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Rural Georgia is losing residents and jobs. Will anything bring young people back?

Nationwide, 20 percent of counties in the United States are deemed distressed because they have high unemployment and poverty and are losing population and jobs.

In Georgia, 53 percent of counties qualify as distressed and most are rural, said Georgia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Chris Clark, who was among today's speakers at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum on the state's talent gap.

Rural Georgia never regained its footing after two recessions, said Clark. And the future does not promise any relief. By 2026, job growth in rural Georgia will almost be cut in half, he said.

"Businesses are moving to where the educated workforce is," he said.  "One thing rural Georgia did -- they let all their kids move away."

As young people flee small towns and rural communities for opportunities elsewhere, the counties are aging. In 2030, almost a quarter of rural Georgia will be elderly, which means less sales tax, more exemptions and more people needing government services and health care, said Clark. Many older Georgians will be leaving the workforce in the next years. Some have been running family businesses in their rural communities but now have no family willing to take them over.

Clark recounted a presentation he made to 30 students in rural Georgia. When he asked how many planned to return after college, only one girl raised her hand. When Clark asked why, she said, "My boyfriend."

Clark said rural areas have to inform kids of the job potential in their own back yards. One of the boys in the room was the son of a doctor who planned on retiring in a few years. Had the young man, who also planned to pursue medicine, ever considered taking over for his dad, Clark asked.

Clark's recommendations: "Instead of telling every kid to go away and fly, tell them to go away and come home."

But come home to what?

I don't think we can persuade young Georgians to return to struggling counties with aging populations and few good jobs, to towns without coffee shops, department stores or a critical mass of other young folks.

Clark said rural Georgia wasn't always on the decline. He flashed a map that showed rural Georgia in the 1990s when cheap labor and land were sufficient to draw and keep jobs. However, workforce talent is the magnet today that attracts businesses, which is why metro Atlanta is poised to explode with career opportunities for young people in high-demand areas. Clark cited the usual trio-- health care, science, construction -- but added a few others to the list, including the booming film industry.

Last week, I asked Allen Fort, superintendent/principal in Taliaferro County, to write a piece for me about the challenges in his rural district, which is the state's smallest.  It is a timely issue, given what I heard today.

By Allen Fort

Once there was a young man named David who was called upon to slay the giant Goliath. Against all odds and almost half the size of his foe, he strode forth, hurled the stone and felled the giant.

Today, in many small, poor, rural systems, we face the many Goliaths set before us in education; finding adequate funding to pay for teachers and supplies, maintaining safe and clean educational buildings, providing transportation to bus students to and from school, trying to make sense of laws and rules someone far from education has deemed necessary, and many times operating school systems in communities more interested in local drama and politics than quality schools, all while asked to provide a world-class education for the students who go to these schools.

School systems in this state work toward this every day -- teachers and leaders negotiating their way through heavy city traffic or driving many miles though the countryside to provide that spark of curiosity, that thirst for knowledge so a student can find success in life. I have visited schools in various capacities in almost every system in the state and most are doing exactly what we are doing, working extremely hard each day to educate children for a brighter future. These children will have incredible opportunities to go places and have jobs past generations never could even dream about. It is our duty and our want to give them this chance.

Taliaferro is the smallest county in Georgia with the smallest school system. There are 175 students, Pre-k-12, who attend this tiny school located about half way between Atlanta and Augusta on I-20. It is hard to imagine a county of just 1,700 citizens exists only miles from two cities that have more than six million people, but it does.

Many people will wonder why this school system even exists. Why it doesn’t consolidate? Why it doesn’t just close?

As the past shows us, consolidation is not the answer. We will never quit on the children of Taliaferro County, and we exist to ensure these same children are educated in a caring, compassionate school community that prepares them for adult life in a competitive world.  To accomplish this, we are establishing a culture of grit, determination, and perseverance. We want our children to set high goals for academic success and develop high standards of personal character so they believe they are fully capable of comfortably existing in society. We are going to fail to achieve some goals at times, but we will learn from these events, get back up and become more determined. We will do this because our school has a very supportive board, caring parents and community, dedicated teachers and staff, and most importantly students who are beginning to understand this mission and what it will take to achieve the success we demand.

What we are doing in Taliaferro is understanding that our goals need to be set for 2035 through 2050 and beyond, not just for 2018 or 2019. Our students will be in the prime of their earning life at that time so it is imperative we develop our school culture around being able to compete with other people, not just in east Georgia, but in our nation, with Asia and Europe.

While our CCRPI scores and graduation rates are above state average, that is still not where we want to be. We recently received a grant that will allow our teachers to be deeply involved in receiving and implementing some of the best instructional strategies training in all areas of classroom teaching and use of technology. We are on a mission to continually improve instruction, encourage bigger box thinking, and, while understanding our limitations, think limitless.

We are assisting in developing a national program for teaching children of poverty to help teachers better understand what they can do to educate and motivate a child to dream big who does not see that in their current world. We have provided all of our students personal computers on a 1:1 daily basis to ensure they have access to what will be the norm when they are adults.

One of the greatest challenges of educating 21st century youth is that, while technology has increased access to information and experiences, students are increasingly disconnected from education. This dilemma is exacerbated in rural communities where jobs are few and opportunities appear limited. Therefore, our teachers and students must have everyday meaningful opportunities to use technology not to surf the internet, but to teach and learn, creating teachable moments and unique instruction.

We will also have a greenhouse to establish a horticulture program for our 6-12 students, provide our K-5 students hands-on implementation of science standards relating to plant life, and ultimately have for our citizens a community garden to grow a variety of flowers and vegetables to sell and enjoy.

We understand we may be our own worst enemy as these students graduate and move on to college (all of our last year’s graduates were accepted and are attending four-year, two-year or technical college at this time). Unfortunately, we may never see them back in Taliaferro again.

What is here to bring them back? We have no adequate housing, no viable businesses and no real industry to entice a young college graduate or recently discharged veteran to return to our community as a working citizen. When the local name for the Dollar General is the “Crawfordville Mall,” you understand your limitations.

Our children deserve our best; they deserve the quality education that gives them the opportunity to be at a job interview in Atlanta, Paris, or Tokyo, look the other candidates in the eye and say, “My education was just as good as yours,” and it was. While we are limited in being able to offer electives, do not have a large CTAE/STEM program, or many extracurricular activities, what we do have is the best it can be. We are extremely proud of our little school, the teachers have this great positive attitude, our kids are, well, good kids, and what we are doing is to make this moment in their life a great one.

…Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck Goliath on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. So David triumphed over the giant with a sling and a stone…

Taliaferro Co shall also triumph.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.