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6 Common Traits of a Successful Rural Community

In Perryton, Texas, kids are expected to succeed.

“We place a high premium on academics, work ethic, and community involvement,” says Scott Strawn, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agent for Ochiltree County. Perryton is the largest community in the county of roughly 10,000, situated in the Texas Panhandle. Ochiltree County is agriculture and oil country, where cotton is the primary field crop and beef feedyards, swine production facilities, and oil fields dot the landscape. 

Holding kids to high expectations is the first step in creating economic opportunity for rural youth, according to Social Mobility – Insights from Communities Whose Young People are Climbing the Income Ladder, a recent study by the National 4-H Council and the Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit that collaborates with mission-driven leaders.

The study highlights communities where the American Dream – defined as a generation making more money than their parents did – is alive and well.

Researchers worked from economist Raj Chetty’s geographical mapping of economic opportunity for youth, along with data on demographics and known upward mobility traits, to identify 133 rural counties ranking in the top 10 for youth economic advancement. 

With the help of land grant university Cooperative Extension Systems, researchers then conducted more than 200 personal interviews with teachers, community leaders, and middle and high school students in 19 communities (including Perryton) ranging in population from 600 to 20,000.

The communities in the final study exhibit some racial diversity, including Hispanic and Native American populations, though the areas include few African Americans. According to the report, none of the approximately 200 rural counties in which at least a quarter of the population is African American ranked in the top quartile for upward mobility, and only two ranked in the top half. Ochiltree County, Texas, is around 60% Hispanic, with most of the remainder Caucasian.

The study produced six common factors that contribute to a community’s positive economic outlook for youth.

SIX COMMON FACTORS

1. A high expectation that youth will opt in and work hard to acquire the skills to build a better future; a low tolerance for opting out.

Many of the communities visited exhibit a positive outlook on life and the future, and kids are a vital part of the community.

Even in the largest towns, kids talked of how people in the community knew them by name and, along with their peers, expected them to participate in community activities. 

Strawn says Ochiltree County echoes the “stay busy mind-set” heard throughout the study. “It’s one of the things we heard from the kids,” says Strawn. “They want more to do.” 

Perryton, the location of the countywide school district, has an advantage over many rural areas where transportation to nonessential activities can be a problem. “The kids are already in town for school, so it’s not hard to keep them here for more,” he says.

In successful communities, opting in isn’t just for the kids. On the eve of a school play in Spearman, Texas, a teacher in the report spoke of getting text messages from three different student actors, asking if she was going to attend. “They expect me to show up,” she says, “and I will.”

2. Strong, informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors.

“Livestock showing is big here,” says Strawn. Working with animals teaches kids responsibility and husbandry, as well as financial acumen. “Each kid makes the investment to purchase and raise an animal and, hopefully, see a profitable return.” That’s where the community comes in. Kids can work through the USDA FSA office to secure purchase and operating loans. Community members willingly come up with the funds to purchase animals at the county fair livestock auction. “We have a lot of money come in to our show sale,” says Strawn. “We want to see all the kids succeed.”

The community spirit carries over beyond the show ring. In the Texas Panhandle, towns virtually close down when a sports team makes state playoffs, and in Perryton, the Lions Club hosts an annual banquet that honors students for their academic achievements.

Local media highlights youth accomplishments. As a Perryton community leader states, “You can hardly do anything as a young person in this community without gaining recognition.” 

Churches in rural communities often play an expanded role, providing social and direct service support. A pastor in the study says of efforts like food banks or mission trips, “It gets them involved in something that’s bigger than themselves.”

3. An early focus on career pathways.

“People here want kids to do well and, if possible, figure out a way to come back here to work and live,” says Strawn. To help accomplish that goal, the community worked with Frank Phillips College, nearly an hour away, to bring a branch campus of the junior college to Perryton. In addition, the local oil and gas industry put $1 million in a Pathways Scholarship Fund; it covers two years’ tuition and fees for students meeting academic requirements.

Successful communities treat education as a foundation for building careers grounded in economic realties. Some schools begin career counseling in elementary school. Nearly all communities help kids engage with the business community and learn vital skills through job shadowing, internships, and part-time jobs. 

Perryton regularly hosts career days and fairs. In Redwood, Minnesota, chamber of commerce leaders teach a high school careers class, and Minnesota’s South Central Perkins Consortium produces a Course-to-Career resource guide for schools titled, “Make the Connection From Learning to Earning.”

