else is wrong. To say, ‘the rest of you just go get a job’ is not acceptable.” ~ Patrick Carr, author of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America

“Can we re-imagine how we teach people?” he asks. “This doesn’t need to detract from achievers. Schools must go to companies and say, ‘what do you need?”

Sevastopol High School principle Adam Baier says they’re doing just that.

“When we develop our vocational programming, we ask ‘What does our community need? What can our community support?’” he says. “We try to create programs that support our local industries, like construction.”

He cites the Door Kewaunee Business and Education Partnership (DKBEP) as a great example of schools teaming up with the business community to provide great learning experiences and career exposure for students.

“That’s a partnership between schools and the community that’s really valuable,” he said.

The partnership gives high school students an opportunity to begin learning trades and technical skills. The program is managed by Tara LeClair, a 1996 graduate of Sevastopol High School who recognizes the gap the college-prep focus can create.

“Each year about 350 high school students graduate in Door County,” LeClair explains. “Maybe 150 – 200 go to four-year colleges. That leaves a large number of students for which we don’t know what we’re doing for them in school and after graduation.”

“Fifty percent of those college students drop out,” she continues. “Where do they go? These kids need to be addressed. That’s the time that they really need to be approached.”

The DKBEP was started to create awareness about careers that impact Door County the most and create skilled programs with on-the-job-training. It features the High School Home Construction Program, now in its third year. The program gives 12 – 15 area high school students 43 weeks of training building a home as part of their school day. Eighty-five percent of first-year participants moved on to local construction employment or continued their education in the field.

The partnership also offers a high school Certified Nursing Assistant program in cooperation with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in addition to job shadows, business tours, youth career awareness programs.

“These programs give them the confidence that they have these skills and they’re not novices when they’re searching for a job,” LeClair says.

Finding A Path

Baier said Sevastopol’s faculty works hard to make sure they create a connection with each student, not just those on the university track.

“We try to get to know our kids on a personal level,” he says. “Each teacher has 10-12 students that they mentor, that they talk to at least once a week.”

Sevastopol’s high school enrollment will drop to about 175 students next year, down from 211 this year. That creates financial and programming challenges, but Baier says Sevastopol is a great small school in part because of the personal relationships that he and the faculty can forge with students.

“I feel fortunate that I can pair a teacher with a student and know that teacher is going to be there for that student for four years,” he says. “They can check on their grades, guide them, and just be there to put their hand on the student’s shoulder and tell them ‘you’re doing a good job.’ We have a diverse population. We can’t have just one goal or mission. We want to push kids to reach their potential, certainly, but we have to serve everybody. We can’t solely be college prep. We don’t want any kids to fall through the cracks.”

Guidance Counselor Melissa Malcore said her focus is to help each student find their best post-high school fit, while keeping their options open if they change their mind.

“We want to make sure students have the path available to get where you want to go,” she says. “I don’t think we push our kids to go to college, but we do try to push them to do the best in whatever they are interested in doing.”

Last year, Sevastopol sent 51 percent of its seniors to four-year colleges, and 38 percent enrolled in a two-year program. Just 11 percent entered the workforce.

But getting students into college and preparing them to succeed when they’re on campus or on the job are two different things, and Carr says schools don’t do enough work to measure the latter. Sevastopol does not have statistics showing how many students earn a degree once they enter college, but Malcore says she is working on developing a survey of recent graduates to do just that in the near future.

“You have to judge if the outcomes are actually good outcomes,” Carr says. “This push to standardization is all about the test scores, and we’re not asking if they are learning anything that’s of use. Are they in a job where they’re skilled, productive, and actually happy? We need to step back from judgment based on test scores and college entrance.”

“Every parent wants their kid to go to college,” says Bill Chaudoir, Executive Director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation. “But we all have some friends that really struggled in high school that are doing fantastic now because they’re doing something they love and are skilled at. But unfortunately it’s not viewed as a victory for us or our schools if we can funnel students to a good job or a two-year degree, and we have to get past that thinking.”

There’s little incentive to change that thinking. School funding and evaluation was tethered even more tightly to test scores and college prep when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Reputations and funding are not won with vocational programs and career-readiness programming.

The current national mindset toward education, says Door County Administrator Mike Serpe, “is not in the long-term best interests of small-town America.”

“We say ‘College good, everything else not as good,’” he explains. “But if the over-riding focus of going to school is to get education and skills that preclude you from getting a good job and staying here, places like Door County are going to lose to places like Chicago and Minneapolis and Madison.”

And as long as it continues, Carr says small town America’s greatest export, will continue to be its best young people.

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