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This Rural Mission

Jan 14, 2020

We started off this season talking about how limited broadband access can impact student performance and the overall well-being of a community. Today we are going from worry to a celebration and talking about the people who make a positive impact on students in rural communities through the public health system. 

This Rural Mission is a podcast brought to you by Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. The podcast is produced with funds from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Family Medicine Department. Welcome to season two, I'm your host, Julia Terhune, and I hope you enjoy this episode.

Education levels in rural communities is something to talk about. While rural communities lead the nation in number of individuals who have a high school diploma, according to the USDA, the number of people living and working with any additional education drops right off. In 2016, only 19% of all rural adults had anything more than an associate's degree as compared to 33% of all urban adults. When we look at county data, rural America leads the way in number of counties where more than 20% of the working population does not have a high school diploma. The prospects for higher education in rural America is bleak and it's low educational attainment seems to perpetuate the issues of rural poverty and the vitality of these communities, but there are success stories.

If we drive North to beautiful Charlevoix County, we will get to a five square mile town called Boyne city. Boyne city is home to around 3,750 people, most of whom are over the age of 40. The average family in this area makes about $31,000 a year, which is more than $20,000 less than the mean income for the state, allowing for the average poverty rate in the county to sit around 12.5%. Like the rest of rural America, the majority of citizens have no more than a few college courses. Meaning that 60% of the population of Boyne City has nothing more than a high school diploma. For all those listening who are interested in medical access in rural Michigan, the health resource and service administration or HERSA has designated Charlevoix County as a health professional shortage area for primary care, dental care, and mental health care.

In 2018, Boyne City High School saw some amazing students graduate. In fact, around 115 stellar graduates came out of points city, if we're going to be straight about it. We are going to talk to three of these amazing students, but I want to quickly set the stage. Boyne City High School graduates are coming from a rural school in a county that has some big social factors to overcome. 38% of all the students at Boyne City High School receive free or reduced lunch, and around 18% of the population that lives on less than $35,000 per year are families with children.

Furthermore, I took the Liberty of plotting how far a student would have to travel to get to the nearest four year university from Boyne and I posted that map on our Facebook page, but I'll give the bag away. The closest four year institution to Boyne City is Lake Superior State University, which is over 90 miles away and across a five mile bridge. Therefore, options for a close to home education don't really exist for young adults looking to get something more than a high school diploma. But I told you there were success stories for this episode and there are. It's just that the students that have found their way to higher ed had more work to do than you would've expected.

So let's introduce our leading ladies, shall we? Katie is going to Northern Michigan University. Katie is the daughter of Joe McCue who you heard earlier this season and is the oldest of a big family. She's staying in the state, but remember NMU is over 150 miles from Boyne. Maddie is going to Brown. Yes, Brown, and is going to tell you a lot about her trail to an Ivy League education and Anna, well, Anna is going to Stanford, you know the number two university in the world.

So what is different for them? Anna, Katie, and Maddie graduated from a class of around a hundred to 115 people and when I asked them about how many were going on to university, they had this to tell me.

University, university? Maybe 40? 50?


Probably 40.

Yeah, because a lot are going to [crosstalk 00:05:04].

Community college.


Okay, and is that pretty standard for your area?

That's pretty good actually. Yeah, our grade I think had-

very ambitious.

Ambitious, very academically inclined grade at least compared to others and the three ahead. Or even the three behind. Just looking forward. Most of our students put academics before a lot of other things, which was kind of uncommon.

So was there a lot of competition then in your grade academically?




Everybody was applying for the same scholarships. It's like, "I don't know if I want my friends to read my scholarship letters because they're applying for the same ones." It was hard.

If you look at the top 10% of our grade-

Of level four.

Yeah, it's super impressive the number of people who-

The top 10 had above [inaudible 00:00:05:58].


Okay. So what is different? Why is your class different than the three ahead and the three below?

I have a little bit of theory.


So in fifth and sixth grade the math classes were accelerated or there were some accelerated math classes, which was a newer thing in the middle school and they [crosstalk 00:06:21].

They took a whole chunk of us and just pushed us forward.

IT pushed us up and then the chunk right behind us ended up meeting at the same place in eighth grade where we were all in an accelerated class and that was 30 students, and those 30 students continued to be the top 30 in the grade all the way through high school because they've been pushing our grade.

