Hollowing Out the Middle:
Eastland Schools and Business Community Join Forces to Plug the ‘Rural Brain Drain’
By TOM KOCAL
LANARK – What began as a proposal back in February for a Community Book Read of Hollowing Out the Middle–The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, has grown into a full-fledged community effort to “plug” the rural brain drain with solutions formulated by students and businesses in the Eastland School District communities of Lanark, Lake Carroll and Shannon.
Since the first discussion in February that attracted 20 people who had read the book, the group has added more readers, and met again in March and April. Penny Lauritzen, who spearheaded the initial book-read, estimates that at least 30 people have read the book so far, with 10 or 12 copies of the book available at the Lanark Public Library.
The book, Hollowing Out the Middle, tells the story of the sociologists who moved to Iowa in 2001 to understand the rural brain drain and the exodus of young people from America’s countryside. The Hollowing Out the Middle group (HOM) is also addressing the reasons why many small towns simply aren’t regenerating, and why its educated young people are leaving in droves.
The book identified the working-class “stayers,” trying to survive in the region’s dying agro-industrial economy; the high-achieving and college-bound “achievers,” who often leave for good; the “seekers” who head off to war to see what the world beyond offers; and the “returners,” who eventually circle back to their hometowns.
Stay & Thrive
The group has been discussing how they can prevent the decline of the community that often pushes the best and brightest young people to leave, and that under-invests in – and under-estimates – those who choose to stay, even though these young people are their best chance for a strong future.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the members of the Lanark and Shannon Communities that gathered to discuss their thoughts after reading ‘Hollowing Out the Middle’ at the beginning of the year have a real concern for the future of these two communities that are linked by a common school district,” said Lauritzen. “It was also evident that they believe we can have an impact on making sure that the future is positive for the current residents and the young people of the Eastland School District who decide to stay in the area or return to the area at a later time in their lives.”
In April, Monica Burkholder, Eastland High School Principal, was the guest speaker at the HOM meeting. She conducted a presentation that showed how the Eastland School District was “Preparing Students for the 21st Century.” The presentation outlined the P-20 STEM Programs of Study adopted by the district.
]STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics education. P-20 refers to the educational continuum from pre-school through graduate school. This model for restructuring the Eastland schools focuses on college and career readiness and 21st century skills through adoption of the Common Core aligned curriculum. The plan expands the model that enables students to choose a focused P-20 Program of Study related to their academic or career interests that includes a curriculum across secondary and postsecondary education.
“We are loosing those who leave the area for training,” Burkholder said. “They are being recruited by businesses in the areas where the training is. Eastland is currently working with Highland and Sauk Valley Community Colleges to determine the possibility of bringing in more programs in the manufacturing area with an emphasis on CNC (computer numerical control) programs.”
What do the students say?
It was at the April meeting when the concept of formulating a survey entered the discussion. The survey was created through the cooperative efforts of the HOM group and Burkholder.
“After Monica’s presentation in April the group decided it would be helpful to hear from the Eastland students,” Lauritzen said. “We thought their responses might give us some direction, which I think it has.”
It was distributed to the 58 members of the EHS Senior Class of 2013 on the last day of school. 43 students responded.
“Although a 75% response rate is very good, we were disappointed that 15 students did not respond,” Lauritzen stated. “Their plans and motivation are vital to the complete picture painted by the survey.”
Lauritzen said that 34 of the 48 respondents stated they would be moving away for one reason or another. Seventeen of them said they were leaving Illinois. Only 4% said they were staying.
A good sign: 28% of those wanting to leave the area to attend college said they would return to the area to live and work. Another 25% said they would entertain the thought of entering into a contract to serve in the area for an agreed-upon time frame, in exchange for local assistance in paying off their student loans. Although no such program currently exists, the group sees the need for one.
“We want to help your parents if they can’t,” Lauritzen said. “We want you to go to college if that’s your desire. Then come back, get a good job or start your own business, buy a house, and raise your family here.
“It was amazing to have so many of the 2013 Graduates respond to the questionnaire on such short notice,” Lauritzen observed. “They proved to us that many of them have goals for continuing their education and high expectations of themselves. With such a high percentage planning to remain or return to the area, we need to live up to their expectations by working to be sure Lanark, Shannon and Lake Carroll remain viable communities for them to live, work and raise their families in during their lifetimes.”
Lauritzen said that this fall, the HOM group is preparing to give a new, updated survey to the Eastland Juniors and Seniors to establish current levels of awareness.
“We will follow up next spring with a repeat to determine if we have created more awareness thru the school’s career program and more community interaction.”
The student presentation has been scheduled for Thursday, September 5th at 2:40 p.m. at their regularly scheduled Learning Lab. Area community leaders who will be discussing the future with Eastland High School seniors include Connie Lower, Connie Knutti, Kris Simpson, Jared Sauer, Rhett Coatney, Steve Wilkins, Allen Woessner, John Nelson, Adam Ludwig, Jason Thede, Roger Coulthard, and Jeremy Coulthard. They will share a one – two minute self-introduction and business connection.
“I am excited about the opportunity to work with the Eastland School Juniors and Seniors this fall to determine how we can better work with the school to make the students more aware of the options in the area,” Lauritzen concluded. “With the Eastland School District developing more career oriented curriculum, the timing couldn’t have been better.”
The next meeting of the HOM group will be Thursday, September 26 at 7 PM at the Heritage Center in downtown Lanark.
Copies of Hollowing Out the Middle–The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, are available at the Lanark Public Library, 111 S. Broad St. in downtown Lanark.