A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Eastern Ky. superintendents advance education a catalyst for economic and community revitalization

By Ron Daley and John White
Special to NKyTribune

More than 20 superintendents and the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) presented a “call-to-action” position paper to state leaders February 12 urging them to support a set of research-based solutions and policy recommendations in order to better serve disadvantaged rural students and improve the regional economy.

Citing dramatic worsening demographics in Appalachian Kentucky, the school leaders declared the need for innovative, grassroots, citizen-engaged strategies to leverage public education to revitalize their local economies in ways that can be replicated statewide and serve as a national model for communities throughout rural America.

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“We believe high-performing schools anchor thriving communities and high-performing school districts are an advantage in economic development. Progress in public education and economic development is dependent upon one another and our region’s growth has benefits for the entire state,” said Scott Helton, Magoffin County Public Schools Superintendent and Chairman of the KVEC Board of Directors.

The educators made the announcement and distributed their report during a press conference in the State Capitol Rotunda, where more than 300 students and educators from 22 school districts in the KVEC region showcased their classroom innovations on the mezzanine.

The superintendents from Magoffin County, Owsley County, Lawrence County, Paintsville Independent in Johnson County, and Jenkins Independent in Letcher County, described the report’s findings to the audience which including several members of the Kentucky General Assembly. The four legislators who spoke in by-partisan spirit concerning the report were Sen. Brandon Smith (Republican – Hazard), Sen Johnny Ray Turner (Democrat – McDowell), Rep. John Blanton (Republican- Salyersville), and Rep. Angie Hatton (Democrat – Whitesburg).

The report is available online www.theholler.org and offers a regional perspective based upon the belief that every community possesses unique assets, and strong alignment and collaboration across all boundaries (geographic, education, agency, government, civic and workforce) is necessary to make the region stronger.

Regional Data

The report presents demographics on a trajectory more challenging than most citizens and state leaders realize. While eastern Kentucky counties have experienced a steady population decline since 1941 and significant surges in population loss during the 1950s, 1960s and 1990s (U.S. Census reports 1950-2010), the dramatic loss of coal jobs in recent years added alarming consequences.

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According to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s quarterly coal report (energy.ky.gov), there were 14,301 coal jobs in eastern Kentucky in the third quarter of 2011. That number declined to 3,851 coal jobs in the third quarter of 2018, a net loss of 10,450 jobs in the eastern Kentucky coalfields in seven years.

East Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), the regional Workforce Investment Board, serves all 17 KVEC counties in its region. EKCEP recorded 34,539 fewer people working from June 2012 to September 2018 and lost 47,421 people from the labor force in the 23-county area. The state of Kentucky saw an increase of 84,935 people working and added 80,117 to its labor force during this same time frame according to the Kentucky Center for Statistics, 2012-2018.

The state population increased by 10.2 percent during this time, while county populations in the KVEC service area decreased by 11.4 percent.

Poverty rates for youth 17 and younger have increased 25.9 percent in the region since 1999 even though the national rate declined by 18 percent in the same time frame according to US Census reports for 1999 and 2017. The poverty level in the KVEC region is 31.3 percent compared to the state at 18.3 percent. The poverty level in the KVEC region is 31.3 percent compared to the state at 18.3 percent.

The region is consistently rated as “unhealthy.” According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Ranking 2018, all KVEC districts reside in counties in the top 25 unhealthy counties. According to 2018 Kentucky county health index the KVEC counties ranked near the bottom in “Quality of Life,” and are in frequent “physical and mental distress,” higher than the state average in diabetes prevalence, and considerably higher in teen births, smoking usage, youth dental and disabilities’ issues, and cancer rates while having more challenges to accessing quality health care.

