Student Well-Being

For Students in Coal Country, the Census Is a Hands-On Civics Lesson

By Evie Blad — November 12, 2019 | Corrected: November 13, 2019 8 min read
Ethan Pugh, center, an 11th grade student at Jackson at Jackson Independent Schools works with fellow eastern Kentucky students during "create-a-thon," an exercise to help get the word out to communities about the importance of the upcoming US Census.
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Corrected: This article originally misnamed Emma Thornsberry’s county. It is Knott County.

Pikeville, Ky.

Ask Emma Thornsberry how she knows that the population of her rural community has changed in recent years, and she’ll point to tree branches arching over the roads.

Tall trucks used to carry loads of coal from nearby mines, snapping off limbs as they barreled past.

But some of those mines have closed, taking jobs, truck traffic, and workers with them, and leaving the branches to grow unhindered.

“It’s very hard not to notice,” said Emma, a junior at Knott Central High School in Knott County.

Students in eastern Kentucky Appalachia are very aware of the economic and population shifts that have reshaped their area. And now their schools are enlisting them to put that knowledge to work, by ensuring that every person who calls their communities home is counted in the 2020 census.

The census is used to allot funding for more than 300 federal programs, including many that are crucial to schools, like the National School Lunch Program, Title I grants for high-poverty schools, and the Head Start early-education programs. Districts also use population data to set attendance boundaries and to plan for future enrollment growth—or loss.

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Getting an accurate head count is crucial for Knott County. It’s part of a cluster of eastern Kentucky counties that the U.S. Census Bureau designates as “hard to count” because of a variety of cultural and economic factors: blended families where stepparents may be unsure of which children to account for, older residents, and people who may be distrusting of government employees, like those who go door-to-door collecting census information.

Schools, nonprofit organizations, and census officials have turned to students to help prevent an undercount, involving them in outreach, messaging efforts, and civics lessons that draw on population data from the past to show its importance for the future of the region.

And it’s not just a make-work exercise. Community groups said they hoped students’ creativity and enthusiasm could help lead them to solutions. Throughout the school year, students will record mass voicemail messages about the Census, volunteer to spread information about it at community events, and produce “myth-busting” public-service announcements to spread on Facebook and other social media.

Hard-to-Count Groups

At the national level, much of the concern about undercounts has focused on a Trump administration plan to add a question about citizenship to the census questionnaire. Advocates feared that the widely reported attempt would have a chilling effect on immigrant participation. And, while the administration abandoned those plans after a lengthy court battle, those fears remain.

But a number of other population groups are also hard to count: people who don’t speak English, tribal groups, residents of rural areas, disabled people, and renters. The most undercounted population? Children under the age of 5, a crucial population for schools. Children ages 5-9 are the second most undercounted group. Officials also are concerned about older populations, particularly in rural Appalachia, who lack adequate internet access, because 2020 is the first year residents will be encouraged to complete Census forms online.

Nesreen Khashan of the United State Census leads a group of eastern Kentucky high school students in a 'create-a-thon," project-learning exercise to spread the message of the importance of the 2020 census.

“Research shows that low-income folks are more likely to be missed in the census, and yet those are the exact folks who are relying on these programs. We are leaving money on the table with these undercounts,” said Amy Swann, a senior policy analyst with Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit organization that is working with groups in Kentucky to encourage participation.

To better reach population groups, Census officials hold “create-a-thon” events around the country, asking participants to put themselves in the shoes of hard-to-count populations. After working to understand those groups’ concerns, participants craft messages to address them, producing rough cellphone videos, posters, and internet memes designed to appeal to targeted demographic groups. But those events typically enlist adult creative professionals and community activists.

‘We All Count’

But at an October brainstorming session here in Pikeville, the focus was on students. Juniors from 22 eastern Kentucky school districts spread out over 16 rural counties met to discuss why some populations don’t get counted. In the audience, officials from the Census Bureau’s national office outside of Washington listened carefully as teenagers shared insights about their neighbors, teachers, and the kids who ride the bus home with them along winding roads cut into hillsides.

The students who serve on a regional student government formed through the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative heard about how urgent the undercount concern was for their region.

Teaching About the Census

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistics in Schools program provides resources for Census-centered lessons in a variety of school subjects, including math, English, history, and geography. The agency also created specific activities for pre-kindergarten students, English-language learners, and students in Puerto Rico and island areas.

