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

May 8, 2017 – Fort Gaines – Downtown Fort Gaines. Ten years ago Clay County was doing well. Unemployment was low. But today the county has the highest unemployment rate in the state and no longer even has its own high school. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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.

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

16 comments
Joe in Co
Joe in Co

"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." 


It would be worth looking closely at the rural towns who are making it. Tifton, for example, is thriving. You couldn't level any of the above criticisms at that town. Why? Two units of the USG, a hospital, good schools, and excellent, affordable housing. I'm just saying, let's draw some attention to the towns outside of our major urban/suburban areas where it is working.



bicami
bicami

 my friend's ex-wife makes 94 every hour at home. she has been laid off for two months... the previous month her payment was 13481 just working on the internet three hours a day, look at★═════════════★☆★www.decksky.com


doubleadawg
doubleadawg

Down here in Early County we had a coal fired electric plant that was going to be built. The rich people here fought and fought them in court until they abandoned the project. Mostly because they didn't purchase the land from them. Talking about all the dangers of coal. Funny thing though is the paper mill that would have been right next to it also burns coal. But that's ok. Rich people don't want the status quo to change. Don't want people to have good paying jobs. 

Ben Man-n
Ben Man-n

Crazy. I just can't imagine why people don't enjoy living in the middle of nowhere.

Cordelia Ann Sheppard Riley
Cordelia Ann Sheppard Riley

I had a hard time getting hired. Some areas were not ready for diversity and even now I work someplace were most of the people look like me. SMH I also wanted my child to grow up with more options than I had as a child.

Ceretta Sheppard
Ceretta Sheppard

Not until the mindset change! I moved away from rural Georgia not because I couldn't create a job, actually I had a well paying job. I didn't want my child growing up with limitations of others expectations! I have absolutely no regrets! Old money killed the rural south and nobody wants to admit it!

Astropig
Astropig

Agree- Real jobs.Not a job at Ross Dress For Less or WalMart. Everyone knows that those are dead end jobs that cannot support a family without being on public assistance,which is not what (most) young people aspire to.Those are not career positions that can lead to a middle class life. A lot of local politicos trumpet how many jobs they have brought in during their time in office,but they're careful not to tell you just what kind of jobs they are taking credit for.


Real wealth and value is not created selling things to one another,it is created by making things,adding value and selling them to people in other places (ideally,exported to a country with a strong currency).



QuestionMan
QuestionMan

Does Taliaferro County even have a sling and a stone?

Starik
Starik

Why not allow counties to vote on legal recreational marijuana?  

Astropig
Astropig

@Starik


And how,exactly will that improve their lives? Or do you believe that a spaced out slice of society that is even more unemployable is good public policy? Was legalizing alcoholic beverages the key to making rural counties prosperous,or did that bring an increase in alcoholism and child neglect?

redweather
redweather

"Taliaferro Co shall also triumph."


WTF?

Maedhor
Maedhor

@Astropig @redweather Pretty much. Ironic, as a chunk of their students attend Wilkes County schools illegitimately. Not that I'd choose to live in either place; I left Wilkes just as quickly as I'd have left Taliaferro. Neither place has jobs or a future.

Atlanta Doc
Atlanta Doc

Mr. Fort....answer the question. What jobs do they come back to? What infrastructure is there? You might do a good job educating them, but what's there to keep them there.

Astropig
Astropig

@Atlanta Doc


Good point.


This whole piece is predicated on a dangerous assumption: That somehow,some government action can change what has come about naturally,absent government action.


I used to live in the desert.It was easy to have a lush,green lawn and all of the flowers that I wanted.It was easy because we had water piped in and so heavily subsidized by governmental action that it was cheaper than it is here in the wet,soaking south.We didn't care how unnatural it was to have tropical lawns in the middle of a desert,because caring,compassionate bureaucrats far,far away would make it all good.They could change the natural order of things by political action! What could possible go wrong?!


That's why, when I see stuff like the above,I always fondly remember my poinsetta ranch in Tempe.Of course,the poinsettas always died (they are a tropical plant),but it was not from lack of water.Nope,it was the dry air and 19% humidity that did them in.It was the overall environment that couldn't sustain them.It was just wrong.


Happily,today I grow poinsettas year round at my Florida crash pad.I take in the ones that people throw away after Christmas and give them a long happy life in the tropics where they belong.The only problem is that the cactus that I'm trying to grow there (I miss Arizona,so I want to bring a little bit with me)keep getting engorged with water and rupturing and dying off.