Vibrant Rurality and the Role of Education
Danielle Mezera

I am struck by how often the expression “preserving the rural way of life” still remains a central point of contention when it comes to defining rurality and whether or not vibrant education, economic development, and workforce policies should be elements of that definition. To be clear, preservation and vibrancy are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are necessary, connected companions in the long-term health and vitality of any rural community. Yet for a community’s k-12 school district, questions often remain as to what really should be the role of education in defining, pursuing, and achieving this. Is its role simply to provide community residents with a compulsory education leading to a high school degree, void of any purposeful connection to the community’s economic and workforce needs, or is it to serve as a primary driver in the community’s attainment of its long-term economic and workforce goals? I contend that it is the latter.

As a former state director, who oversaw k-12 career and technical education and early postsecondary course offerings for a largely rural state, I came to understand and identify very early on the debilitating inertia that existed for rural communities when education was missing from a community’s effort to pursue vibrant local and regional policies leading to the long-term health of the community.  

From my experience, it begins and ends with the intentional vertical alignment of education (k-12 with postsecondary) with the identified local and regional economic and workforce priorities. When education becomes the third leg of a community’s stool (education, economic development, and workforce), rural vibrancy occurs. When education is missing or misaligned, dead end opportunities begin popping up for young people, which in turn produce low economic and workforce growth for a rural community. As shared in a recent publication that I co-authored, Putting Career and Technical Education to Work for Students, “these dead ends can be identified by students who graduate underskilled and underprepared and have limited employment opportunities, or by communities that are unable to produce the number of skilled workers needed to meet the demands of their current and projected industry needs.”

Sensitive to this, I am reminded of two recent profiles that I came across in my work. One looked at an upcoming high school graduation of three students in a rural community in midcentral United States and what the immediate (and long-term) collateral damage can be for a young person who is the product of disjointed priorities and policies across a rural community’s education, economic development, and workforce stakeholders. The other involved a regional intermediary in rural Minnesota that I interviewed for a recent publication on stakeholder engagement. In this case, the intermediary works purposefully with local and regional stakeholders to define and pursue education-to-occupation priorities and policies for the long-term vitality of their rural communities.  

A vibrant rural community should never be an aberration; however, to achieve it, it requires committed, collaborative work not only on the part of a community’s economic development and workforce stakeholders, but also its education stakeholders, to define and pursue purposeful, aligned policies. Only together can we truly preserve rurality, so let’s get to work.

Danielle Mezera, Ph.D.

Presently, Danielle serves as a principal consultant and freelancer with DCM Consulting. She regularly works with clients at the national, state, and local levels on career and technical education and on k-16 education-to-career learning models. Prior to this, Danielle served five and a half years as the assistant commissioner for college, career and technical education with the Tennessee Department of Education. 

As assistant commissioner with the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), Danielle oversaw the state’s career and technical education curricula, industry-valued certifications and exams, portfolio of early postsecondary courses and exams, administration of ACT/SAT exams and prep, k-12 counseling, and work-based learning and service learning programs. In addition, she served as state lead with the national Pathways to Prosperity Network and Tennessee’s awarding of J.P. Morgan Chase’s New Skills For Youth (NSFY) phase I and phase II grants. During her tenure with TDOE, she led a systemwide overhaul of the state’s career and technical education program, resulting in the development and full implementation of rigorous, aligned programs of study and course curricula, program supports, and capstone experiences.

Prior to joining the state, Danielle served six years as director of children and youth with the office of the mayor for Nashville and Davidson County. In that position, she served as chief education policy advisor for Mayor Bill Purcell and Mayor Karl Dean.

Before entering public service, Danielle served as a director at the Vanderbilt University Institute for Public Policy Studies. During her full tenure at Vanderbilt University, she held various senior level positions in university administration. Danielle holds a B.A., M.Ed., and Ph.D. in education.