Building School-to-Work Systems in Rural America.
by Harmon, Hobart
This Digest briefly describes the key components for building a local
school-to-work partnership and discusses the rural context for implementing
such an initiative. Local school-to-work partnerships have an important
opportunity to reconnect rural students, teachers, and schools with their
The national education reform movement of the 1980s helped prepare America's
youth for work and for making career choices. The reforms enlightened people
about the rapidly changing skills required in the American labor market
and the effectiveness of school-to-career systems of other advanced democracies
(Mendel, 1994). Reports such as Learning and Living: A Blueprint for High
Performance (SCANS, 1992) and America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!
(National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990) accelerated interest
in linking education to economic competitiveness and the employability
of individual citizens. On May 4, 1994, Congress responded by passing Public
Law 103-239 [H.R. 2884], the School-To-Work Opportunities (STWO) Act of
1994. The STWO Act was the first federal legislation to declare that preparing
all students, including the college bound, to earn a living is one of the
legitimate and important roles of schooling (Halperin, 1994).
The act established a national framework for each state to create school-to-work
opportunities systems that (1) are part of comprehensive education reform,
(2) are integrated with the systems developed under the Goals 2000: Educate
America Act, and (3) offer opportunities for all students to participate
in a performance-based education and training program. Under this framework,
all students will be able to earn portable credentials; prepare for their
first jobs in high-skill, high-wage careers; and pursue further education.
IMPLEMENTATION GRANTS TO STATES AND LOCAL PARTNERSHIPS
At the time of this writing, 39 states have been awarded federal incentive
implementation grants for building a school-to-work opportunities system.
To obtain a 5-year implementation grant, governors must submit applications
that include a plan describing how their state will serve rural students
in communities with low population densities. States must explain how federal
grant funds will be allocated as subgrants to local school-to-work partnerships.
States are required to use at least 70 percent of the funds for sub-grants
the first year of the grant, at least 80 percent the second year, and at
least 90 percent in years three through five.
Local school-to-work partnerships must consist of employers; representatives
of local education agencies and postsecondary institutions (including vocational
education schools where they exist); area school teachers, counselors,
or principals; representatives of labor organizations or other nonmanagement
employees; students; and others. The local partnership's plan must agree
with the state plan and must include a special compact that details the
responsibilities and expectations of students, parents, employers, and
Local partnerships are charged with implementing programs that have
three key components: (1) work-based learning, (2) school-based learning,
and (3) connecting activities. School-based learning focuses on career
exploration and counseling, student selection of a career major, a program
of study based on high academic and skill standards, a program of instruction
that integrates academic and vocational learning, scheduled evaluations
of students' academic strengths and weaknesses, and procedures that facilitate
student participation in additional training or postsecondary education.
Work-based learning is a planned program of job training or experiences,
paid-work experience, workplace mentoring, and instruction in general workplace
competencies and all aspects of an industry. Connecting activities include
matching students with work-based learning opportunities; providing a school
site mentor to act as a liaison for the student; providing technical assistance
and services to employers or others in designing school-based learning
activities; training teachers, mentors, and counselors; integrating academic
and occupational education; linking program participants with community
services; collecting and analyzing information regarding program outcomes;
and linking youth-development activities with employer and industry strategies
for upgrading workers' skills.
LOCAL PARTNERSHIPS AND THE RURAL CONTEXT
Local partnerships in high poverty urban and rural areas may apply directly
to the National School-To-Work Office for implementation grants. In fiscal
years 1994-1997, 86 such local partnership grants were awarded (29 to rural
grantees). Funding these partnerships in rural areas supports an important
component of the nation's school-to-work system. More than 45 percent of
the nation's schools and 50 percent of the local school districts are located
in rural areas and small towns (Harmon, 1997). Across the United States,
these communities have experienced high levels of economic distress. Nearly
1 in 5 rural residents lives in poverty, totaling almost 10 million people.
More than 500 rural counties have had persistently high rates of poverty
for the past 50 years, and some of these counties have higher poverty rates
than the worst inner-city slums. Most of these people are defined as the
working poor--because at least one family member is employed (Summers &
Rural and urban labor markets differ substantially. Rural workers on
average have less education and training and are more attached to their
community of residence than their urban counterparts. And the terms of
agreement between rural employers and employees may be more informal; for
example, rural employers are more likely to allow workers to consume some
products without paying for them. (Summers, Horton & Gringeri, 1995).
