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The Call-In: Rural Life

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The Call-In: Rural Life

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The Call-In: Rural Life

The Call-In: Rural Life

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On this week's The Call-In we explore what it's like to live in rural America. A retired teacher talks about the challenges of education, and we hear about a broadband Internet cooperative.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And this is The Call-In. Today, we're hearing from our listeners who live in rural communities.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi.

LISA LINDSAY: Hi, this is Lisa Lindsay (ph) calling from Wilton, Maine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm calling from Sturgis, S.D.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I live in the Ozarks in southwest Missouri.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: In beautiful Nelson County, Va.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We asked you what you love about where you live.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I live in one of the most beautiful areas in America, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I never tire of the arrival of spring, the trees and the flowers just bursting with color.

LINDSAY: People help each other out and don't pretend that they don't know each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also heard about the challenges you face. A few themes came up again and again - lack of Internet connection, trouble accessing health care, and several people brought up education.

CHERYL SEBRELL: We have trouble attracting and keeping good teachers. Sometimes we have substitutes keeping a class for half of the year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's retired teacher Cheryl Sebrell, who left us a message from Littleton, N.C. We called her back to find out more about her community.

SEBRELL: It's very small, has one stop light, three or four restaurants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Only a few hundred people live in her little farming town, and Sebrell loves it.

SEBRELL: You know everybody. There's no traffic. I go down to the post office if I've got a package, and they don't have to ask my box number. They just - oh, yeah, you've got a package.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sebrell spent 40 years teaching K through 12. And over those many years, she watched as things got harder for teachers and for students.

SEBRELL: In the '80s and the early '90s, there was a big focus on education in North Carolina, and we were a leader in the country. It's all about cost cutting and budgets and things now. And it's tough to be in a rural area when that is happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let me ask you, what were some of the challenges in a rural area that are different from the city?

SEBRELL: Well, one of the things is it's very hard to find qualified teachers who will stay. There's not always a lot to offer to people who are coming in to teach. Housing sometimes can be a problem. Living in a home in the country, you're going to deal with leaking roofs and mice, and sometimes that can be a problem, finding a place that you want to live in, just a house, so that you're not driving back and forth. So a lot of our teachers do come in from the triangle area - Raleigh, Durham - and they drive, you know, an hour in the morning or an hour and a half in the morning and again in the afternoon. And when you have long hours, that makes it really tough as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious. You mentioned funding. Give us an example of some of the challenges of funding when you were a teacher.

SEBRELL: The school gets a budget, but it just meets very basic, bare-minimum needs. I used different grants to get novels and other literature that I wanted to use in the classroom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had to write those grants yourself.

SEBRELL: I did. I actually wrote about $50,000 worth of grants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you used your own money to buy some of the supplies, I...

SEBRELL: (Laughter) That too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...I was told.

SEBRELL: That too. I actually make a lot more money now that I'm retired (laughter). You know, I was glad to do it at the time, but it shouldn't be that way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned it's hard to encourage new teachers to move down to where you live. But Teach For America is a program that's been trying to fill that gap. Is that helping?

SEBRELL: Absolutely, it helps. They're very active in our school, and that has really saved us. Obviously, they're not there for the long haul all the time, but we've had a lot that have stayed three or four, maybe even five years. And they build relationships with students, and that's really the most important thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious. Have you seen a lot of the young people move away after they leave school? Is there something to keep them or bring them back to your community?

SEBRELL: I have seen a lot move away. But one thing that's been really rewarding this year was seeing some of our first graduating class come back to teach in the community. I think it's powerful to see the students' response to people who come back and teach. But of course, a lot of students, once they go out, they've lived in the big wide world, they don't necessarily want to come back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Cheryl Sebrell, a longtime teacher in rural North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we heard, it can be hard to hold on to people in rural places when there's a lack of infrastructure to support them. The absence of a fast and reliable Internet connection is one major problem. Mark Erickson has been trying to solve that. He's the head of the economic development agency in Winthrop, Minn. And he told us how, until recently, a lack of broadband was affecting his neighbors.

MARK ERICKSON: A third of our students in our school districts live in the country, and they were unable to do their homework when they got home. Most of them had dial-up, which is just archaic. Some used satellite connections, which were good when the weather was fine, and some had poor DSL from their phone companies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Erickson is running a project that will build a fiber-optic network across 10 communities.

ERICKSON: We formed a cooperative, and the subscribers to our network are the owners. So let me give you an example. To build a fiber-optic network and connect people in towns, the cost per home or per business is about $2,500. To build that network and connect the farms, it's about $10,000, about the cost of a used pickup.

Now, the people in this area felt that those kinds of per home, per farm investments are OK because what the Internet can do for education and health care is amazing. We just feel it's an investment that the phone companies and cable companies are unable to make. So the folks in this very conservative part of Minnesota decided that they wanted to put their tax dollars on the line and enable this network.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The companies aren't willing to make those investments because they have to have a higher return for their shareholders.

ERICKSON: Correct. These are very small towns. Our largest town is 2,300 people, and our smallest town is 400. Some people say its a market failure, you know. And here's this new technology that people want and they need, but the business plans of the incumbents just don't allow them to make that necessary investment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How has fixing something as fundamental as Internet connection had an effect on other things?

ERICKSON: Well, it helps the present businesses. We've had several here say that hooking up to the fiber network has increased their ability to do business greatly. But we also saw this as something for the future, like you allude to. We expect our children to leave our communities when they graduate from high school and go to college and learn about life. But they have to have a reason to return. And the millennials today, and those who follow, will find it difficult to come back to a community that doesn't offer the kind of Internet connection that they want. What we have our fingers crossed for, and it looks pretty good, we believe we've attracted a four-year medical school to our area, which will change the face of our communities in a very positive way for a long, long time, if it happens. And that was a direct result of the fiber network.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Mark Erickson of Winthrop, Minn. We also heard from Cheryl Sebrell in Littleton, N.C.

And next week on The Call-In, we want to hear about your shopping habits. The retail industry is scrambling to keep up as we change how and where we shop. It's shed tens of thousands of jobs. Do you get your groceries delivered? Do you still go to the mall? What do you buy online? Call in at 202-216-9217. Leave us a voicemail with your full name, where you're from and your experience, and we may use it on the air. That number again - 202-216-9217.

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