More than 27 million Americans age 25 or older don’t have a high school diploma or GED, the basic credential needed to qualify for nearly 80 percent of jobs in this country. The Hechinger Report traveled to three counties with very high numbers of adults without a high school credential to learn about the obstacles schools and families must overcome to provide and obtain this essential first step to a middle-class life. The three counties, all in the rural South, are profoundly different in terms of race and ethnicity — and in their experiences of racism and segregation. Yet they face many of the same challenges, including low funding for schools, intergenerational poverty and few well-paid career opportunities to motivate students. They also share one abiding theme: parents know the risk of dropping out of high school and want desperately for their children to get through high school and beyond in their education.
HYDEN, Ky. — Rita Sandlin knew what she wanted for her children. It was something that she didn’t get for herself.
Born and raised in a mining town tucked in a southern slice of the Appalachian Mountains, Sandlin left high school in 11th grade. She made it clear to her daughter, Katie, and son, Jalon, that they weren’t to follow suit.
“I wish I would have graduated from high school,” said Sandlin, a petite woman with a slightly shy and very warm smile. “Then they would have knew that I graduated. It would have been something that they would have been proud for.”
Her children got the message.
“My parents, they pushed me every day to go to school,” said Jalon, an honor roll student who graduated from Leslie County High School in May. “I [didn’t miss] a day the whole year.”
Sandlin’s reasons for guiding her kids through school go beyond the sense of accomplishment she missed for herself and wants desperately for her kids.
“I just want him to have a good job,” Sandlin said of Jalon, echoing so many parents in a county where close to a third of adults without a high school diploma are unemployed.
When Sandlin was a kid, people didn’t have to leave the county to find work, and they didn’t need to graduate from high school to get a good job. Back then, coal miners on average earned the equivalent of about $75,000 per year in today’s dollars, and no formal education was required.
“I remember a student I had who told me he was leaving school to go work in the mines,” said Dessie Bowling, who taught at Leslie County High School almost 30 years ago.* “I tried to convince him to stay, and he said to me, ‘I can drop out right now, and I’ll make more than what you make.’ And he was right. What could you say to that?”
But when mine owners packed up and abandoned Leslie County, the lack of a high school diploma became debilitating. The men who had sacrificed their bodies and risked their lives mining and logging now had to search for new work, and most found that jobs paying more than minimum wage required a diploma or GED.
They ran into an economic wall that has hit communities of color the hardest, but which has also blocked many residents of this 98 percent white county.
A high school diploma is no longer enough for a middle class life in this country, yet 27 million adults age 25 or older of all races still don’t have even that basic building block, putting their economic futures in peril. High school dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed than those with a diploma, and they earn thousands of dollars less per year.
In Leslie County, few people think that industry or the government will help. Parents know their kids’ only shot at escaping poverty is the county’s public schools.
But a decade ago, the Leslie County school system was so dysfunctional that the state labeled it one of the worst in Kentucky. The county has one of the nation’s lowest percentages of white adults — just 68 percent — with a high school diploma. The schools needed to make a sharp turn to support the county’s efforts at renewal.
Robert Roark, the son of a coal miner, became principal of Leslie County High School in 2012 after most of the mines had closed. That year, 33 percent of the senior class left school before earning a diploma.
That fall, the staff got the news that the school’s graduation rate was 160th among Kentucky’s 169 districts. Many staff members didn’t take the state exams seriously. Students were bombing tests just to spite administrators. There were no Advanced Placement classes — administrators didn’t think they had enough students who could pass them. The school had fights in the hallways and tedium in the classrooms.
“The culture was pretty toxic when we got here,” said Roark, who began at the school as a guidance counselor in 2008. “To be honest, a lot of the students and staff had pretty much given up.”
Roark comes from two generations of Kentucky coal miners, but his father moved to Illinois in the 1950s when the coal jobs began drying up as the country shifted to oil and natural gas as its main energy sources. Roark’s father worked in a steel mill in Chicago, and then moved his family back to Leslie County in the late 1970s when Roark was 8 years old. The OPEC oil embargo had sent the cost of oil skyrocketing, and the demand for coal was rising again. For a while, the mines were booming.
Roark’s brother followed their father into the mines. He’s among a minority of miners who hung onto their jobs when coal consumption plummeted once again. Near the end of 2011 there were just over 14,300 coal jobs in eastern Kentucky. As of last year, there were fewer than 4,000.
