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Education in Middle Appalachia Improving, Obstacles Remain, Report Says

Some academic outcomes for students living in "Middle Appalachia" have improved over the past 20 years, yet challenges unique to the region remain, according to a new report.

Researchers from the Washington-based nonprofit CNA Education reviewed more than 275 studies on education from 1995 through 2015, which focused on parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Appalachia Rising found that high school graduation rates increased by 20 percentage points between 1979 and 1999, and as of the 2008-09 school year, the average graduation rate for the region was higher than the national average. In recent years, students from Middle Appalachia have scored nearly as well or at the same level as their non-Appalachian peers on the ACT exam.

Between 2008 and 2012, more than 25 percent of children under 18 were living in poverty in Middle Appalachia, compared to about 21 percent nationwide, according to the report. In some parts of Appalachia, nearly one in three children live in poverty. In recent years, nonprofits and companies have tried to boost opportunity in parts of Appalachia, like rural McDowell County, W.Va, by providing more technology to students and connecting households to the Internet.

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Despite promising graduation rates and ACT scores, researchers noted in the report that students in the region still face many challenges, like little support for those who want to pursue higher education and a lack of college information or role models due to limited levels of college attainment among adults in the region.  Researchers also found that students in CTE programs at many Appalachian schools are clustered in a small number of fields like construction, electricity, and horticulture, resulting in an overabundance of students qualified for those jobs instead of producing students for more high-demand fields like accounting, wood manufacturing, and office technology. 

To improve outcomes, researchers suggested that partnerships in the region expand and include parents and community members. They also highlighted the need for teacher preparation and development programs to focus on increasing content knowledge, especially in science and math, and said that college-and-career readiness efforts should shift to better align with community development needs. 

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