How to Rewrite a Region's Story

In one of the poorest areas of the country, public schools are driving economic transformation.
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A few miles northwest of downtown Hazard, Kentucky, the headquarters of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative sits at the end of a bumpy road that offers visitors a tour of Appalachia's ills. There's the pain clinic locals refer to as a "pill mill." There's the small addiction-recovery facility next door to a dental clinic. And then there's the incongruously lavish medical office—complete with white Grecian columns, ornate statues, and an elaborate fountain—that has sat vacant ever since its proprietors, a doctor and his wife, were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2014 on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal distribution of a controlled substance, and health-care fraud. KVEC is housed in a one-story redbrick and metal-sided building that's also home to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment program, a workforce agency tasked with retraining former coal miners.

Despite its inauspicious surroundings, KVEC, under the banner of the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, is on a mission to transform not just the local school system but the region's entire economic future. For residents of eastern Kentucky, who are currently suffering through the profound economic dislocation wrought by the coal industry's dramatic decline, such a transformation can't come soon enough. Between 2000 and 2015, the amount of coal produced in eastern Kentucky declined by 74 percent. Employment in the industry has exhibited precipitous declines as well; coal employment in the state is now barely half of what it was in 1927.

KVEC (pronounced Kay-Veck) provides supplemental services and support to 22 rural school districts in the area. In the past, the organization has served as both a local coordinator for statewide initiatives on things like workforce readiness, and as a sort of super-charged PTA, providing the kinds of "extras" that poor, rural districts generally can't fund on their own—school safety and violence prevention workshops, for example.

About 10 years ago, however, the staff of the organization started to think more broadly about the challenges facing the region. Jeff Hawkins, KVEC's executive director and a native of the region, says that the shift was driven by a simple question. "We asked ourselves: What are the key elements that we need to put in place to rewrite the educational narrative in Appalachia?" explains Hawkins, a tall man with snow-white hair who speaks every word thoughtfully. "We recognized the fact that, in order to have excellent education, it's important to have a vibrant, growing economy; and to have a vibrant, growing economy, it's important to have excellent education."

Fixing education in coal country would require a tectonic shift. In 2013 the small organization was awarded a $30 million Race to the Top grant from the Department of Education. Since then, KVEC has launched a massive effort to ensure that students graduate high school prepared for a future that has everything to do with technology and little to do with the fading coal mines that still dot the landscape. Classrooms in KVEC's member districts are now equipped with next-generation technologies: Students are learning to build drones, competing in advanced robotics competitions, and designing video games. More than 500 kids across eastern Kentucky today are enrolled in computer science classes. At one school, approximately 20 percent of students are currently enrolled in digital learning classes.

But KVEC's goal is larger than just improving the economic prospects of individual students; it's trying to pioneer an approach that uses the public K-12 school system to leverage the development of a technology industry in Appalachia. The organization recently purchased a sophisticated 3-D virtual reality system and works closely with Drone Port USA, a local project to establish a state-of-the-art drone testing and research facility in the region.

The leaders of KVEC hope for two things. The first is that a technically competent workforce and a sophisticated, high-quality school system, combined with strategic investments in facilities and resources, will attract modern industries to the region. The second is that at least some of the students who are learning how to code, build drones, and design video games today will remain in, or return to, the region to start businesses of their own and help rewrite eastern Kentucky's story over time.

"Part of our work is driven by the realization that we need to own our own story," Hawkins says. "We want to broaden the opportunities for work to take place here and create a vibrancy of life in this community that will lead to people not wanting to leave ... but that will also invite others to move here."

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On my second day in eastern Kentucky, I visited one of KVEC's schools in Belfry, a small town on the border with West Virginia. If the daunting economic transformation that KVEC is attempting to engineer is to succeed, students at schools like Belfry will play a key role.

Belfry High School sits at the base of several densely forested hills. On the gorgeous, sunny mid-October day that I visited, they are just beginning to blaze with fall color. Inside, halfway down a white-tiled hallway, Haridas Chandran's students are hard at work discussing how to program an 18-inch-tall robot to lead the residents of a local senior living facility in a game of Bingo. By the end of the school year, the team hopes to use the lab's 3-D printer extensions to give the robot arms and legs.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

In the center of the cavernous lab, an enormous wind tunnel stretches halfway across the width of the room. Chandran's students are using the tunnel to test different wing designs. Next to the wind tunnel sits a flight simulator station. Students at Belfry, like many in the region, will graduate high school knowing how to build and operate a drone.

At the front of the lab, Austin Dillon, a 17-year-old senior, tinkers with a robot that the school's robotics team built for a contest last year. Per the competition's rules, the robot was built in an intense six-week period, during which Chandran and his students worked on the machine day and night to ensure it could complete the required tasks.

"The kids work on it on weekends, snow days, every single day," says Chandran, a friendly, enthusiastic man with a sly sense of humor. "They stay and work on it until 10 p.m. at night."