Now, nearly a third of Leslie County families live below the poverty line and nearly 100 percent of students in its public schools come from low-income families. The county’s population grew steadily between 1970 and its peak in 1983, mirroring the rise in mining and logging jobs. Its number of residents has dropped every year since then, decreasing 30 percent by 2016.
Yet a deep current of pride still runs through the county. Residents know that the backbreaking work they and their parents and grandparents did in the mines helped build the country’s infrastructure. Still, few parents want their children to follow a career path that barely exists today.
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The high school, which has just under 500 students, sits up a small hill a few miles from the Hurricane Creek Mine memorial, built to honor the 38 men who died in an explosion in 1970 that federal inspectors had warned was coming. Abandoned mines pepper the county, and more than a dozen churches line the winding roads that climb miles into the mountains. Freshly painted two-floor shingle houses sit next to beat-up trailers that lack regular access to electricity. It’s not uncommon for weather to force school closures when flooding makes the roads impassable. The county has one small town with a public library, a pharmacy, a small grocery store and a few diners and fast-food joints along the outskirts.
In the fall, the mountains, where extended families have lived for generations, are lit with shades of orange and yellow that cameras can never capture. But some of those families’ lives have been ravaged by opioids, forcing the children into the care of grandparents, aunts or cousins. Instability at home when a parent is lost to addiction or jail impacts children’s school attendance, which impacts their learning. A third of high school students are chronically absent, having missed 10 percent or more of school days in the last year.
“Honestly, there were people who told me I was making a mistake coming here,” Roark said in a drawl that is distinct from other parts of the state to the north and the west. “But I know from growing up here that we’ve got a lot of smart kids. And I like being the underdog.”
There are some hurdles that the district hasn’t had to overcome that have punished other Southern school systems where educational attainment is low. Leslie County hasn’t been torn apart by the vestiges of racism and Jim Crow. There are no private segregation academies here, for instance, like the ones that drew white children and resources out of the public schools in more racially mixed counties after desegregation. There are also no charter schools in Kentucky, which have split public school resources elsewhere. And, unlike some other states, Kentucky gives each district an equal amount of funding per student — and adds extra for poorer and rural areas.
Yet, wealthier districts with higher tax bases can afford to spend more money on their schools, and poor counties like Leslie have to make do with less funding overall. Coal-property values have plummeted, hitting Appalachian school district budgets hard. State officials say that some eastern Kentucky counties have a hard time collecting tax money in the first place. In 2016, Leslie collected just 60 percent of what residents owed, further cutting into what the schools received.
State funds only cover roughly 60 percent of a district’s transportation costs, which is a burden in sprawling areas like Leslie County, where the district’s buses travel hundreds of miles each week, burning a significant amount of fuel to fetch children who live up steep hills. Last year, the county had to fill a transportation cost gap of close to $400,000.
But the state did pump in some extra resources when the school was in free fall.
In 2009, three years before Roark took over as principal, Leslie County High School was among the 5 percent lowest-performing high schools in the state. With that ranking came extra staff to help mentor teachers and administrators. Some educators left the school as procedures changed and expectations began to rise.
Previously, any resident of the county with a teacher’s license could assume they would get a job in the district schools. But Roark tried a different approach, searching for the best teachers he could attract to the school and hiring some teachers from out of state and through the Teach For America program. The district also won federal funds from a now defunct program, which helped shore up its efforts to improve outcomes.
A grant from Berea College, a private college about a two-hour drive from Leslie County, allowed the school to purchase smartboards and computers, equipment already ubiquitous in many urban and suburban schools but completely absent from Leslie County at that time.
Another deal with Berea College brought close to a dozen AmeriCorps volunteers into the school to act as tutors and help support students through tough personal issues.
Even as Roark embraced the chance to shake things up, he saw strength in the connections of the tight-knit community. The small circle of administrators and teachers he chose to help him spearhead the changes were mostly born and raised in the county. The re-composed staff at Leslie County High School was confident they could give students a shot at decent jobs and rebuild the school despite its dire state. They saw outsiders’ stereotypes of people from Appalachia as a way to motivate students and parents. They turned the drive for improvement into a come-from-behind competition.
“Sports is important here, so I decided to make our academics like a sport,” Roark said, sitting in an office heavily populated by Civil War memorabilia, evidence of his past as a history teacher. “I told the kids we want to compete academically with other counties, and we want to beat them.”
As part of their turnaround strategy, the staff mounted banners showing how the school’s graduation rate and ACT scores compared with some of the counties they competed against in football.
Roark eventually took the banners down, not wanting to belittle other schools when administrators from other counties visited. But he would privately show students where the school stood, especially when they began beating some of their sports rivals.
