Demands and diminishing returns make it easier to leave

By Randy Rieland

For Foothills Forum

At some point last Friday night, each of the 70 graduating seniors at Rappahannock County High School had their moment. It may have been fleeting, but for all of those handed a diploma, it was an abstraction suddenly real.

“Me and my friends would always talk about how we couldn’t wait to graduate and go and do this and that,” said 18-year-old Brandon Smith, who lives in Flint Hill. “Now it’s here.”

For many in the Class of 2019, though, that likely means more than just moving into the next phase of their lives. For them, it’s the beginning of the end of their time in the place where they’ve spent most, if not all, of their childhoods.

It’s the story of most rural communities these days. There’s nothing new about younger generations being drawn away to city life, but the demands and diminishing returns of farming have made it easier to leave. In a place like Rappahannock, increasingly a retirement community, career options are limited, and few places are geared to the social lives of young adults. Plus, having access to a vehicle is essential, whether it’s to shop, get to a job or just see friends.

“They want to live in a great place like this, but they want the amenities of young adults,” said Dani Pond, a former county teacher turned guidance counselor who works closely with students to get ready for life beyond high school. “They want to live in a place where they’ll be able to have play dates with other young families. They want to get more home for their money. And some are disheartened that living here is not really an option for them.”

Where everybody knows your name

Students will tell you that attending a small, rural school has its good points and bad points. The good? Everyone knows you. The bad? Everyone knows you.

Many of those who got their diplomas last Friday did so with people they’ve known since kindergarten. To Hope Stanton, whose family moved to Rappahannock before her junior year, that level of familiarity, at first, felt “nerve wracking.”

She had come from a school in Loudoun County with about 2,000 students, a place where it was easy to get lost. Here you couldn’t fade into the walls.

It turned out that was what Stanton needed. “Coming to a small, intimate environment helped me put myself out there more,” she said. “I was able to blossom. My confidence has definitely grown. It’s just easier when you know everyone, like getting up to make a presentation in class. You know every single person in the room.”

For Macy Montgomery, who’s headed to Liberty University in Lynchburg, having a long history with many of your classmates can have a downside. She said she sometimes felt pressure to meet their expectations of her.

“In high school, I always wanted to set a good example to others, to lead. And people would see me like that. It will be nice to go to a big campus where no one knows you and I won’t have that identity anymore.”

But going away to a four-year university is still a big commitment for some. Lisa Heiser realized this after taking groups of students on visits to larger campuses, including George Mason, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth and Radford.

“Some of these students have never really been out of the county,” she said. “They were overwhelmed and closed themselves off into a shell. How do you send them off to a four-year college? To live on their own and have a roommate and fend for themselves?”

Next steps

About 36 percent of the seniors will make the leap to four-year colleges in the fall. Another 27 percent say they intend to enter the military or start working. But the top specific choice of 2019 graduates is attending one of the campuses of Lord Fairfax Community College. Sixteen seniors plan to go there.

Hope Stanton is one of them. She said she wants to get a better feel for the college experience before committing to a four-year school. She said she’s following the advice of her older sister, who told her she wished she had first gone to a community college.

“I know people who spent all this money to go to a four-year college and they majored in something like biology, and now they’re in construction,” Stanton said. “That’s perfectly fine, but they’re not using their degree at all.”

Another big factor in Lord Fairfax’s popularity among Rappahannock students is a “dual enrollment” program that allows them to earn college credits while still in high school at a substantially reduced rate — only 25 percent of the usual cost. There are English courses, but a welding class as well.

“Because we’re so small, we have a more limited selection of classes,” said guidance counselor Michelle Griffith. “But dual enrollment provides an opportunity to take some challenging courses. More of our students are seeing the value of community college.”

Lisa Heiser, who, as an on-site career coach from Lord Fairfax, oversees the program at Rappahannock, said 30 sophomores have already expressed interest in taking dual enrollment courses next year. She said the renewed emphasis on skills training has made students more aware of the range of community college options.

“There’s the workforce solution side,” she said. “You can be a plumber, you can be a carpenter, you can do HVAC. You can go into the medical field. You can be a surgical technician.”

