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Education in Appalachia

Taking Flight: Coalfield Students Have High Hopes for Drone Industry Jobs



Student teams from across the coalfields of eastern Kentucky came together at the Knott County Sportsplex, bringing with them drones that they themselves had built. It was time for the climax of this year-long project. A basketball court had been separated with nets, and padded gates marked a circuit course for the little flying machines.

Seth Hatfield was one of dozens thumbing the joysticks on a remote control, and making last minute adjustments to four colorful propellers on top of a machine that had taken a full school year of teamwork to build. It was time for the drone race.

The Ohio Valley has a long history as a leader in aerospace engineering and the economically struggling communities of eastern Kentucky are hoping drones will be a part of the region’s future.

Factories in eastern Kentucky already produce parts for military and civilian aircraft, and local universities offer strong training programs. Nearby Morehead State University is known for tiny satellites that students design.

Paul Green is the Appalachian Technology Initiative for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a cooperative of eastern Kentucky school districts. When he went to visit Morehead State with other educators, professors there told him that while they have plenty of students who are academically strong, few arrive at the university prepared to actually do the work of building satellites.

Inspired by a drone racing TV show, Green and his colleagues decided to use their grant funding to purchase drone kits that student teams would have to assemble and then learn how to race around a course.

Students weren’t provided much in the way of instructions.

“It’s project-based learning in its true form,” Green said. “You’ve got to figure this out.”

A Rising Industry

There’s a growing possibility that the skill set of building drones could prepare students not just for college, but also for finding a good job close to home, and helping to grow a new industry.

USA Drone Port is a new initiative that has launched as a collaboration between the Hazard Community and Technical College and a wide variety of local partners. The group kicked into gear after the Trump Administration announced it was looking to fund drone testing grounds, and issued a call for proposals.


USA Drone Port didn’t end up winning that grant but it has been making strides all the same. It received a donation of 50 acres of land at an old strip mine on the Knott-Perry county line, and now has funding to build its first structure on the site. Several local drone businesses have already been launched, and the drone port’s training events have taught drone basics to people across Kentucky. Visitors from across the country have come to learn how drones can be used as an aid in police work and search and rescue efforts, among other areas.

Bart Massey, director of USA Drone Port, said that drone companies working in urban areas often have to travel for hours to reach unrestricted airspace where they can test their machines, and then hours back to their offices to make changes.

Airspace in this corner of rural eastern Kentucky has fewer limitations, so Massey can pitch the drone port as a place where businesses can test, build, and tweak all in one place. He said he’s hearing from companies that are interested in relocating to eastern Kentucky to take advantage of the drone port’s offerings.


Similar initiatives are budding in other corners of central Appalachia. Just across the ridge line in Appalachian Virginia, Mountain Empire Community College has received funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to “train students, including former coal industry workers, to operate drones and drone sensors,” which they expect can be used for mapping, as wells for surveying and building industrial sites.

A third initiative, led by Maysville Community College, also received funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to train workers for the drone industry in 20 counties across northeastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia.

The Competition

The drone race in 2018 was the second that the cooperative has held, so some teams were coming in with experience.

Safety netting keeps onlookers safe from the fast-flying drones.

Franklin Combs of Knott County Central High School came into the day feeling hopeful. He’d had a strong finish the year before.

“Two people made it around the course last year, and he made it around smoother so he got first place and I got second,” he recalled.

Combs said he’s planning to join the Air Force after graduating high school, and would love to come back to the area if the drone port has grown to a point where he can find work there. “Hopefully, that drone port will bring in bigger industries, and that will build up this economy we have, and keep people here.”

The race itself was gripping and dramatic. There were a lot of crashes, and in many cases, the drones didn’t recover. Combs was relatively lucky on that front—  his drone crashed into the netting surrounding the course, so once he had untangled the propeller he was able to keep flying.

Franklin Combs untangles his drone after a crash.

Some collisions were more dramatic and damaging. The team from South Floyd Elementary, which was the only all-girls team present, and one of the youngest, hit a major snag when their drone took a big hit during pre-race testing.

“It shot up to the roof, hit the roof, came back down and the battery bounced out of it, and it broke the strap,” Haley Slone, who was piloting the drone, explained.

The team of 7th and 8th graders hurried to fix the drone so they would still be able to compete—  scrambling to adjust the tightness on the propellers and re-solder connections for the engine. But they weren’t able to get the drone flying in time.

Still, the South Floyd Elementary team said they took a lot from the experience and were excited to try again next year, and hopefully have more success.

Haley Slone (in blue) prepares for a test flight as teammates look on.

Kansas Stumbo enjoyed the experience so much that she wrote in a school assignment that she wants to have a career building drone parts. She said that soldering was really different from anything else she’d gotten to do in school, and she’d really loved it. “It’s very simple to do, just melting metal to wires,” Stumbo explained.

The Drone Ace

At the end the day, 11th grader Seth Hatfield of Belfry High School emerged as the winner, having flown two of the cleanest and quickest laps through the course. Hatfield had also won in 2017, and said he’s interested in studying aviation at Eastern Kentucky University, and would love to come back and work with drones if the industry can get going, which he’s optimistic about.

eth Hatfield (right) accepts the top award from Paul Green.