There are lots of educators who care and care a lot about encouraging and promoting student success, but the concentrated effort that these Boyne City graduates experienced is a positive benefit of being part of a rural school. A rural school where they had the ability to identify and focus on those 30 high achievers. This concentration didn't just stop with that top 30. It had an impact on all the other students as well.

Yeah and [crosstalk 00:07:12].

But it grows everybody else up because now the standards-

Yes, now there's more competition.

... Were being good or academically good for lack of a better term is so much higher than everybody else raises. Yeah.

There's something else about the accelerated English classes too with that. The same 30 people are in that.

Because there was so much of a demand.

Then it just kind of ... Everybody had to be working a lot harder to be considered the standard.

So are there any other theories that you guys have [inaudible 00:07:41]?

we were really close and we just so it was all this really positivity. We were are really positive grade and we all had these great outlooks on the future and every chance that we got that we could improve on those AP classes or advanced classes everybody took it, because we'd all just saw this opportunity to do better.

And it almost became a social thing in the sense of if you're in honors English now you get to be with all the fun people in the honors English. So now our honors English class is 30 kids big and it's fun. Or AP World or calculus or physics. You get to be with your friends.


So 98 people, that's easy to do, right? If 30 people can easily have an effect on 98 people. So if you guys were at a bigger school, do you think he would have had that same effect or do you think that that would've been the status quo?

I don't think we would've. I think we would have just been that one class full of nerds.

Yeah, because [crosstalk 00:08:44]. You have all the opportunities. It's open everybody normally. And so it's just kind of like, "Oh, it's still part of the thing." You don't as involved because it's just your educational process. There's nothing different. You don't have to fight. For those advanced classes.

For us, we had two AP courses offered taught by teachers and so if there was an AP course everybody's is like, "Oh my gosh, there's something new. We all need to take this." It's really cool where it's like my cousin goes to a bigger school and it's like, "Oh, we have five to 10 AP courses offered and it's no big deal." You take it if you want to take it [inaudible 00:09:24] show your college [inaudible 00:09:26] college SAT scores and all of your grades throughout your previous classes and your grade point average. We didn't even have a [inaudible 00:09:35]. You have to get teacher recommendations to get into these advanced courses because everybody wants to do it.

There's a benefit to that fight that Katie and Anna spoke about. It can prepare you for what comes next. We talk about the plight and vulnerabilities of rural areas on this podcast often, but we also need to highlight the resilience, the tenacity that living with limited resources can provide. Catherine Ellison was from my small town. She is one of those brave souls we speak about who goes away, gets tons of experience in education and comes right back to the community. She is currently the elected school board president for [inaudible 00:10:16] Public Schools and I asked her about the barriers, both perceived and real that rural public school graduates face.

Well, talking about your perceived in reality. I think it's perceived through a disadvantage. It's a smaller school. Maybe they don't have as many offerings as a big school. You have the same teachers for years and you see the same people in the hallways but in a lot of ways, especially with today's these kids where everybody's on their phone, on the computer, you on the tablets, there isn't that social interaction. Small districts can be great. I mean, you're still going to learn how to read and write and do math, all those basic things. But you're also going to learn people skills? You know everybody you're going to school with, you're going to have a conversation with them, not just on the internet. Right? So there is for that focus. I mean, and teachers care about you because they know you. I mean, you might have the same kid two or three years if you're, you know, teach different subjects in high school or something, right? So you get to know those kids.

So I think that's the real advantage is, is the customer service, if you will. Teachers know their kids. Administrators know the kids. It's a small district so a lot of times you'll see a kid ... If you were elementary school teacher you had then so I think you care about those kids as a result because they're not just another random face in the crowd.

Did you feel you had any advantages?

I mean I think some of the advantages were certainly that, and I was a shy person, but I could talk to people. I wasn't afraid to talk to a teacher because one, I had known everybody in my class since kindergarten, it's the same people. So it was no big deal to get up in front of those people and say something or ask a teacher a question because you knew everyone. So in college, I think that even though I clearly didn't know everybody in my class there I was like, "Well, we got to go talk to the teacher. We've got to ask them the question, we've got to ask the professor a question. This wasn't such a big deal." Which can be the advantage because then once I became a professor I knew if a student makes the effort to come talk to you out of a hundred kids you might get two, I'm probably going to look on them a little bit more favorably when it comes to grading time. Just because they tried, right? They made the effort. A lot of kids don't. I think that is really an advantage, right? To kind of learn that, not be afraid of those people in front of the classroom.

So what barriers do you guys perceive you had to getting higher education being in a rural school?