It also helped to take kids to actually see the Lord Fairfax campuses in Middletown and Warrenton. “Our trades students had thought of it as college,” Pond said. “Even the kids who weren’t trade were intimidated because they had this vision of what college looked like. You know, some big campus thing. It was fear of the unknown, even though it was just 30 minutes from the high school.”

Preparing for life

No matter where the departing seniors ultimately land, they have had the benefit of an education that in recent years has focused more intently on exposing them to both the opportunities and realities of life outside Rappahannock.

“This is a wonderful, tight-knit community,” said Pond, “but many of the kids have been sheltered in this little bubble. The comfort of Rappahannock can make them nervous about branching out or going to unknown places or taking risks.”

Helping students to see what’s possible and being ready to take advantage is one of the core missions of the school district’s “Profile of a Graduate” team. It’s a statewide initiative to shift some of the emphasis from standardized testing to more teaching of life skills and career options. Each school district has some latitude in how it goes about this, and Rappahannock Superintendent Shannon Grimsley has encouraged her team, created last year, to be inventive. Headed by the county’s 4-H coordinator Jenny Kapsa, it includes guidance counselors Griffith and Pond, Lord Fairfax counselor Heiser, and Kat Habib, director of Headwaters’ Next Step program.

There are field trips to hospitals and other businesses, preferably outside the county to get the students out of their comfort zone. The advisers have also made a point of tapping into the wide range of career experience in the community. During April, outside speakers led life skills workshops on matters ranging from avoiding credit card debt to relieving stress through yoga to basic dining etiquette. There was even a crash course on mortgages.

“We went into a class of ninth graders and talked about what a mortgage is,” said Kapsa. “And, we took the average teacher’s salary and the average mortgage in Rappahannock and the national average for food costs for a family of four. When you look at the numbers, you realize that you can’t really live in Rappahannock if you’re a teacher. We did that breakdown so the students could see all the things you need to consider as you’re moving forward.”

Thanks to the school district’s small size — total enrollment dropped to 822 last September, compared to more than 1,200 in 1980 — team members can start working with students while they’re still in elementary school to identify their interests and aptitude, and then help them develop more personalized academic and career plans when they reach high school.

Every senior is also expected to sit down for a mock job interview with a business professional from the community, a requirement that, at first, seemed to some a lame exercise. Pond remembers one student who showed up for his interview wearing a hoodie, blue jeans and boots, along with an attitude. But she said that when he left, he was sold on the experience.

”He felt good about himself, even though he had made some mistakes,” she said. “When he left, he didn’t feel like a failure.”

Other needs

Though this school year will end soon, Grimsley and the other members of the Profile of a Graduate team are already looking at how they can sustain their momentum next fall. One priority is to help students find more internships with local companies or organizations, a tough challenge in a community where most are small operations.

“One thing we talk about a lot is how can we help our kids compete when we don’t have a lot of businesses here at our fingertips,” said Grimsley. She said they’re looking at how they could make use of “virtual job shadowing” services, through which students can learn about different careers by watching videos of people doing their jobs.

There are also discussions about how the school district can build on its partnership with Rapp U, through which Rappahannock High students have been able to take a nurse aide training class. Twenty have completed the course in the past two years, helping them to qualify for jobs more in demand here. Now, Grimsley said, they’re considering whether something similar could be done with cybersecurity training.

But Grimsley sees other challenges, too, beyond the focus on career options and life skills. She thinks the school district needs to take a closer look at how well its curriculum serves the social and emotional needs of its students. Research shows rising levels of anxiety and depression among school age children, a trend that Rappahannock hasn’t been able to escape. In fact, according to the most recent School Climate Survey developed by the Virginia Department of Education, 17 percent of students at the high school said they had seriously considered suicide.

“There are some difficult issues, such as substance abuse,” she said. “How are we addressing that at each of the grade levels?”

Kat Habib, who has worked with students the past five years as director of the Headwaters program for post-graduation planning, agrees that the struggles of Rappahannock’s young people can get lost in such a bucolic setting.

“We live in this beautiful place without a lot of people so maybe there’s the assumption that the difficulties you’d find in an urban area are not here,” she said. “But some of these kids are going through some hard things.”

