There were a couple things Heather Guenther knew for sure as she was preparing to graduate from Onalaska High School, in Onalaska, Washington.
One: She wanted to go to college. She didn't know where and she didn't know what she planned to study, but she knew she wanted to leave, explore, and earn her college degree.
Two: She wanted to someday return to her hometown, a rural community in Southwest Washington, to start a family.
"I like a small town," says Guenther, who is now a sophomore at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. "That's what you want for your kids."
Guenther and her husband, Jacob, are emblematic of a trend underway in the small town of Onalaska. This community in rural Lewis County made headlines in 2017 when all 43 of its graduating seniors were accepted into two- or four-year colleges. In this sprawling county in the shadows of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, less than 16 percent of people have a bachelor's degree or higher.
Onalaska is beginning to see its recent graduates decide to stick around, or return after earning a degree, buy property in town, and start families rather than pursuing jobs in larger cities. That's in contrast to many rural counties across America that are shedding young residents, who head off to college or better job opportunities and don't come back — a pattern called "rural brain drain."
But in Onalaska over the last five years, the number of people in their 20s and early 30s has doubled. Enrollment in the Onalaska School District — which includes the town and outlying areas — rose by about 14 percent between May of 2014 and May of 2018, to 851 students.
And at the heart of that growth, former students and community leaders say, is the high school. This is a town of Friday night football games, of stargazing on the school's soccer field, of fishing in the pond connected to the school. In its efforts to prevent students from leaving forever, to provide a public space for all residents to use and improve access to nearby natural resources, the school has built a sense of community.
The school's efforts align with research on how rural communities can stanch population loss by luring residents back home. According to a 2015 study commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture, strong schools and close-knit communities are a key attraction of rural communities.
"Now families are saying this is a great little community to raise your family," says Cathy Murphy, chair of the Onalaska Alliance, an organization dedicated to reducing poverty in the community. "Look at all these things we've got going here."
Growth despite the odds
Onalaska, situated roughly halfway between Seattle and Portland, is proud of its history.
Its three schools' mascot is "the Loggers," a nod to the thriving timber economy this community was founded on in the early 1900s. Historic photos of lumber yards hang in the high school lobby. The school is located on Carlisle Avenue, named after William Carlisle, the co-founder of the long-shuttered timber company that established this town.
There are still a handful of timber companies in Onalaska, but the timber industry in Washington has been declining since World War II. Today, the majority of Onalaska residents commute to work in nearby cities. That proximity to work opportunities elsewhere may give Onalaska an edge over more isolated places that struggle to retain even the residents who want to stay put. Community leaders and residents say those who stick around to work in Onalaska tend to do so in the remaining timber and trucking jobs — or the school district, the town's largest employer.
Onalaska High School | (Kaitlin Gillespie/Courtesy Pacific Standard)
Murphy of the Onalaska Alliance says that, 25 years ago, workers in this town could provide for their families with only a high school diploma.
"That's changed," she says. "People realize they need some kind of skill set, some kind of education."
But across the U.S., that pursuit of higher education and better jobs is also killing small towns. According to the University of Pennsylvania's Public Policy Initiative, 1,350 of the country's 1,976 non-metro counties have lost population since 2010. Since the 1990s, rural population growth has lagged behind urban growth.
In contrast, Onalaska's population rose from 731 residents in 2012 to 772 residents in 2016, according to U.S. Census data. The median age declined from 36.6 to 32.9 over that period.
While the data is imperfect, school enrollment also tells a story of growth. Elementary school enrollment has climbed the fastest, from 327 students in May of 2014 to 391 in May of 2018, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington. The numbers indicate that not only are Onalaskans staying in town, they are starting families and putting down roots.
Onalaska High School Principal Dracy McCoy followed that trend: She's an Onalaska native who worked elsewhere before returning to raise her son.
"There's quite a few families like that, who went and left and came back to raise their kids, which is kind of neat for a small town. It's kind of a unique thing," she says.
The USDA study of small communities found that former residents who return to their hometowns, particularly those who pursued higher education, can play a key role in improving the local economy of rural communities.
"You leave and go explore, but when you're ready to settle down, your hometown is an option," says John Cromartie, a USDA geographer and one of the researchers.
College — and career — readiness
Back at Onalaska High, Kaylene Kenny teaches a class that's all about ensuring students know their options.
For 50 minutes a day, every school day, Onalaska High's seniors attend Kenny's "Senior Success" class. In a home economics classroom, she runs through how to file taxes, balance a budget, and apply for college. Once students have been accepted to college, they learn about federal financial aid, discuss how to save for school, and apply for scholarships.
Kenny's been teaching at Onalaska High School for seven years. This class was introduced five years ago to encourage more students to show interest in and apply for college.
"The whole goal at the beginning was how do we get these kids excited about their future," she says.
The class fulfills a Washington state requirement that students complete a "High School and Beyond Plan." As seniors, students in Washington must complete a resume, a portfolio of their educational experience, and develop a post-graduation plan, for college or career.
At some schools, it's just one more task to complete before graduating; a check mark. At Onalaska High School, it's serious business.
"It was so helpful," says Guenther, the 2017 graduate attending CWU. "There was actual real-life stuff in that class. That's why everyone paid attention."
Still, school staff realize college isn't the right path for all the district's students. While most students are accepted into college, the reality is some graduates prefer to head directly into the workforce, pursuing blue-collar careers in manufacturing, construction, or logging. In 2017, the year the entire graduating class was accepted into college, four of the school's graduates went straight into the work force instead.
