Fighting the Brain Drain
By Andrew Dellman, University of South Dakota Student
The “brain drain,” a concept from Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s book Hollowing Out the Middle, is an issue that affects everyone in South Dakota. The brain drain is the outmigration of trained individuals from rural America to urbanized places around the nation. In their book, Carr and Kefalas, sociologists from two universities in New York, argue that this outmigration is a direct result of the actions of the communities. As Jim Beddow, a former gubernatorial candidate in South Dakota and current consultant to the Rural Learning Center, phrased it, schools and communities in rural America are giving youth the idea they have to “leave to succeed.” As South Dakotans, the brain drain is something we need to understand and the actions being taken to stop it are something we should learn about. The reversal of the brain drain is necessary to preserve the communities that we love to live in.
South Dakota communities are falling victim to the brain drain all across the state. According to census data41 of 66 counties in South Dakota declined from 2000 to 2010 with 19 counties losing over 10% of their population. This loss, as stated by Carr and Kefalas, is in part the problem of the communities themselves. The schools, as well as the communities themselves in these areas, give students the idea that success is not achievable in the communities they live in. I recently conducted a survey amongst members of the School of Education at the University of South Dakota and found that many of the same things recorded by Carr and Kefalas were present in the students there. A majority of the students I talked to say they think success can be equal in their community and other communities but they would never go back to where they are from for various reasons. One student responded, “I will never go back,” another responded “nothing, they have discouraged me to go work back at the school.” Of the few that said they would go back most wanted to go back to correct things that their community had not done well. One student said, “I would like to go back to improve the school because it’s failing.” Others had similar responses, all looking to bring something to the community they thought it was lacking.
The negative message we are sending, that you have to “leave to succeed,” is the reason that our youth do not want to come back. Over 50 of students surveyed said they thought they could be successful in their community, but their community never made an effort to get them to come back. Small communities in the state emphasize success is tied to going to college and getting a degree. Over 75% of the students surveyed said in the high school they went to teachers spent more time with college bound students than any other group. Why would we focus our schooling on students that we make no effort to retain?
Two things need to be done to change what is going on; first we need to give equal attention to all students and second we need to make an effort to ensure that students will stay in the community, or return once they have finished college. The students that will not be going to college are the students that will be directly involved in the community immediately after graduation. Teachers devoting a majority of their time, estimated as high as 70% by one student, to students going to college is counter productive to the success of the community. If the teachers spend their time teaching the students that will leave and the community does nothing to get them back the community is essentially taking away their chance for success. Schools and communities need to focus more on the students that will stay in the community developing their skills to help them lead the community and give them the information they need to be successful. Second we need to find way to attract the students that do go on to college and get degrees back to our communities. The idea must be planted before they go to college, getting them to return after they have left is not very effective. Mr. Beddow suggests an incentive plan to get students to appreciate community before they ever leave. This appreciation of the community is what is necessary to get students to want to come back. One student I surveyed at USD said they would love to go back to their community because they like the community and the people in the community. This is an example of the appreciation, referenced by Mr. Beddow, successfully creating a desire to return to the community in a student.
Examples of the “brain drain” can be seen all around the state of South Dakota. Put yourself on a highway, let’s say highway 34 from Interstate-29 to Pierre. You will drive through many towns on your way to the capitol. These towns are some of the towns being hit hardest by the brain drain, many of them appearing to be nothing more than an elevator with a few houses. The schools in these towns are shrinking, some shutting down and consolidating with other towns in the area. Many of the towns appear to have no businesses, no infrastructure, outside of an elevator and a bar. But each and every one of these towns means something to somebody. Every one of them is home to somebody, holds memories of the past, and potential for the future, if the right steps are taken. What can be done to stop these towns from disappearing?
I asked this very question to Mr. Lance Witte of Wessington Springs, one of the towns on highway 34. Mr. Witte talked about the new hope that is coming out of a city that was shrinking through an initiative started by the Wessington Springs school district. When Mr. Witte described the community before the initiative it was a perfect example of the brain drain in effect. The community had no sense of connection to one another, there was no effort made by the school to keep the students in the area or to draw them back to the community after they had gone to post-secondary school.
The initiative put in place was a strategic planning initiative enacted by the school to create a vested interest for the students connecting them to their community, and showing them they can create their own opportunities in the community. The community was full of entrepreneurs more than willing to take part in the initiative. The community had so many people the original focus group was made into two groups and both of those groups were packed. The groups were an effort by members of the community to learn how they could help make the community stronger. The solution the school district and community came up with was a two-part process. The first step put students in the community doing internships to see that jobs they might have in the future existed in their own community. The second part was a “beautification project.”
Mr. Witte was very excited about both steps when I interviewed him, noting the positive results that were immediate made apparent from both. The first step revealed to the students that jobs were in the community, and good jobs. The jobs could have been anywhere, but the desire of the business people to live in the area had them in the middle of South Dakota in a small town. There was everything from a technology guru working for TED to medical billing services and a consignment mart on main street Wessington Springs. The consignment mart, supported by students’ efforts profited approximately $25,000 last year according to Mr. Witte. All of this money went into a scholarship fund, again creating a sense of gratitude in the student toward the school for helping them in their post-secondary efforts. Post-secondary, not college was a goal of the school district for all of their students. Mr. Witte realized this as a necessity for students to be competitive in today’s workplace. This conscious effort by the school district directly addresses the issue with attention of teacher we saw earlier. If the focus is on students going to post-secondary school and every student, 21 out of 21 in last year’s Wessington Springs class, go to college the attention of the teachers is on every student and every student, because of the initiatives of the school, feels connected to the community.
The other step of the process, the beautification project, strengthens that connection. The “Spartan Buckets,” as Mr. Witte called them, are garbage cans painted by the students with the school mascot. This beautification project, still in the process of being completed, has connected the students not just to the community but the things in the community as well. Both of these steps have “strengthened the pride in the community, not just with the students but the entire community” Mr. Witte said. It has also show the students that they can create their own opportunities in their community.
This is just one initiative that has been taken in South Dakota. While it is still in its early years, started three years ago, it is having a visible effect on the community. The brain drain has been slowed in Wessington Springs by the actions of the school district. Both the school and the community have benefitted from the efforts, both relying on the other to sustain the project. This effort is reviving one community, undoubtedly similar efforts could revive other communities around the state, and the region as well. The survival of small towns rest in the hands of the small towns themselves and who better to lead the charge than the school districts?