The effort stretches beyond a focus on four-year degrees. “Parents and teachers expect high school graduates to pursue some form of postsecondary education, and there is little stigma about attending two-year community or vocational colleges,” says the report. “Many of the community members we spoke with described with pride how their children and other family members pursued vocational training pathways.”

That trend is a recent one.

4. A wealth of opportunities for youth to build life skills, regardless of the community’s size.

In Ochiltree County, Strawn expects every kid at every 4-H meeting to stand up and speak. “It may only be answering roll call,” says Strawn. “Kids need to learn how to stand up in a group and speak for themselves.”

Across the study, researchers heard young people describe gaining greater confidence, enhanced communication skills, stronger résumés, and time-management skills, in addition to leadership skills through a variety of community-involvement access points.

Kids in Perryton participate in Texas Community Futures Forum, a statewide focus group to direct AgriLife Extension programs, and help with the Path to the Plate initiative, educating the public about ag production, in addition to visiting the local nursing home and honoring veterans through Wreaths Across America.

5. Creative solutions for overcoming the many potential challenges in accessing opportunities.

The challenges facing rural America are great. Lack of reliable broadband service, access to health care, transportation to outlying areas, and the opioid crisis add to financial barriers and skyrocketing college debt.

Most school districts try to keep cost of outside activities low, and community members provide direct, often discrete, financial support, helping to keep involvement by all kids affordable. Schools and communities work together to better use existing transportation systems.

Perryton’s Pathways Scholarships allowed 22 students to attend college last year, many the first in their families to do so. The town also provides an alternative high school, offering a streamlined curriculum for troubled youth like teen mothers.

6. A sense of shared fate and a deep commitment to sustaining the community.

Communities that raise successful kids are often those that have survived past threats – like the Farm Crisis or boom/bust oil cycles – and that creates a sense of shared responsibility for community survival and growth.

Many communities enlist young people to help plan parks and community centers, giving them a sense of ownership. Strawn says one of Perryton’s greatest challenges is teaching kids to financially invest in the community the way past and current generations have.

Creating communities that will entice young people to stay or return includes creating avenues for economic advancement. Broadband, in particular, can make all the difference in whether rural communities thrive or stagnate. One Minnesota resident described broadband’s absence in many rural areas as “the inequity of our generation.”

Shared fate often means building a sense of inclusion by increasing racial diversity among adults serving youth and encouraging multigenerationalism.

“We continue to face challenges in blending our Hispanic and Caucasian communities,” says Strawn. “It’s better than it used to be, and I don’t see much overt discrimination, but the two communities function somewhat separately. They each have their own culture and language barriers. The kids, however, aren’t as quick to define the differences and are often the ones leading their families to blend.”

In all cases, holding kids from all ethnic and socio-economic groups to the same high standards appears to be a key element in youth achieving the American Dream.

Testing the Findings 

The six common factors identified by the study are based on communities with the greatest success in providing upward mobility for youth. 

To gain a broader perspective, researchers spoke with community leaders in six additional counties in other regions of the U.S. with less-than median incomes and, in some cases, a greater proportion of African Americans. 

Like those in the initial study, each community has its own assets and challenges, including the presence of the six common factors, though to lesser degrees. In areas where those factors are weak, racial and socioeconomic factors largely determine who climbs the income ladder and who does not.

One former teacher in Amite County, Mississippi, says, “It’s hard to focus on what’s going on in class when you’re hungry or there’s domestic violence [in your home].”

In some areas, the economy is dominated by one industry, and there can be a failure to recognize that jobs may not be there in a generation. Often, families can have an overwhelming share of influence on their children’s development. So much so, that when a child struggles, others in the community may be reluctant
to step in.

Government practices are not always helpful. “Every time the county goes through a budget cut, the government cuts the services from the neediest communities,” says one school superintendent.

Lack of economic opportunity can lead to a fatalistic attitude, challenging schools and communities to get kids to start opening up, dreaming again, looking at possibilities.

Yet, despite the challenges, each community strives to implement its own creative efforts. In successful communities, the focus is on locally driven solutions and a realization that the youth of the community are an investment in the future.

“4-H was founded on the belief that when kids are empowered to pursue their passions and chart their own course, their skills grow and take shape, helping them to become true leaders in their lives, careers, and communities,” says National 4-H Council president and CEO Jennifer Sirangelo. “Through 4-H’s experience, we have learned that each community’s most powerful asset for growth and development is its young people. We are gratified to see this philosophy reflected in the most successful communities of today’s rural America.”

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