I didn't know about a lot of things going in freshman year. Just like the courses you can take, all the places that you could apply. It was kind of like a cookie cutter path because it's such a small school they can't offer all of these advanced classes. So when you go to a big school you can just pick between all of these AP courses. For us, even freshman year we knew we were going to take AP world at some point and AP calculus at some point and that just in between you got to pick your electives.

I think also, I mean not to hate on our school. Clearly we had a great academic experience at our school, but in a place that small the measure of success for a school is everybody graduating. That's what they want. They want to push kids through. They want everybody to graduate, which is a good goal. You do want kids to graduate. That's important and for everybody to have a high school diploma, but because of that when it's set up it's set up with the goal of everybody graduating. The goal is not, "We want all of these kids to go to crazy academic institutions." Or anything like that and so when you're setting up your school system for that middle of the road section of your class, then sometimes the top portion has never pushed hard enough. Right from day one it was never, "How are we going to get you into college? How are you going to do this? How are we going to do that?" It was just, "Okay, these are the classes you have to take to graduate."

And I mean, granted, nothing against our school. We had great counselors, academic advisors, but it was hard where we only have two AP courses. I felt that the staff definitely helped me and it was a personalized learning experience, but sometimes I felt like, "Why can't you help me more?" I feel so bad because our counselor's the nicest lady ever.

She's so nice.

She was so sweet to us, but I remember standing in a hallway with her and her saying, "I don't think we're going to have room to put you in this college level government class." And me, because it's saved for the people who are trying to do the early college through the community college and me literally looking at her and being like, "I will bring my own chair and sit in the back every day."

Now how's that for overcoming barriers? Another perceived barrier that we have to deal with in rural communities comes in the form of diversity.

So where it's not diverse culturally, it's very diverse in the sense of living situations or incomes. It's not everybody who lives a life similar to me, it's here. I feel like people live so many different ... If I went to a big school I would find my niche group and I would hang out with probably people who are similar to me and have similar beliefs than me. Here I sit at my lunch table and every person around that table has a different living situation, different to political view and stuff and we just fight it. It's so fun because it's interesting if they can learn from them and stuff. So even though culturally we're all very similar, I think that sometimes you lose that view that's important with income and everything.

I'm sitting here and in my community, I'm a pretty average run of the mill normal living situation, normal everything but from their perspective I'm being recruited by the minority and low income and I'm like, "Huh, that just feels kind of odd that if I go outside of my community I'm in such a different place than they are as compared to all the people I know." And that's just kind of a weird identity thing. I never thought that I will be putting low income as something that my identity as they're trying to recruit me and I'm like, "This feels weird. This feels weird.

And you're comparing yourself to ...

Yeah, and I have to compare myself to a whole different group of people, different groups of students. In Boyne City it's a normal place, but anywhere else where you have to go you're ... The whole environment just makes you reconsider. I've never felt bad about myself in Boyne and I still don't feel bad about myself going up there because it's I love Boyne, I always have this to come back to, but it's just weird.

I mean from the rural standpoint, I feel like the same as you. I'm going out and we're competing against students who have been taking prep classes all four years. I went out last summer for a camp at Brown and all the girls in my dorm, I told them that I worked during the school year and they were just amazed. They're like, "How do you have time with that? Don't you take prep stuff after school?" And I'm like, "No. Then how are you here?" And I'm like, "Ooh, okay. I wonder ..." This is a story I always tell and I'm not like a redneck by any means in any way, but I went out there and I had six girls with me, totally different backgrounds. One was from London, Shanghai, Sudan, all of these places. And we were all just hanging out and talking about TV or something. And I went ... We had a 12 pack of water wrapped in plastic and it took out a Swiss army knife, a little tiny Swiss army knife and cut it open, and they all went silent. They were like, "What is that?" And I'm like, "This isn't a Swiss army knife." And they were like, "Why do you have a knife?" And they were horrified.

And I'm like, "I'm cutting open water. The blade is like-

It's a tool.

It's a tool. It has tweezers. What are you talking about? They were wary of me. They're like, "Why do you have a knife?" And I'm like, "Because I do. Because I have to cut things. Why are you ..." It was just so weird. Just like, "I'm going to go out there and be such a redneck." [crosstalk 00:18:42].

You will always be the girl who had a knife.

That's right. They were so afraid of me.

So what things are you very prepared for from your rural school experience?

