But in June, forced to slash spending by more than $1 million, the Tazewell County School Board abruptly shuttered two elementary schools, including Raven. The suddenness of the decision was likened to a death, suffusing the community in anger and disbelief.
Whittington voted against the closure, anguished by the prospect of having to shut down the school her mother helped found. Ultimately, as school board chair, she had to accept the loss.
“It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do, is close my own school,” Whittington said. “But you have to do what needs to be done to make it.”
School closures and consolidations are a familiar story in cash-strapped, rural corners of the country — places where schools are integral to a sense of identity and belonging. In many cases, rural schools are burdened by afflictions that also strain urban education systems: declining enrollment, teacher shortages, decaying buildings.
As manufacturing and coal mining downsize and interest in farming fades, workers have migrated to cities and suburbs for jobs, said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, which advocates for schools in remote communities. Promising young people, confronted with a dearth of opportunities, flee.
In 2015-2016, the latest school year for which data is available, 27,145 schools were in rural areas, nearly 2,700 fewer than a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Student departures also affect school funding, siphoning money for building repairs and other needs in rural schools, which educate about 9 million students nationally.
“If your numbers decline, that’s going to affect your funding,” Pratt said. “They kind of go hand in hand.”
In southwestern Virginia, a once-prosperous region flush with coal, the industry’s decline over the past decade has led to a reversal of fortunes. Manufacturers and suppliers that supported coalfield operators also shut down or left, hastening the departure of families with school-age children.
The school closings in Tazewell didn’t result in layoffs — teachers and other workers moved into positions left open by retirements and departures. Residents appealed to the school board in public hearings, but the closures seemed inevitable. By late summer, frustrations lingered.
“When you have these communities . . . where everything seems to be leaving, typically the school’s one of the last big things that remains,” said Greg Deskins, a high school science teacher and president of the Tazewell Education Association, the teachers union. “It’s like once your school closes, that seems like the end of your community, in some ways.”
Budgets vs. needs
Southwest of Raven, hard by the Tennessee border, sits Bristol, Va. One after the other, they left, taking hundreds of jobs with them: the beverage-packaging plant and the garment company, the mall and two Kmarts.
After each business closes, Highland View Elementary Principal Pam Davis braces for the students who arrive, worried and anxious.
“Anytime we have news like that, we know what we’re heading into,” she said in early August. “When Mom and Dad are in crisis, they argue . . . they push, they shove, they fuss, they cuss.”
A day earlier, Bristol Compressors, a large maker of heating and cooling materials, announced plans “to cease operations and immediately begin a wind-down process.”
Highland View sits amid boarded-up and dilapidated homes, in a part of the city where Davis said children carry into classrooms the trauma spawned by unemployment, opioid addiction and generational poverty.
Nearly 75 percent of Highland students are economically disadvantaged. Students have arrived for school in winter dressed in sheer pajamas, said Alyssa Hunt, a kindergarten teacher.
“It’s hard, because you love them up so much and you know that you wouldn’t do this for your children. You wouldn’t send them to school with nothing,” she said. “It’s just hard, because you don’t know what they’re going home to.”
School board members decided this year to close three elementary schools in Bristol, including Highland View, and consolidate them into a single new school.
The project, which needs approval from city leaders, would enable the school system to use cost savings from personnel to build a replacement without forcing the debt-stifled city to borrow more money, said Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol City Public Schools.
Perrigan helped found the Small and Rural Schools Coalition, an alliance of more than half of Virginia’s school systems that has called for more state support.
“We have no way to attract new folks into the area; we have no way to attract industry to come into the area,” Perrigan said. “And our kids, just like kids in other parts of the state and nation, deserve a 21st-century learning center.”
He was the superintendent in Norton, a Virginia city of about 3,940, when he noticed enrollment drop by nearly 50 students, to 789, from the year before — a steep decline for the small district.
Rural school enrollment in Virginia has shrunk 7 percent since 2008-2009, while enrollment statewide has grown 5 percent, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond think tank.
Because state funding for schools is largely driven by enrollment, rural schools with declining populations are disproportionately affected — despite having fewer students, school systems must still pay to maintain buildings and utilities, said Chris Duncombe, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute.
Virginia schools, like most in the country, have received less state money since the Great Recession. The state sets the amount local governments must contribute toward schools, but communities with healthier property tax bases often invest more heavily in education.
Last school year, Fairfax, Virginia’s largest school district and among the biggest in the nation, gave schools 114 percent more than was required, state data show. In the far southwest part of the state, Lee County schools received less than 1 percent more than mandated by the state.
Outside consultants declared Highland View elementary “functionally obsolete.” Humidifiers and air scrubbers whir during the school day to manage air quality in classrooms. At another Bristol elementary school, a large room was partitioned by bulletin boards and bookcases into separate classes.
Ashley Stanley, the parent of two Highland View students, said some residents who initially resisted the school consolidation have come to understand that a new school is necessary. Highland View, she said, was beset with plumbing and asbestos problems.
“The building’s dilapidated. . . . We know that our kids deserve a better school,” she said, before adding, “Highland View holds our heart.”
Not far from the border with Kentucky, a sign rises above a strip of mostly worn storefronts in the town of Pound, welcoming visitors to the “Home of the Wildcats” — the mascot of a high school in Wise County that no longer exists.
Wise was a coal boomtown when Wise County Public Schools Superintendent Greg Mullins, in high school and college, traveled from a neighboring county to the once-vibrant stretch of businesses in Pound for back-to-school shopping. Years later, when he was Pound High’s principal, football games turned the school’s stadium into the town’s epicenter.
“In this region, we have real small communities, small towns,” Mullins said. “And the school is the center or the heartbeat of that little community.”
In the late 1800s, hundreds of coal company agents swarmed the county, purchasing the mineral wealth under landowners’ properties, according to “Life in the Coal Camps of Wise County,” a book that recounts Wise’s history.
By 1917, the student population swelled to more than 10,000, Mullins said. By the 1980s, working the coalfields after high school was a surefire path to a comfortable living.
“My goodness,” Mullins recalled. “You couldn’t go anywhere here without coal trucks running.”
The coal industry is historically cyclical. In Tazewell, where the school board was forced to unexpectedly shutter two elementary schools at the end of the last school year, county officials relied on money reserves built during prosperous times to carry the town through downturns, said Eric Young, Tazewell’s interim county administrator.
But the steady decline in recent years was more than Tazewell could withstand. Revenue from taxes on coal and machinery that extracts the mineral fell nearly $2.5 million in six years, according to figures Young provided. Fresh property tax assessments showed property values also fell, by 1 percent, compared with six years earlier, compounding the county’s financial woes.
“This storm lasted longer than we could weather,” said Young, who has been on the job since May. “Our reserves were spent.”
In Wise County, for most of the past decade, the school system lost about 100 students each year, said Mullins, the superintendent.
Six high schools were consolidated into three in 2014, following contentious school board meetings that often stretched past midnight. By the time it closed, Pound High’s enrollment dwindled to 250.
“When you lose hope, that’s when things are at their toughest,” Mullins said. “Over the last decade, we faced enough challenges to where if you haven’t lost hope, you’ve been real close.”
Students were moved into new or renovated high schools with superior facilities, Mullins said, but that was not a complete balm for the community’s loss.
The building that once was Pound High School sits in squalor, windows broken and brick facade battered.