In class, Kenny walks students through a variety of vocational programs and discusses careers in the military, as well as the pros and cons of two- and four-year colleges. Guest speakers from trade groups, colleges, and military branches visit the campus.
"I say there's nothing wrong with having lots of opportunities," Kenny says. "That's better than the alternative where you have no idea what's out there for you."
'Whatever happens has to happen because of the people'
Onalaska technically isn't a town at all. It's an unincorporated, census-designated place — large enough to have its own name, but not to have its own government.
That's given community leaders — including the school — a unique role.
"Whatever happens has to happen because of the people of our community," says Murphy of the Onalaska Alliance.
It's a charge those at Onalaska High School have taken in earnest.
Take, for example, science teacher Johnny Garcia. Garcia has been teaching at Onalaska High School for more than 20 years, and he isn't running a typical science class.
The school is home to the second-largest public telescope in Washington, built after Garcia encouraged a student interested in astronomy to apply for grant funding. Last spring, students were in the process of building a hexagonal, transparent beehive, and putting the finishing touches on an aquaponics greenhouse.
Downtown Onalaska, Washington | (Courtesy Pacific Standard)
Most significant in Garcia's efforts to serve the community is the ongoing maintenance of Carlisle Lake, the old mill pond once connected to the Carlisle Lumber Company, which is still dominated by a 200-foot smokestack that towers over the shore, the last remaining structure of the company.
Six years ago, the pond was overgrown with invasive brambles. Structures were covered in graffiti.
"There would be a case of beer, needles on the ground," Garcia says.
But that changed in in 2012, when the Onalaska Alliance purchased the 72-acre property. Garcia's high school students took the lead in clearing out the property. They helped write grants that would pay for interpretive signs. A gravel path was added, making the once-muddy property an all-season trail. There are now public bathrooms, and students have designed and maintain exercise equipment scattered around the trail. It's the site of the state's only high school-operated fish hatchery.
"It was exciting and terrifying at the same time," Murphy says. "But was amazing. This property can now be returned to the community."
And further, Murphy believes the rehabilitation of the property has something to do with people returning to Onalaska. Cromartie's research for the USDA suggests this could be the case, noting that outdoor recreation opportunities are key in attracting people to rural communities. That type of investment in recreation opportunities is rare, but important to a small town, he says.
"We have worked hard to create an inviting and positive culture in our community," Murphy says.
The way Garcia tells it, there are always more projects to be done — signs to build, bridges to repair, a model of the solar system to construct. He points to an empty field; students will eventually build a human sundial there. An aging portable classroom will become a mini science museum, filled with hands-on activities for kids.
Garcia isn't trying to make scientists of all his students, and it shows in the flexible approach he brings to his classroom. No two students are given the same rubric for points or grades — he customizes the class to meet every student's needs. Some prefer to draw diagrams of plants and animals. Others enjoy spending their time building and designing experiments in the school's wood shop. And others like debating and answering discussion questions on the class' online forum.
It's all part of Garcia's more important goal: that his students are proud of what they leave behind.
"I hope that they actually feel like they've done something to help the community," Garcia says.
Guenther, the 2017 graduate, eventually chose to attend Central Washington University because it aligned with her emerging career plans. The school is known colloquially in Washington as the "state's teaching college."
Both Guenther and her husband, also an Onalaska High School graduate, intend to return to teach at their alma mater.
The pair wanted to have a few independent years, she says, but did not want to be so far away they couldn't come back to see their families.
"It was far enough away I could have my own life, do my own thing, but it was close enough that I could always come home," Guenther says.
It's a story that echoes McCoy's. After graduating with her teaching degree, McCoy taught special education at Vancouver Public Schools, a district of more than 20,000 students in the Portland suburb of Vancouver, Washington. But when her son was born, she returned to Onalaska hoping to give him a more personal education experience — the kind in which every teacher knows every student by name, she says.
"I think that is still really the core of our school," McCoy says. "It's just that ability to know every kid and to be able to give them that individualized support they need."
Guenther dreams of giving her own children that experience someday.
"I know [Onalaska] well," she says. "I know the teachers, and I 100 percent want my kids to grow up in that school."
Hunter Blair stands in the 80-acre field of the property he and his fiancée, Ronnie Kinsman, rent. That way — he points to a wooded area toward the back of the property — he can go hunting. That way — he points in the opposite direction — he and Kinsman's daughter can go fishing in the mill pond adjacent to the school.
This is a taste of the life he and Kinsman are building for themselves in the town where they both grew up.
Hunter Blair and his fiancée, Ronnie Kinsman, pose in the field behind their home | (Kaitlin Gillespie/Courtesy Pacific Standard)
"Me and Hunter, we're a lot alike," Kinsman says. "We don't want to leave. We both want to build a family here, and probably live here for the rest of our lives if we can."
Their path toward that point represents two sides of Onalaska High School's story.
Kinsman graduated in 2016. She takes classes online from nearby Centralia College, pursuing an associate degree. She also works at the Lewis County Animal Shelter. She and Blair are raising her four-year-old daughter, Evie.
Blair graduated in 2017 — a member of the class in which every student was accepted into college. But Blair, who has been working since he was 15, decided against going to college or a trade program. He works in the warehouse of a petroleum company with offices in nearby Centralia.
"I would rather be working and making money," he says.
Kinsman is still considering her plans for her future. She thinks about earning a bachelor's degree and becoming an agriculture teacher at Onalaska High School. Alternatively, she and Blair also dream of operating a small dairy farm together.
Regardless of what happens, she says she and Blair plan to stay in their hometown.
"It's beautiful country up here," she says. "Why leave something that we love?"
This story was produced in collaboration with the Hechinger Report.
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