"I can tell you about any part of the robot," Dillon says politely as he fiddles with the machine's router. "Ask me anything." With Dillon at the controls, the machine shoots whiffle balls out of a compartment on its front and climbs up a strap that Chandran holds high in the air.

Chandran—a native of Chennai, India—is hopeful that at least some of his students will someday use what they've learned in his lab to tackle some of the region's problems. "The kids can come back and start their own company here," he says. "We should have been doing this a long time ago."

Before I left Chandran's lab, Paul Green, who leads many of KVEC's economic development initiatives, introduced me to Stephanie Younger, the computer science teacher at Belfry. Younger, who's 30 and has curly brown hair, was working as a math teacher at Belfry when KVEC first sent an email to its member districts seeking instructors interested in computer science. She had also worked as a teacher trainer for Microsoft, and trained teachers all around the country in computer science instruction for Code.org. Today, she's tasked with developing and piloting KVEC's computer science curriculum for the entire region. In addition to introductory and Advanced Placement computer science classes, students at Belfry can now take a video game design class.

I asked Younger, whose husband grew up in Belfry, if she thinks her computer science students can serve as a source of economic reinvention for eastern Kentucky. "We keep producing these kids," she told me. "And they want to come home."

When I returned to Hazard later that afternoon, a group of video game developers from Lexington had set up shop in the trailer/innovation lab in KVEC's parking lot. They were receiving training in how to use the new virtual reality system. Green's hope is that the system, which is more sophisticated than any other in the state, will continue to lure game developers to the region to serve as mentors and potential employers for KVEC students.

"Place is important, but workforce is important too," Green told me. "Looking at the real long game here, we in eastern Kentucky could soon be able to say, 'We have 200 kids who are proficient in this technology.'"

Green is a lanky, bald man in his forties who was born and raised in tiny Owsley, Kentucky, in a county best known for being one of America's poorest. When he talks about his economic development work for KVEC, it's with a sense of cautious optimism.

"We have to have hope, we have to think that we can shift things here," he told me. "If we could attract one person here to be successful, it can help."

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A few weeks before I visited eastern Kentucky, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, traveled with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to Hazard to announce that the Trump administration would repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. "It's good for eastern Kentucky to hear that, right?" Pruitt asked a crowd of applauding civic and business leaders in Hazard. "No better place to make that announcement than in Hazard, Kentucky."

The event was invitation-only and not heavily publicized, so, with the exception of KVEC staffers, few of the people I met in Hazard were even aware that Pruitt had been to town, or that the Clean Power Plan had been repealed. The news didn't seem to convince anyone that the coal industry was about to come roaring back.

"We've always had these booms and busts," says Sherry Spradlin, the owner of a bed and breakfast in Hazard who grew up in the region and whose father was a coal miner. "But it's just never going to be the way it was."

Hopes were even lower among the young people I met. Not one of the students I spoke to at Belfry or the other schools I visited expressed a desire to ever work in the coal industry. Austin Dillon wants to go to Columbia University and be a corporate lawyer. Others told me they wanted to be engineers, or nurse practitioners, or diplomats. Stephanie Younger, the computer science teacher at Belfry, told me that most students don't think coal is coming back.

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On the wall of KVEC's conference room, there's a doomsday clock that counts down the days, hours, and minutes remaining in the Race to the Top grant—it's meant to remind everyone of the imperative to use every last minute, and every last cent, of the grant as productively as possible. Dessie Bowling, the associate director for KVEC, says that the organization has gone to great lengths to make its investments sustainable. The teachers they've trained, the curriculums they've designed, and the technology they've purchased will all remain in the region's classrooms.

"The goal is that, when this thing is over, we have really built capacity," Bowling says.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to imagine that the organization won't struggle when the funding disappears. Chuck Fluharty, the president of the Rural Policy Research Institute and a member of KVEC's advisory board, hopes that philanthropic organizations, as well as any new industry that emerges, will fill in funding gaps. It seems a reasonable hope: KVEC has already received funding from the Gates Foundation, both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have visited, and Paul Green was selected to be featured at the Obama Foundation's inaugural summit.

While the results of a formal, rigorous evaluation of KVEC's Race to the Top efforts won't be available until next fall, preliminary evidence suggests that KVEC is improving students' prospects. Average graduation rates among the 17 KVEC member districts that are being tracked as part of the grant have increased by 4.2 percentage points since 2014 (nearly double the 2.2 percentage point increase in the state), even as the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches has increased.

But it's too soon to tell if KVEC's efforts will bear fruit. "It takes about a generation to transition, and [KVEC has] put the wedge in the tree perfectly in the school system," says Fluharty when asked if he thinks KVEC's efforts to remake the region will succeed. "It took 200 years for the Appalachian Mountains to become fully subservient to coal, and coming out of that simply does take time."

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

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