“The future of aviation is turning more into drones,” Hatfield said. “People definitely don’t think of this when they think of drones. They think of maybe military or something they heard on the news. It doesn’t always have a positive connotation to it, but it really is the future of this area.”

Hatfield said he’d be excited to be a part of that future.

“I don’t want to move away,”  Hatfield said. “I want to stay here and see this area flourish.”

This story was made possible with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource.


Fact-check: Is Jim Justice the First West Virginia Governor to Fight For Teacher Pay Raises?



Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.

The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.

Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.

So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017

In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.

In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 2005-2010

As governor, Manchin — now a U.S. Senator — periodically sparred with teachers’ unions over the size of his salary increase proposals. But both Manchin’s Senate office and West Virginia teachers’ unions agree that he proposed a teacher salary increase and signed it into law.

During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.

The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.

Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005

In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001

In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.

Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997

Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.

Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.

Like Wise, Caperton headed an education group — the College Board — after serving as governor.

Our ruling 

Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Education in Appalachia

Appalachians are Dying at Higher Rates than Almost Anywhere Else in the Country. Investing in Education Could Change That.



Dr. Stephanie Parker begins the class day at Huffman Academy Pre-K by having the students fill in a sentence about the day Dec. 15, 2018. Photo: Julianna Hunter/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Appalachia is, and has been for decades, lagging behind the rest of the nation in a number of health outcomes. The region struggles with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and much more.

But new research on the rate at which Appalachians are dying has health officials calling for more investments in not just health care but in education and economic development to reverse the trend. 

Alarming Death Rates

A recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that in 2017, four of the five states with the highest death rates in the U.S. lie either partially or fully in Appalachia: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia. These four states, and the fifth on the list, Oklahoma, saw people dying at a rate 50 percent higher than the five states with the lowest rates: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota and New York. 

The elevated death rates were reflected in the top five causes of death in the country: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases and unintentional injuries. The rate for chronic lower respiratory diseases was double that of the five lowest states on the list; the rate for unintentional injuries, nearly so.

“We knew that mortality rates vary widely by state; that has been the case for a long time,” said Jiaquan Xu, an epidemiologist with the National Center for Health Statistics and author of the study. But for several of the causes in the states with the highest rates, he said, “those rates are much higher than we originally thought.”

The purpose of Xu’s study was simply to present the statistics. It does not dig deeper into the causes of the disparate rates seen across the country, nor the elevation of the rates in Appalachian states. But Xu trusts there will be people sufficiently concerned by his findings to delve into the causes. Randy Wykoff is one such person.

Roadmap to a Healthier Future

Wykoff is the dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health. In research of his own, he’s dug deeper into the death rates of central Appalachian counties and their causes. 

Wycoff has looked closely at the death rate of the 238 counties that make up the central part of the region. Those counties are in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. He found the mortality rate in those counties to be a little more than 25 percent worse than that of the rest of the country.

His research also indicates that the death rate for those Appalachian counties is about 25 percent worse than that of the 353 non-Appalachian counties in the same six states. 

“What we see in Appalachia is just considerably worse health as measured by early death, among many other statistics,” Wykoff said. 

In a 2017 paper titled “The Future of Appalachia: Health,” Wykoff and coauthor Olivia Egen, an ETSU doctoral student, noted that an American in the poorest income category is three times more likely to die before the age of 65 than an American in the wealthiest category.

Educational attainment plays a critical role in life expectancy, Wycoff said at a recent gathering of health care professionals hosted by the University of Kentucky’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health in Hazard. There, he cited research that shows that the life expectancy of a black man in the U.S. with a college degree is almost 81, while that of a black man with at most a high school education is 71. 

Low educational achievement and poor health are interlinked in a number of ways. “One is that they are both the result of long-standing poverty,” Wykoff said. “There’s the common-causal relationship of the two; things that lead to poor health also lead to lack of education.” 

But there’s also a direct relationship. “People who are less educated tend to get jobs that are more stressful and physically damaging,” he said, citing, for example, coal mining and other extraction-industry occupations. Others work in service-industry or part-time or temporary jobs – jobs with low wages and no health benefits.

Wykoff’s voice is among the many in central Appalachia arguing that there are accessible avenues to a better education for all, which can, in turn, lead to a healthier population. In 2005, he said, Tennessee ranked among the states with the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. “[But] by last year,” he said, “we were in the top 10. So you can’t say that these are things we can’t change. We know we can.” 

The private sector is stepping up to invest in educational programming for rural Tennessee students, Wykoff said, and the state’s Tennessee Promise program, which covers tuition and fees for students to attend community college or other institutions offering associate degrees, will also make a difference in future health outcomes.

The Interconnectedness

But, Wykoff cautioned, in order to build a healthier Appalachia, we must create opportunities throughout the whole of the region. Without well-paying jobs close to home, he said, “When you say, ‘Hey, get your college degree and you’ll be better off,’ what that really means is, ‘Get your college degree and if you leave this area you’ll be better off.’” 

