Rural Schools, Brain Drain And Community Survival

By Diette Courrégé Casey — September 12, 2011 2 min read
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Rural schools can be a source of unity or division in areas suffering from a depressed economy, according to a study, which looked at a small California community where schools even affected which students were encouraged to pursue higher education or not.

An article, Sending Off All Your Good Treasures: Rural Schools, Brain-Drain, and Community Survival in the Wake of Economic Collapse, published recently by the Journal of Research in Rural Education explores the role schools play in the “brain drain” phenomenon in one economically troubled rural community. The e-journal is peer-reviewed and available without subscription, and it’s part of the Center on Rural Education and Communities, at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education.

The 14-page article focused on a small, remote community in a forested area of California that saw a dramatic loss of jobs when a new law resulted in a ban on timber harvesting and closed local sawmills. Researchers call the area Golden Valley, a name chose to protect the area’s identity.

Authors Jennifer Sherman and Rayna Sage, of Washington State University, looked at the conflicting ways rural schools affected the community after an economic calamity, and they found the “moral and class divisions within the community are magnified and reproduced through the local school system, with results that may consign some young adults to a life outside of the community, and others to chronic economic insecurity.”

They gathered fodder for their research by having one of the article’s authors conduct 55 tape-recorded, semi-structured, in-depth interviews with native and long-time members of the community during 2003-04.

They found that education was viewed differently by residents depending on their perceived moral standing in the community. Those at the bottom of this hierarchy felt a sense of alienation from and hostility toward schools, while those on the other end saw education as the only path to future success and believed that meant having to leave Golden Valley.

Additionally, the article discussed how schools themselves often assumed the worst of children from the community’s most-challenged families and the opposite of those from families deemed more morally worthy. Thus, schools were not only agents of brain drain—the phenomenon by which the most talented rural residents leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere—but they also reinforced social boundaries between what are perceived as the morally upstanding and the morally degenerate poor.

This judgment of those who stay ultimately does little to improve future prospects for either group in Golden Valley and rural communities like it. Rather than actively pursuing economic opportunities for low-skilled jobs, those with more resources prefer to send their children away to invest in higher education, in the vague hopes that sentimental ties might someday lure them back to be rural teachers or public servants. While some do return, many more do not, and those who do come back seldom forget the sacrifices they make to be there. For those who return, the belief in the moral superiority of their choices helps them to justify the lowered incomes and economic struggles that life in the isolated, economically ravaged community generally entails (Sherman, 2006, 2009). This moral stance also fuels the battle over the meaning of education, however, resulting in the perpetuation of social divides as the next generation of educated adults filters back home to scorn their peers who never left."

The paper included some interesting statistics on which rural residents stay versus those who leave. For example, college graduates make up 16 percent of rural residents who stay in their communities, compared to 43 percent of those who leave. Those with a high school diploma or less make up nearly two-thirds of adults who stay in rural communities, according to the article.

Rural students’ college going rates is a big issue nationally right now, and this article offered some worthwhile insight into how factors beyond income and class—factors such as moral status as determined by community perceptions—heavily influence the way students are treated in school and the likelihood of their pursuit of higher education in the wake of economic hardship.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.