Kentucky had the nation’s fifth highest overdose rate between 2012 and 2016 led by counties in the KVEC region. In 2018, three counties in eastern Kentucky ranked in the top 10 most prescribing counties in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The opioid epidemic has compelled grandparents and great-grandparents into guardian roles for school-age children. Other factors, including addictive behaviors other than opioids, parents working outside the community, parents in jail and parental mental/emotional health, have contributed to an increase in the number of grandparents identified as the primary caregiver for school-age children. In the KVEC region, nearly 10.5 percent of children were being raised by grandparents in households where parents were not present in comparison to 6.0 percent of children statewide between 2013-2017. (American Community Survey five-year estimates)

Districts in the KVEC region are high poverty, low income, rural and remote according to federal definitions. While the percentage of rural students in the U.S. qualifying for free and reduced-price meals is 48.2 percent, the average free and reduced-price meals rate for the KVEC region is 73.5 percent. The free and reduced-price meals rate for the region using the School and Community Nutrition Qualifying Data from 2018-2019 based on need and qualification is 96.10%.

Based on current conditions, a child born today in nine Kentucky counties has a life expectancy 8-9 years greater than a child born in three KVEC service areas.

Considerations to address the regional challenges

School district enrollment trends have mirrored population declines across the KVEC Region. The districts have collectively lost 14,314 k-12 students since 2000, this change represents a 22.7 percent decrease in population – meaning districts have lost more than two of every ten students from their schools since the year 2000. (Click for larger image)

In the Way Forward section, the superintendents call on state leaders at all levels to generate a practical, results-driven strategy for eastern Kentucky’s future. They also suggest four actions state leaders can take this legislative session to begin constructing a framework for progress in the region:

• Establish the first “Rural Edu-conomy Zone” in the nation, where school districts and community partners (public and private) work together to establish a vision for the future and strategic plan focused on increasing economic and community vitality;

• Create a Rural Futuring Workgroup charged with leading efforts associated with the Rural Edu-conomy Zone. The workgroup would explore and present an array of opportunities and initiatives to foster a collaborative environment between public schools and the communities they serve with the express purpose of intentionally connecting schools and communities in a joint mission to increase economic vitality and elevate the quality of life;

• Create an Education Equity Team to develop an education equity assessment to explore changes in policy and legislation to ensure academic equity for all students;

• Publicly communicate a “Declaration of Commitment” involving all levels of state and local government to achieve a national top-10 ranking for Kentucky’s K-12 public education system within 10 years.

Overall, the report incorporates a broad range of components and measures demonstrating the complexity and ever-evolving nature of eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian ecosystem of remote rural public schools and communities in seven sections:

• Imperative to Act points out the urgency to invest in efforts to retain our region’s talented young people, increase our ability to provide equitable quality learning opportunities for all students, significantly impact economic development and contribute to community vitality.

• Regional Demographics and Trend Data provides macro trend data to illustrate current conditions in the region covering a broad range of indicators impacting education, work, quality of life and community vitality. Information is presented without implication, leaving the process of inference to the reader.

• Learning Resources explores the range and complexity of learning resources available in school districts and providing an overview of where finite, often formulaic resources originate and opportunity gaps exist. This section examines equal and equitable access to opportunities for all students regardless of their zip code.

• Teaching and Leading reinforce research demonstrating that one of the most critical components of an education system is the quality of people leading the learning process and the people who support their continuing growth and improvement. This section examines educator preparation, certification, professional learning and retention of effective teachers and school leaders.

• Measuring and Improving examines the assessment and accountability system Kentucky public school districts must operate within. This section provides a historical context for assessment and accountability in the state and poses questions relevant to each system’s ability to achieve equity across all districts and for all learners.

• A Way Forward is a call-to-action strongly advocating for lawmakers to take action during this legislative session and in the future by supporting recommendations in this report to make public education the catalyst for economic and community development. Considerations on how schools and districts can accelerate student learning and be vital parts of a solution to enhance the quality of life and contribute to overall economic and community vitality are offered for deliberation and as a launchpad for expanded work.

• Exceptional Practice examines exemplary education initiatives currently underway in our region. School district leaders are breaking new ground in public education with innovative initiatives, strategic partnerships and community challenges having positive impacts on academic performance and collaborations throughout our region, contributing to economic vitality and improving the quality of life in communities.

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Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative is a nationally recognized non-profit educational service agency serving Appalachian Kentucky since 1969. KVEC provides support and services to 22 eastern Kentucky School districts, 134 schools, and nearly 50,000 students in an economically distressed region larger than the state of Connecticut.

Ron Daley is the strategic partner lead for KVEC.

John White is the former deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2013) and owner of JLW Communications LLC.

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