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Obama Highlights College-Focused Rural High School

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama visited rural West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, N.C., a school that's focused on increasing its post-secondary enrollment rate.

The school's college-going rate was 43 percent in 2006. The year after it received funding to participate in the Appalachian Higher Education network, that figure rose to 81 percent. It hasn't dipped down to the 2006 level since then.

The Appalachian Higher Education Network is a group of centers in nine states— Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia—that work to improve college enrollment. The group has touched more than 70,000 seniors and led to a 60 percent college-enrollment rate among participants since being founded in 1999.

The Appalachian region has battled for years to overcome its high poverty and low education levels. The area's poverty rate is 15.4 percent, which is higher than the national average, and 42 percent of the region's population is rural, more than double the national average.

The Appalachian Higher Education centers award grants ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 to high-poverty schools for programs or activities that encourage post-secondary education. That could mean campus visits, parent seminars, financial aid training, occupational interest surveys, or application process help.

All of the centers are modeled on the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education, which started in 1993 to increase the region's low educational attainment. It's grown into a partnership among colleges, K-12 schools and private groups in 32 Appalachian counties.

The impetus for the Ohio center came from a study, Appalachian Access and Success, which found 80 percent of seniors surveyed wanted to go to college but only 30 percent did. Low self-esteem, poverty and lack of information were among the biggest barriers to college, according to the study.

The Ohio General Assembly established the center in response to the study, and it's been recognized with prestigious honors, including the 2003 Innovations in American Government Award presented annually by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

The Appalachian Regional Commission worked with the Ohio center to replicate it in other states. The commission is a regional economic development agency that's a partnership between local, state and federal governments in 13 Appalachian states.

Increasing post-secondary enrollment in rural communities is at hot topic right now. Rural areas lag the national average, with only 27 percent of their students enrolling in college compared with 34 percent nationally, but a number of groups are working to improve those outcomes, particularly in rural areas.

During his visit in West Wilkes High, President Obama talked about the importance of education to the country's global competitiveness.

"How are we going to compete when countries like Korea and Germany are hiring teachers and preparing their kids for the global economy and we're laying off teachers left and right? One North Carolina teacher said, 'We didn't cause the poor economy; if anything, we built the good part.' And he's absolutely right," he said.
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