As mines close in coal country, so do schools
PIKEVILLE, Ky. — When Shelby Valley High School opened in 1990 in the boom times of eastern Kentucky coal country, it had so many students that it built an addition the very next year. Now that mines are closing, the school population is half the size.
When the families leave, Principal Greg Napier asks them why. "Gotta have a job," they say.
Kentucky's public school system added more than 30,000 students over the past decade, growing 4.8 percent while the national student population grew 2.5 percent. Yet eastern Kentucky's schools have lost more than 12,000 students over the last 15 years. State officials pin the 9 percent drop directly to the declining coal industry.
Forced To Combine Or Close Schools
It's bad next door in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, too. That state has lost 26 percent of its public school student population since 1979. A full 42 of the state's 55 counties have lost students.
Some districts have combined or closed schools that have lost too many students. Families that stay put are forced to send their kids on longer bus rides on mountain highways to the next-closest classroom. Chain-link fences now surround empty schools that had served as gathering places in some small communities. They had hosted potluck dinners, pancake breakfasts and even doubled as support centers during mining disasters.
In Kentucky, at least, the districts being left behind have less money. The state — like many— pays for public education in part based on the average number of students who attend a school each day.
It all adds to the burden in a region already struggling with poverty and not enough jobs.
Making Kentucky More Attractive
More than 10,000 people have left eastern Kentucky since 2010, according to the state.
"Funding is an issue all across the state, but when you are losing students, it totally exacerbates the problem," said Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee. The group is seeking to make Kentucky one of the top 20 states in reading scores, teacher salaries and other categories.
Kentucky lawmakers and two independent groups are looking into how the state pays for education. In part, they want to see how to ease the impact on dwindling districts. Governor Steve Beshear said he would wait for those studies to finish before he considers any changes.
In the meantime, Napier has converted many of his empty classrooms into other uses, including an indoor air-rifle range and storage for an Army officer training program. One classroom is now an office for a teacher who works with students who are homebound or in the hospital. Others are computer labs. But at least two still sit vacant.
Fewer Students, Fewer Expenses? Not Really
No district has lost more students in Kentucky than Pike County. The county has seen its enrollment decline by more than 1,000 students since 2001. The district's enrollment is half of what it was in 1955, dipping below 9,000 for the first time last year. When the district's average daily attendance fell by 270 students from 2013 to 2014, it lost $1.1 million in funding from the state.
Silberman said if a district has fewer students, it makes sense that it should have fewer expenses. But that only works if the students leave in groups of 25 at a time in the same grade level and at the same school. School budgets allow for one teacher for about 25 students, explained Pike County Superintendent David Lester. But officials can't cut a teacher every time they lose 25 students because they need teachers to teach the students they have. Because students leave scattered throughout the district, that makes it difficult to cut teachers without combining grade levels.
Lester has combined schools instead. Last school year, the district closed three schools and merged them into a new school that now runs from kindergarten through eighth grade.
"It's just very difficult emotionally to have a school (close) that is sort of the center of a community, particularly a small, rural community," Lester said. "The school seems to be a focal point for them and when they lose it, it's not an easy thing."
Highways And Long Bus Rides
In West Virginia, the practice of combining two or more schools has been common over the past two decades. For that to end, McDowell County schools Superintendent Nelson K. Spencer said there has to be more jobs in the area, which starts with building better roads — the county lacks a four-lane highway — and constructing affordable good-quality housing.
"There's been minimal growth as far as economic development in McDowell," Spencer said. "Coal is still one of the things that we're relying on. From talking to citizens who work in the mines, it's not boding well right now."
The West Virginia Department of Education limits one-way bus runs to 30 minutes for elementary students, 45 minutes for middle schoolers and an hour for high school students. Rides that long are common, especially in the southern part of the state.
Mona Laxton lives in Lashmeet, a tiny spot tucked about 12 miles off Interstate 77. Her three children, ages 11, 14 and 16, wake at 5 a.m. and get picked up at 6:25 a.m. for the 35-minute ride to school.
In the mornings, the bus goes up the mountain past their house to the first stop farther up the road, then comes back down to pick them up. The long bus ride makes for a long day. One of the Laxton children plays football and on some nights doesn't get home until after 9 p.m. "He's exhausted," Laxton said.
Except for moving away, there's not a lot that can been done.