Actively seeking out help. That is going to be huge because I mean I was taking these classes and I was the only sophomore high school student in the class full of college students and I'm like, "Oh, this is horrifying and scary. I'm so out of my element." I know the second I go off to school I'm going be like, "This is horrifying and scary. I'm out of my element." Well, I've done it before. So it'll kind of give you the little prep, a little boost like, "Oh, well maybe if to do some extra research. Find the professor who knows what they're talking about and talk to them after hours." Because we can text some of our teachers.

Yeah, that's definitely helped me. Just being able to know how to build a relationship with my teachers and be able to know how to ask for help and get help and stuff because everybody I've talked to is like, "The first year I was just stubborn. Didn't get help from my professors and that caused me to fail classes and I was just going in expecting my professors are going to know my name. I'm going to have their cell phone number, any problems I have they need to help me."

Bake them cookies.

Yeah. I was going to be best friends with my professor because that's just how it's been at Boyne. We'd go camping with some of my teachers at the end of the year and ...

And also the concept of personalized learning. Like getting to know, I know all of my teachers so well at this point. And then yes. So my senior year, I don't really have many options to take advanced courses, but because of that it's like, "Oh, I know for example, like Mr. Pantone really well, he understands my learning process." So I did an independent study with him where I could dive so much deeper into something outside of the normal curriculum bubble, but still advanced me for college in the future and just being able to, I don't know, have a personalized learning schedule and have teachers and staff that were invested in that. If you said, "I wanted to do this." Yeah, there were definitely some hiccups, but they were willing to help you. It wasn't just ... You knew them so much better.

And I remember at graduation I looked at all of my teachers and I started crying because I was so, so grateful for what they had prepared me for and how they'd gotten me to this point. I think I couldn't have imagined anything better.

Being a rural student means that the hill success might not be as tall, but it's very steep. You need people around you to help you along the way. Being a rural teacher means that you don't have quite as many students to work with, but the amount of effort you have to put in because of your limited resources makes up for that lack of numbers. One of those quality over quantity teachers is Mr. Pantone. Anna has already mentioned him, but all three ladies mentioned him over, and over, and over again throughout the course of my interview. Mr. Pantone's job at Boyne was tough and it's only gotten harder as the political and social climate in rural America has changed, but when I asked him why he does what he does, he had this to tell me.

What I love about it is what I consider to be results. I think kids come out of my classroom with an appreciation for the importance of thinking for themselves, for problem solving, for questioning everything. Instead of a long list of classrooms rules I have one rule and number one rule is I'm allowed to ask you to think. But it is an energizing profession and it is different every single day. When you're dealing with over a hundred different students on a daily basis, there's a ton of stories and ton of personalities and all the rest of it. But most importantly, every day you can walk out of here and say you accomplished something and I don't think a lot of jobs are like that. I can look up the numbers, but we're well over 50% free and reduced lunch here and that's shocking in a community that half or more of the families need assistance just to feed their kids. It's, again, sometimes pretty evident and that brings with had all kinds of different issues. Right? Just on a day to day basis.

When I taught in the alternative school, first in Bel Air and then in Charlevoix I brought food to cook every day, because after about a week of being there these kids weren't eating. They didn't have any food. I had three kids in my Bel Air school that lived in a trailer, abandoned trailer on State Park Land that they had left, you know, they were 15, 16 years old and they weren't welcome in their homes or whatever. Didn't have one. So they got together and they found this trailer and they were living in it. So every day for several years, I cooked breakfast. Every morning I'd pick up a dozen eggs and some bacon or whatever, pancakes. We had different things and started our school day just cooking and eating and what was called breakfast table and we'd just sit and talk, but I didn't see how they could get through a day without some food so I always keep food here.

You broke down a huge barrier with that. If you feed people, it means the great unifier.

Yeah. I hadn't thought of it in that way, but in retrospect I'm sure that that was a big part of it. For me, it was a simple matter. These kids aren't going to be able to get through the day, you know?

But what would you talk about at breakfast table?

Oh, lot of stuff that we shouldn't. Stuff that they were doing and I would always just in a mad judgmental way try to get them to talk about how they were living their lives and they would use it as like, "Let's see if we can shock Mr. P." That kind of stuff but for me it was an opportunity for them to listen to themselves and to listen to some of the challenges that their friends brought with them. So there was this common sense that I refused to normalize and in a sense that I would say, "That can't be you. That can't be you. That somehow that can't end up being you." I don't even remember the question you asked me about breakfast table, but you're making me think about things I haven't thought about in a while, you know?