Economic development, he stressed, is essential. “We’ve got to have jobs for people, meaningful jobs, once they get their education…It’s inseparable: economic development, education and health.”

Wykoff believes that the region’s elected officials, educators and business, community and faith leaders are increasingly aware of this interconnectedness. “I think we’re starting to have the right conversations,” he said. 

He quotes a phrase commonly attributed to former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

“I like to say that all public health is local,” Wykoff said. “That’s not [entirely] true, but it’s somewhat true. You’ve got to have communities coming together and saying, ‘Okay, we want to do something about this.’”

In their “Future of Appalachia” paper, Wykoff and Egen outline some broad, essential initiatives that must be advanced, including changing health-related behaviors (smoking, poor diet, no exercise), addressing the social conditions associated with poor health (economic opportunity, investment in education), improving access to care (spoke-and-hub hospital systems, mobile services, telehealth) and disrupting intergenerational cycles of poor health (health-related education and encouragement for new parents and elementary-school kids and in the workplace and faith communities). 

Ultimately, the authors acknowledge, efforts to lower death rates, and elevate the quality of life, in Appalachia must begin at the beginning. They write: “What we eat, how we exercise, our commitment to education, our understanding of health, and many other factors, are driven by the environment we grow up in.” 

It’ll take time, but, the authors conclude, “if we work together to assure that every child in Appalachia has the best possible start in life we will see a dramatic change over the course of that child’s life.” Children who grow up in this “new” Appalachia “will not only be healthier, but they will also become the agents of change over the ensuing generations.”

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Education in Appalachia

Commentary: The Cost of Rural School Consolidation



Credit: CBS 17, YouTube

On paper, consolidating South Robeson County High School in rural North Carolina might make sense. But how do we account for the intangible losses like community identity, cohesiveness and social investment?

A few weeks ago, the Robeson County, North Carolina, Board of Education voted to close South Robeson High School, my alma mater. The school currently serves Rowland, an old rail town with a population of approximately 1,000 people, and the outlying rural areas.

In Robeson County, people identify with their local communities, an allegiance often fortified by high school attendance. Losing the high school means losing a part of the community’s identity, an irreparable tear in the social fabric that may never heal. It also means creating perpetual outsiders of the students who will be siphoned off to other local schools, away from their community and their lifelong friends.

For me, closing the high school symbolizes the county giving up on the community where I grew up. I learned so many lessons in the halls of South Robeson High School. As president of the school’s Beta Club and the Native American Student Association, I learned about leadership, the value of public service and what it means to give back to your community. These lessons were amplified by the fact that I was actually serving my own community, a lesson that will be lost on the students who would have to attend schools in other communities.

I also learned about disparities in access to educational opportunities, even within the same school district. My high school did not have AP classes or a plethora of extracurricular activities; funding did not allow for any of that. I hoped that one day the school board would allocate more staff and money to my home community so students could reach their full potential. Now, that may never happen, a fact that fills me with profound sadness.

In making their decision, the school board cited a decline in attendance. The board also cited a $2 million budget shortfall that needed to be closed “immediately.” The population data support this decision. According to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, since the 2010 Census, the population has declined in the schools’ service areas. The residents tend to be older than the rest of the county, a trend with troubling implications for the number of children entering the local schools. On paper, it might make sense to close these schools and focus on the parts of the county that are growing, especially considering the dire state of the finances of the public schools of Robeson County.

Photo illustration: alamosbasement via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Robeson County is not alone in facing these tough decisions. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were 2,700 fewer rural schools in the 2015-2016 school year than existed just a decade prior.

When a rural school closes, it affects the entire community. In fact, according to a study by the Urban Institute, the impacts of a school closure are most acutely felt in rural communities, which often lack the wraparound services needed to compensate for the hole in the community a school closure creates.

However, what works on paper may have troubling implications in reality. At a community meeting on July 8th, students, parents and community members voiced their concerns to the school board. The Town Clerk for Rowland noted that closing the high school would kill the town. Already an impoverished town that has never recovered from the decline of its initial industry, the railroad, it would lose one potential draw to both businesses and residents – easy access to a high school. Without the ability to attract new businesses and residents, the town’s economic woes would continue to grow. That also represents a bit of a paradox. In order to grow, you need resources. This is especially true in public education, which is usually funded by local property taxes. If residents leave and property values decline because of lack of economic development (or even access to a high school), the remaining local schools are going to suffer. Shutting down the high school would almost certainly exacerbate the current issues that the town is facing.

For a moment, the story appeared to have a happy ending. The day after the public hearing, the Robeson County Board of Education voted to reopen South Robeson High School for the coming year. However, there was a huge caveat. The high school would also house students from Rowland Middle School, meaning grades 6-12 would have to attend school in a facility designed for only four grade levels.

But even this measure of good news turned out to be fleeting. On July 19, the board reversed itself and voted to close South Robeson High School after all.

Christopher Chavis  is  a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. His article, “The Past, Present, and Future of Rural Northern New England: A Study of the Demographics and How It Affects the Rural Lawyer Shortage,” is forthcoming in the University of Maine Law Review.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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