While enrollment continues to drop—the size of the graduating senior class is almost 25 percent lower than it was in 2005—the number of students planning to attend four-year colleges has remained fairly constant the past few years. Here’s the breakdown for where Rappahannock High seniors are planning to head next fall.

Senior Voices:

Jeffrey Grove, 18, Chester Gap

His next step: He plans to go to Lord Fairfax Community College, where he wants to study construction and welding.

His motivation: “I don’t want to sit at a desk the rest of my life. So I decided on construction, with a minor in welding. They teach you so you know what you’re doing, and they said it can lead right to a job.”

What he appreciates about Rappahannock High: “The counselors look out for you. They put me in a construction management class.”

His future in Rappahannock County: “I’d like to eventually settle in a place like this, a place that’s small where there’s not a lot of big businesses. I know there’s a lot of old people in the community, but I hope they’re able to pass down their land to the next generation.”

His advice to new high schoolers: “When an older person comes to the school, listen to them. Cause they know what they’re talking about. Also, if someone gives you an opportunity, at least try it.”

Hope Stanton, 18, Washington

Her next step: Will study at Lord Fairfax Community College in the fall. Plans to major in nursing or surgical technology.

Her motivation: “Both my grandmothers worked in the medical field and it’s always been interesting to me. I really like to help people and do what I can to make their lives better.”

What she appreciates about Rappahannock High: “I’ve liked the whole atmosphere at the school. Everyone’s known each other for so long. It’s like everyone is part of one big family. It’s been amazing to be part of that.”

Her future in Rappahannock County: “I’ll definitely come back and visit because my parents are here. But I probably won’t live here after I’m finished with college, especially if I’m working in a hospital. I’d want to live closer to where I work.”

Her advice to new high schoolers: “Get involved. It sounds like a cliché, but honestly, if you put yourself out there, you’re going to find some really great friends. And, you’re going to figure out what you love to do.”

Katie Bedortha, 17, Amissville

Her next step: She plans to join the U.S. Army in August.

Her motivation: “I started thinking about this back when I was 12. My uncle and grandfather were in the Army. I decided that it’s the best way for me to go. I’ve always felt the need to help people and I feel that I should try to serve my country. I plan to get a degree and use an Army program to pay for it.”

What she appreciates about Rappahannock High: “Because it’s a really small high school, I feel like I know everyone, like we’re all friends.”

Her future in Rappahannock County: “I’ve loved growing up around animals. I could see myself coming back one day, after my Army career is over, and having my own farm here.”

Her advice to new high schoolers: “Take advantage of the small classes here. Kids in a lot of schools don’t have that and they grow up in big school where it can be harder to have a lot of friends.”

Macy Montgomery, 17, Sperryville

Her next step: She’ll attend Liberty University in Lynchburg, where she hopes to begin a career in medical research.

Her motivation: Since being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 9th grade, she’s wanted to learn more about the condition. “I’m excited to start doing research. And I’m definitely excited about the Christian environment there.”

What she appreciates about Rappahannock High: “Whenever I wanted to do a project at the school, they would say, ‘Absolutely, go ahead.’” One project she initiated was to get a grant to make glucose gel available for students with Type 1 diabetes when their blood sugar gets too low.

Her future in Rappahannock County: “It’s beautiful, but I probably would not live here. Medical research has no options here.”

Her advice to new high schoolers: “Don’t overwork. Enjoy yourself while you’re in high school. You don’t have that much responsibility yet. Just make sure you work hard enough so you can go to a place you want.”

Brandon Smith, 18, Flint Hill

His next step: Right after graduation he intends to apply for a job at VDOT.

His motivation: ”I’ve been doing related work. I have experience with bush hogging and mowing.”

What he appreciates about Rappahannock High: “The teachers and the staff. They’re great-hearted people and they know what they’re doing.”

His future in Rappahannock County: “I hope to be able to stay here. It’s a beautiful place. Not a lot of people bother you here.”

His advice to new high schoolers: “Do your work. From 9th to 11th grade, it was hard for teachers to get anything from me. I was hardheaded. So, I’d tell people, don’t wait until your senior year to decide to do stuff. Your senior year is supposed to be fun.”