Administrators added Advanced Placement classes and gave students the opportunity to earn college credits while still in high school. Close to 75 percent of students are now enrolled in at least one college class, Principal Roark said. A partnership with Eastern Kentucky University and Hazard Community and Technical College brought some professors to the high school, and some of the high school teachers earned certifications to teach college courses at the school.
Administrators used data to ferret out which students were repeatedly missing school or in danger of failing. Staff members began making house visits, climbing single-lane roads miles up into the mountains to find out why children were absent. Food packages went home to kids in need. Teachers clambered into boats to deliver homework and supplies to students and families stranded by flooded rivers.
In addition to vocational education, teachers and administrators also began pushing college hard. Juniors now go on several trips to visit college campuses, and the school beefed up its college advising. “Counselors are key,” said Roark. “A good guidance counselor is worth their weight in gold.” At an annual celebratory dinner for students and the parents of graduating seniors, students sign their college acceptance letters on stage in front of college representatives and a cheering audience.
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Under Roark’s leadership, Leslie County High School has made a remarkable turnaround. The high school graduated 99 percent of its students last year. The average ACT score was 19, close to the national average, up from a score of 16 in 2009.
Roark’s newest task is to prevent the high school’s success from further depleting the county’s younger generation.
Most of the college credits that students have been earning can be translated into well-paying health care jobs and a path out of the county. Any additional outward population flow would threaten the family ties of generations that are the backbone of the community.
“We have all kinds of bright, talented people here, but you can’t have no kind of life without them jobs,” said Clifford Hamilton, a lifelong resident of Leslie County and director of the county’s library. “Then what do you have left? Just some kind of retirement community, that’s what’s left.”
Roark has a strategy he hopes will keep more young people in the county. He added a new program for the fall, which will allow students to earn college credits toward an education degree while enrolled at Leslie County High School. The initiative has the potential to help solve another problem as well: One of Roark’s biggest remaining challenges is attracting more qualified teachers, given the low salaries and the lack of other amenities in the county.
The idea is that teachers with family ties are more likely to stay in the county and will inspire other kids like themselves to go on to college. And if young people return and raise their own families locally, the community can rebuild.
The Sandlin family live up in the hills of Middle Fork, in an area that Sandlin calls “the boonies.” The family keeps four dogs, four cats, a guinea pig and several chickens. Deer often pass by the house, and although Sandlin’s husband hunts on occasion, he and Jalon feel a connection to the ones that cross the yard, and they leave them be.
Poverty has worn away at many of the homes clustered around the creek that traverses Middle Fork. Sandlin has witnessed the effects of the mass layoffs in the mines on her neighbors and family members.
She has thought about leaving. The family visited Jalon’s aunt in Kansas City a couple of times, and loved it. But family ties keep them in southeastern Kentucky. Sandlin’s parents are aging and need help. Jalon travels regularly to the Dollar General in the next county to buy them groceries. Although he would like to visit Mexico sometime and maybe even live in another county in Kentucky or in Kansas City, he’s conflicted.
“I would miss my family a lot,” said Jalon, his voice almost inaudible.
The 18-year-old will be attending Berea College in the fall and plans to become a teacher. He would love to come back to his old school to teach kindergarten or first grade.
Regardless of whether residents have chosen to stay, or don’t have a way to leave, many are proud of their community’s culture, and they speak with undisguised anger and frustration about how they’re portrayed as “uneducated.” They say other Americans have no idea how well their children are doing in school because of the media stereotypes — in the news and in movies and television shows.
College enrollment rates have been climbing, and this year, for the first time since anyone can remember, a Leslie County senior was accepted with a full ride to Yale University.
“The negative views of people from Appalachia are just crazy,” said Roark, his voice rising in pitch. “But if you got a 33 on the ACT and you’re getting into Yale, no one can criticize you. I mean they can’t. If your class average is a 21 on the ACT, they gotta shut up.”
He speaks directly with his students about defying outside perceptions.
“I tell them when they’re going to class,” he said of his practice of walking the hallways during the day, “ ‘Don’t let ’em do that to you, because people will. Prove ’em wrong.’ ”
As Roark has gained their trust, more Leslie County parents are saying the same thing to their kids. Nothing would make Rita Sandlin personally happier than having Jalon settle nearby. But she believes that he should prioritize his career and job prospects over coming back to the county.
“That’s how I feel now,” said Sandlin. ”You need to know that you can take care of yourself, because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
This story about high school diplomas was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
*Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Dessie Bowling’s name.