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The girl effect: In the nexus of literacy and STEM, global opportunity emerges for rural girls

EdNC is running a series of articles this week about the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education. The mission of PAGE is "to provide innovative learning opportunities for adolescent girls in Appalachia."

Deborah Hicks-Rogoff grew up in the community of Rosman near Brevard in Appalachia. “Educated in public schools, she earned a doctorate in Education and Human Development from Harvard University,” says the website of PAGE, the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education. Hicks-Rogoff is a research scholar at Duke University as well as the founder and executive director of PAGE. She knows first hand what it takes for a girl to build a career coming from the hollers in our mountain communities.

PAGE began in 2010 in the historic Spring Creek School, now a community center. Currently located in Hot Springs Elementary School over the summer and Madison Middle School during the school year, PAGE is a partnership between Madison County Schools and the Education and Human Development Incubator (EHDi) at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. Across the school year and in a six-week summer program, it explores the nexus of literacy and STEM to equip girls with the skills they will need in our 21st century global workforce.

The cost of PAGE is about $4,000 per girl, but it is provided free of charge to the students. In the summer, there are two sessions: one for 6th and 7th graders and another for 8th and 9th graders. The year culminates in an exhibition at the end of the summer, when girls share the digital projects they have created with the community. PAGE is an academically rigorous program wrapped with enough support during the summer to make it possible for the families — bus transportation, two healthy meals plus a snack, enrichment opportunities, and a healthy dose of fun are offered each day.DSC_1187

Madison County is about 30 miles northwest of Asheville.

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For those visiting Madison County, it is a land of hiking, white water rafting, and hot springs.

For those that live in Madison County, it is whiter, older, poorer, and less educated than the population of North Carolina and the United States.

People Madison County North Carolina United States
Population
Population estimates, July 1, 2015 21,139 10,042,802 321,418,820
Population, percent change – April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015 1.8 5.3 4.1
Age and Sex
Persons under 5 years, percent, July 1, 2015 4.8 6 6.2
Persons under 18 years, percent, July 1, 2015 18.5 22.8 22.9
Persons 65 years and over, percent,  July 1, 2015 20.4 15.1 14.9
Race
White alone, percent, July 1, 2015 95.8 71.2 77.1
Education
High school graduate or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2010-2014 80.3 85.4 86.3
Bachelor’s degree or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2010-14 20.3 27.8 29.3
Economy
In civilian labor force, total, percent of population age 16 years+, 2010-14 56 62.1 63.5
Income and Poverty
Median household income (in 2014 dollars), 2010-14 38,251 46,693 53,482
Per capita income in past 12 months (in 2014 dollars), 2010-14 20,791 25,608 28,555
Persons in poverty, percent 19.9 17.2 14.8
Geography
Population per square mile, 2010 46.2 196.1 87.4
Land area in square miles, 2010 450 48,618 3,531,905
Source: US Census Bureau. QuickFacts data are derived from: Population Estimates, American Community Survey, Census of Population and Housing, Current Population Survey, Small Area Health Insurance Estimates, Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, State and County Housing Unit Estimates, County Business Patterns, Nonemployer Statistics, Economic Census, Survey of Business Owners, Building Permits.

But Madison County is rich in culture, language, and tradition creating a powerful sense of home for the girls in PAGE.

Debbie Chandler is a bus driver and instructional assistant. She also picks up the food supplies. And she clogs and sings ballads. Her grandmother was Dellie Norton, a historic artist of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, known for singing ballads of English and Scottish heritage on her front porch. Miss Debbie exposes the PAGE girls to a deeper sense of their own cultural heritage while helping the Duke interns navigate and understand the local community.

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The girl effect holds “that educating young women is the most effective way to lift families and communities out of poverty.” PAGE surrounds their girls with female role models — Duke interns, high school interns, and staff.

Six undergraduates from Duke serve as interns, but they are so much more. They are leaders. They are teachers. They are role models. They are big sisters. They are proof that girls who dream big and work hard can go to college and change the world.

High School Interns

Three high schools interns receive a small stipend, but more importantly, a laptop they can take to college. Alexis and Katie were in the first cohort of PAGE girls when the program started in 2010. Lizbeth says being an intern doesn’t feel like a job, noting that she would probably be working in a general store if she didn’t have this opportunity. “Boys are everything to these girls,” she says. Without PAGE, she continues, “they would have to learn the hard way that boys aren’t everything.”