While many rural counties have struggled economically during the past
several decades, others have experienced job growth. During the 1980s,
rural economic winners--those with above-average annual growth in both
employment and income--were retirement counties (25%), trade centers (35%),
and manufacturing-dependent counties (20%). While 45 percent of the counties
that made economic gains were located next to metropolitan areas, nearly
two-thirds of the counties that suffered losses were far from any urban
area. Thus, remoteness, a defining characteristic of many rural places,
is an economic liability unless favorable scenery or climate can attract
retirees, tourists, or entrepreneurs.
Aggravating the situation, most rural employed people are in natural-resource
(e.g., coal mining) or low-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs, all of which
are vulnerable to layoffs. Rural areas are more likely to be dominated
by and dependent on a single industry, thus increasing worker vulnerability.
The need for rural economic development is clear, especially in remote
areas and regions in decline. Most observers agree that schools have a
role to play in fostering such development. The School-to-Work Opportunities
Act, designed to give individual students portable skills, may also boost
local economic efforts.
IMPLICATIONS FOR RURAL EDUCATION
Fitzgerald (1995) maintains, "If it is not linked to education reform
and skills enhancement, economic development can at best attract the same
kind of low-end employment that has come to dominate many rural economies"
(p. 437). However, it requires more than increasing the education levels
of rural people to attract high-wage, high-skill jobs. Fitzgerald's research
reveals there is often a negative relationship between education and economic
development. Under these circumstances, educational investment pays off
only for the rural students willing to migrate to areas that offer higher
In many rural areas, available jobs remain low skill, routine, and unrewarding.
Yet employers expect employees to have highly developed dispositional or
social skills such as "self-motivation, collaborative skills, 'sweet spirit,'
personability, good communication, and work ethic" (Dansiz, 1996, p. 33).
Imagining positive outcomes for school-to-work programs within this context
can be difficult and discouraging. Moreover, some parents and community
leaders believe school-to-work initiatives actually undermine local economic
development by training students to leave the area, taking with them valuable
skills gained in their towns and schools.
D. R. Reynolds (1995) argues that first and foremost among rural education
policy issues is "what relationship should exist between local communities
and the larger society and how this relationship should find expression
in the school" (p. 477). Developing consensus about this relationship requires
a discussion among the same players specified in the school-to-work legislation.
Examining program purposes is a good first step toward fostering a closer
relationship between schools and their rural communities. Once people have
agreed on the relationship between their program purposes and local economy,
they are in a better position to address other challenges: low teacher
expectations for student achievement, cultural discontinuity between the
school and the community, family influences, inadequate career counseling,
inappropriate teacher education, limited transportation, and scarce workplace-learning
opportunities for students in the community (Harmon, 1996).
Engaging youth to develop a "sense of place" in their communities has
not been a strong theme in recent decades. This is substantiated by a study
of rural youth aspirations (Howley, Harmon, & Leopold, 1996) and a
21-state study by six of the regional educational laboratories comparing
aspirations of rural high school students with expectations of their parents
and school staff (Ley, Nelson, & Beltyukova, 1996). Results reveal
a clear preference for good occupational opportunities over involvement
in creating and maintaining a strong community. In the study by the regional
educational laboratories, rural youth ranked strong community attributes--community
leadership, stewardship for the land, family connections, civic affairs,
social responsibility, voluntary service, and close friendships--in the
bottom half of factors they considered important to their future. The authors
conclude that for rural youth, concerns for personal careers and economic
success overshadow concerns for community well-being and involvement; and
that for teachers, these trends are even stronger.
Some may see the school-to-work system benefiting only the individual
student and potential employer. Yet, the ultimate success of school-to-work
partnerships might be in connecting students to their community and future
work by giving them a better understanding of the rural place in which
they live--and may someday work (for examples of how this was done in three
remote rural communities, see Miller & Hahn, 1997).
Can the school-to-work movement help rural youth and teachers regain
their sense of local community? Can integration of school- and work-based
learning enable parents and business, religious, and civic leaders to develop
closer relationships between their rural values and the values promoted
by the education system? A rural school-to-work opportunities system is
more likely to be successful if it involves the community to set goals,
utilizes the community as a learning laboratory, engages students in meaningful
service-learning activities, creates school-based enterprises and other
entrepreneurial initiatives tied to local economic needs, practices community-based
career guidance, and embraces parents as equal partners. A school-to-work
system without these features may be viewed as yet another mandated urban
project with great potential to weaken further the essential relationship
between schools and their communities in rural America.
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jobs, high-skill demands. Rural Educator, 17(3), 26-34.
Fitzgerald, J. (1995). Linking education and community development:
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