While the state’s overall population increased by 10.2 percent from 2000 to 2017, the population in the educational cooperative’s service area decreased by 11.4 percent over the same time period. And U.S. Census officials estimate about 12,500 children under 5 were excluded from Kentucky’s official 2010 count, Michelle Elison, a partnership specialist with the Census Bureau, told the students.

Population data is used to make hard decisions in rural areas where resources are scarce, Kim Sergent, a social studies instructional specialist with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, told the students. She asked if anyone lost the 911 dispatcher in their county. Five hands went up. Had they seen a fire station close, lengthening response times in a crisis? Even more hands went up.

“You guys have lived this,” Sergent said. “What happened 10 years ago has greatly impacted your lives.”

Without prompting from adults, the students quickly zeroed in on factors that might keep their neighbors from participating.

Some kids “jump around” from aunt, to mother, to grandmother’s house, they said. Should a grandmother count her daughter and grandchild?

Much of the youth undercount was from families that turned in the census form but left off a child, Swann said. Eastern Kentucky has one of the country’s highest rates of kinship care—children in custody of nonparental relatives—and some adults are confused about who to count as part of their household.

The students quickly pulled up an old photo cast of “Full House,” a 1990s sitcom about a blended family that included a father, his three daughters, his friend, and his brother-in-law’s family living under one roof. all living under one roof. “We all count,” they typed at the top of the image.

And they shared other concerns adults hadn’t considered, like people in group recovery homes, foster children, and families without reliable transportation to areas with internet connections.

Many in the region, even those who haven’t worked in the energy industry, are quick to blame federal regulations for the decline of coal jobs, said Ethan Pugh, a junior at Jackson Independent School District. That attitude might make them resistant to participate in a federal program like the census, he said.

“They blame the government for the hardships they’ve had in life,” he said. “They feel like it just takes things away.”

It may be easier to reach that group through word of mouth from people they trust, Ethan said. He suggested making ads that target their kids and grandkids.

Census Into the Curriculum

The census work is part of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative’s regional strategy to engage students in civic-oriented, place-based learning projects that help them cast a vision for Kentucky’s future and—hopefully—to see themselves as a part of it.

“It’s about access and opportunities for students,” said Jeff Hawkins, the organization’s director. “Every community has its own challenge. We don’t focus on challenges, we just focus on trying to solve them.”

One of the ideas that eastern Kentucky students came up with during "create-a-thon," an exercise to help get the word out to communities about the importance of the upcoming US Census.

In some districts, students learn construction skills by building tiny homes, some of which they’ve sold to county organizations as transitional housing for people recovering from opioid addiction. Other students have learned to pilot drones, code websites, and operate coffee shops that serve as a gathering space for the public.

“We try to look at it with an open mind and see how we can improve things,” said Ava Dixon, a junior in Hazard County. “We are not saying the future is bleak.”

At an October meeting of teachers from other districts in the cooperative, Harlan County 6th grade teacher Debbie Napier told colleagues how her class used historical census data to create a “virtual field trip” to Lynch, Ky., once known as the “Cadillac of coal towns.”

Laying data about major historical events next to population figures, students identified points of interest that they marked with codes that visitors could scan with their mobile phones for more information.The students learned about the 180 coal camps that used to dot the hillsides around their community, the segregated shower houses men used before returning home for the evening, the immigrant workers who were recruited directly at Ellis Island, the roads that were built by the U.S. Steel Company, which needed the coal to support its production.

Napier said she wanted to build a sense of pride in the community, which has declined from more than 10,000 residents at its peak to fewer than 1,000 today.

“For a while, you didn’t go more than a few weeks without losing a family,” Napier said.

And when she discussed the census, she’d emphasize its significance today, reminding them that “If you live with Granny, make sure she marks you down.”

In Magoffin County, where enrollment has dropped from about 3,000 students to about 2,000 students in the last 20 years, administrators have met with teachers about incorporating the census into their lesson plans as the school year rolls into March, when households will start receiving invitations to complete the surveys.

The aim is to have students bring those classroom conversations to the dinner table and the forefront of their parents’ minds, Superintendent Scott Helton said.

It’s a strategy that’s also promoted by the federal Census Bureau, which has produced classroom materials for teachers.

Magoffin County students will also volunteer to sit at census information tables at high school basketball games, and schools plan to set up computers in school cafeterias so that residents without internet access can have an easy way to fill out the form.

“We’re hoping that we get these students to buy into trying to help their community,” Helton said. “It won’t just benefit the school, but it will benefit the entire region.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as In Appalachia, Census Offers Hands-On Lesson in Civics


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