I'm doing my job then.

Okay, good.

I'm allowed to ask you think.

Yeah, no. My wife said, "What are you going to talk about?" I said, "I don't have the least idea." She just wants to say about rural education and this is part of it. The meth, it's part of it. The prison population is part of it. The mixed and multiple families, combinations of five or six blends of kids living under the same roof with sometimes with neither of their biological parents. You know? That a woman and a man had a child and then the husband was taken away or whatever and so the mother remarries and then she takes off and the kid stays with the dad and his new wife because the mom's gone. You have these incredible combinations of families and they're families, but the standard two parents stable two jobs, that's the exception.

Mr. Pantone has had so many things come his way over the course of his teaching career. Many of the hardest parts of his job circulate around an under-resourced, undereducated community that has a hard time accepting outside ideas and innovations. It makes the job of a progressive, empathetic, hardworking, and caring individual like Mr. Pantone harder than you'd expect. So I asked him why, why does he keep doing what he's doing?

So my report card comes the day the seniors graduate and they're all allowed to sit and write a letter to a teacher, and this was this year's letters to me. Making me think and treating all of your students as adults. This is why they want to thank me. Your classes have prepared me for my future and I can't imagine where I'd be without you making me question my thoughts and motives. I know that I didn't participate a lot in class, but I was always interested. You're an awesome teacher. Don't let anyone hold you back. This is my report card. My last thank you had to go to you. You're the first teacher I've ever had to treat us like students ... Treat us less like students and more like people. You will never understand how much I appreciated that.

You showed us real issues, real problems, real things that no other teachers were brave enough to show us. Your classes shaped me into a person I am proud to be. This is my report card and this is why I come back. Because if I don't do this, who's doing it? These kids deserve a chance to do this, to think and to question stuff and I don't mind saying that I am willing to take the heat so that they can have that. This letter this girl wrote me, woman wrote me the other day was like, and she's [inaudible 00:29:41] really strong, strict Christian, very anti-abortion, lots of things that if it would come up to me and her having a discussion, we would disagree about. All she could do is praise me for tolerating opinions, for defending her right to express herself, for not letting kids ridicule her for her Christianity. All this stuff. This is me. I'm the stupid, crazy Liberal, you know? And we could have answered this question a long time ago. Why do I do this? Because it's important to these kids and they matter and they should matter to this community.

There's one last bit of information I need to express to you before we go, and it's logistical in nature. So let's let the school district expert let you in on it.

Well, I mean, I think the biggest issue with schools everywhere, including rural America is funding. And from the political end of things, I mean that's where the money comes from right? From the state and it comes with the kids but when you're a small school, I mean you recruit the hell of it to try to get kids to come to your district, but the dollars follow the kids. So unless you can get kids in, you don't have money. Well, then you end up cutting teacher positions or you cut programs like art music to try to make ends meet, and the state is currently very sort of back and forth. Governor Snyder said, "Hey, I want to give all this money back to schools and increase that per pupil amount for this upcoming school year." Which is great, except it means we're pretty much just back to where we were 15 years ago before things got cut. So it looks like this great increase but in reality it's just back to where it was.

I'm highlighting what Dr. Ellison said because it gets to the heart of helping rural people thrive, other people. To be funded, school districts need students. To keep students, schools need strong, excited teachers to help them learn. People like Mr. Pontoni. People like Mr. Pontoni need people to support him in his work and it then goes back to students. He needs students to have a job. It's the great Mandela. In rural communities there is tremendous need, but there's also tremendous opportunity. There are barriers to overcome, but by overcoming these obstacles, students can create for themselves a skill set that will set them up for life. The takeaway is this, empowered people have to come back to these rural areas and empower the next generation. Set an example for how to hurdle over those barriers and make a difference in the lives of the people that live there. If a few teachers can make big of an impact on 30 high achieving students and those 30 high achieving students can pull the average of 94 students way, way up, and if one teacher can encourage and empower a few students enough to set them on the path towards the top universities in the world, imagine what you can do.

Thank you so much for listening to our podcast. As always, we need to thank Dr. Wendling for empowering medical students to going on and pursue a career in rural medicine. I also want to thank Anna, Katie, Maddie, Dr. Catherine Ellison, and Mr. Pontoni for taking the time this summer to speak to me. I hope that this podcast helped you realize what's needed to help bring up the status quo of all rural communities and that you feel empowered to make rural your mission.