Ky. Voices: Appalachians focused on growing hope, jobs

Hope is the catalyst for success in life. Loss of hope is devastating at all ages. Gallup discovered in its polling in 2010 that children become school dropouts when they lose hope to graduate.

"Having a good job is now the great global dream; it's the number one social value for everyone," Gallup CEO Jim Cliffton writes in The Coming Jobs Wars. "This is one of our most powerful findings ever."

We see the hopelessness by some in Appalachian Kentucky, a region plagued by poverty rates three times the national average and high unemployment rates. This hopelessness is scientifically recognized in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index in which Kentucky's 5th Congressional District ranked last in overall sense of well-being, life evaluation and emotional health.

In the midst of these challenges, a large number of energized citizens with a can-do spirit have chosen to focus on the abundance of talent and potential human capital in the region in order to positively change the narrative.

We understand that education is the key to improving the quality of life here. However, it is necessary to have quality jobs for the educated citizenry. The Appalachian citizenry must create many of the new jobs and not wait for them to be brought here.

Stakeholders in the Appalachian Teaching and Leadership Network are convinced that we can usher in an Appalachian Renaissance, raising educational levels and growing the economy. We have seized upon the innovative Kentucky Work Ready Community program created by the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board as the blueprint to tie education to job growth. The process will organize communities to improve the quality of life, generate positive publicity for the counties and enable the Eastern Kentucky region to be the first "Rural Ed-conomy Empowerment Zone" in the nation.

ATLN is working with the 13 counties in the Kentucky River and Big Sandy Area Development Districts to begin the process of each becoming a Work Ready Community and, thus, more attractive to employers and native entrepreneurs.

The process is designed to align education, workforce development, and economic development strategies for the state and within communities by using a collaborative approach. Most importantly, it sets the bar high for educational achievement and college and career readiness, which will encourage communities to creatively and effectively collaborate and use their resources to devise strategies to reach the benchmarks.

In order to qualify, counties must meet certain thresholds in criteria such as high school graduation rates, National Career Readiness Certificate holders, educational attainment rates, soft skills, available broadband Internet access, and counties must also organize an inclusive planning group. A Work Ready Community In Progress designation allows counties to present a plan to meets the goals within three years.

The criteria will encourage community leaders to work with K-12 districts to improve graduation rates; increase adult education participation and success rates; promote working-age persons to get at least a two-year degree and credentials needed by employers; address work ethic/soft skills development and credentialing for both secondary school and postsecondary educational adult populations; and work to get broadband access to 90 percent of the county along with strategies to enhance computer literacy for the populations.

ATLN is working with other stakeholders to promote youth leadership and entrepreneurship. Talented youth must have avenues to use their creativity and initiative and have a reason to remain in the region. The Center for Rural Development in Somerset has some impressive youth leadership and entrepreneurism programs. These and similar programs must be expanded.

ATLN and the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative conducted the STARS (Students Transforming Appalachia with Real Solutions) Challenge. Teams of students from schools in local districts participated and demonstrated their research and problem-solving talent to a broad community audience. STARS provides great learning experiences available to teams of students confronting real world challenges.

This year's challenges had students focused on their community's level of work readiness and engaged in developing a strategic plan that addressed five of the six critical areas for work readiness as defined by the Kentucky Work Ready Community program. The competing teams were recognized at the ATLN summit in Hazard on April 24.

Appalachian youth are stakeholders in the planning process to raise educational levels, increase college and career readiness and grow the regional economy.

Together, we can all increase hope in the future.