The PAGE Girls

These are the faces of some of the 50 girls who will be inspired, educated, and empowered this summer by PAGE.

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Each morning, Nancy Allen, the program director of PAGE, greets the girls as they get off the bus. A healthy breakfast starts the day, featuring local farm-to-table ingredients. This morning, the girls are eating eggs, a banana, and grits.

But these are not your run-of-the-mill instant grits. These are course-ground grits made from heirloom Cherokee corn called “Bloody Butcher” and grown locally by the East Fork Farm. Jeannette Kendall is a former teacher here at the school, and she volunteers to plan the meals. She says, “When you grind the corn, you get this amazing, beautiful red and yellow combination.” Anna says they taste “authentic.”

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In the morning, the girls are asked to identify 10 adjectives; three relationships; five things they love; three things they fear, need, feel, and give; and three things they would like to see. Earlier the staff had taken a photo of each girl, which has been printed on an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper. On the reverse side of the photo, the girls are asked to trace themselves with magic marker and then add detail. Along the outlines of their portraits, the girls then write the words they have identified, capturing who they are at this moment in their lives.

Here is Olivia reading her story:

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Book are everywhere. The girls choose which book study group they join. This session the choices — chosen by the Duke interns  — are City of Ember; Alana, The First Adventure; Bridge to Terabithia; The Phantom Tollbooth; and A Wrinkle in Time. Choice is embedded in as many aspects of the PAGE program as possible to empower the girls.

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The connection with STEM happens primarily through the creation of digital stories, which requires the girls to use MacBooks and learn Adobe Premiere. The process starts with a question, “Talk about a moment when something changed for you,” and unfolds one-on-one with a Duke intern by their side. Here is Lauren working with Bailee, but Lauren is learning too. She says she has learned the importance of family from working with these girls. She says, “these girls see their grandparents every day.”

The girls, when they tell me about the foods they think are weird, mention things like syrup on eggs, mayonnaise and jam on tater tots, and pinto beans mixed up with cornbread and mayo.

For many of them, today’s exposure to Asian food is a first. Lunch includes egg fried rice, noodles with vegetables and a peanut sauce, cut up daikon radish for dipping, and a cabbage slaw with rice noodles. It took three women all morning long to chop all of the vegetables. The girls are encouraged to experiment with tamari, sesame oil, and sriracha. Fortune cookies are offered for dessert. One of the fortunes is “Genius is more work than just being a genius.”

In the afternoon, the girls self select into activities.

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Evie leads this group in learning about and constructing catapults, a STEM-based activity. Making the catapult is not easy, and the girls are encouraged to innovate.  Ciara says, “If life was easy, life would be boring.” Bailee adds, “You need challenges in life.” And then they get back to work.

This group is making pizza dough for a field trip to a farm that will happen the next day. Field trips, and the exposure to a bigger world that comes along with all enrichment, is part of PAGE, and later in the week the girls will go to see “Cry Wolf” at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA.

Others work with clay and materials from outdoors in an art activity.

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And fun is built in throughout the day, whether it is playing with magnets, a game outdoors, or sidewalk chalk. “It is summer,” says Hicks-Rogoff.  “It should be fun.”

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According to Hicks-Rogoff, “these girls are what Appalachia will become,” and she imagines a place where “local, rural people can find and create meaningful jobs.”

PAGE is designed to increase the leadership skills, educational aspirations, self confidence, and academic confidence of the girls and high school interns. Program outcomes for the girls include increased success in middle and high school, an attachment to learning, high school completion, and attending college for at least two years.

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Caroline Davis is on site to help evaluate the program. Davis is the Academically/Intellectually Gifted (AIG) Coordinator in the Madison County Schools, and she is also serving as a research assistant with the PAGE evaluation team, led by Jessica Sperling Smokoski at Duke University’s Education and Human Development incubator.

The stories shared by students, interns, and staff make it clear that the relationships being built are also an important outcome of this program — two of the girls hand-clapping one last time before the PAGE day ends, one of the girls making Rebecca a necklace for her 21st birthday, another girl bringing in her favorite book for Natalie to read, a student’s scavenger hunt through the local grocery store to introduce her grandmother to all of the Duke interns who were there shopping for the week’s supplies.

Hicks-Rogoff says,

“These girls are the new voices of Appalachia. They will lead their communities into our future.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.