Fostering Community Engagement and Economic Development: Insights from Fayette County

Last weekend, the ACRI cohort visited Fayette County, Pennsylvania to conduct community-based research. This trip proved to be invaluable. We were able to meet with a plethora of community members, many of which were very involved with their local community. Our visit encompassed the towns of Uniontown, Connellsville, and Brownsville. Each individual group spent the day working on their own initiatives and we convened at several points throughout the day. Our busiest day was Friday, October 13th. We stayed at Touchstone Center for Crafts where we ate breakfast that morning and then were off to accomplish our pre-planned tasks! 

My group members, Kayla and Maggie, our professor, Dr. Sanchez, and I spent the morning visiting two high schools in the area: Uniontown Area High School and Laurel Highlands High School. We had arranged meetings with administrators, faculty, and students at both schools to gain a better understanding of the current educations programs they offer, the specific career interests and concerns of students, and their overall strengths and weaknesses. Our overarching goal with these meetings is to use out findings to determine if there are any career or education resources that The University of Pittsburgh can offer to high school students in Fayette County. 

During our meeting at Uniontown Area High School, we had the opportunity to engage with Bob Manges, one of the school co-principals, and Courtney Baker, the librarian/gifted education support teacher who advises Celebrate Uniontown, an initiative to promote and improve upon the community of Uniontown that our team will be building upon. Additionally, we spoke with the students involved in running Celebrate Uniontown, Dominic and Delaney. This discussion offered valuable insights into the prevailing mindset among many high school students in the area. A notable point raised was the lack of awareness among students, especially those not enrolled in the vocational school, regarding the various career options available to them. The students also shared their observations of lack of student involvement. Dominic strongly felt that if more students in less appreciated niches were recognized, there would be more engagement amongst the student body. Moreover, the prevailing mindset of “leaving town” as a measure of success was emphasized during the discussion. Many students see post-graduation departure as their ultimate goal. This inclination aligns with the findings of the public survey on the loss of young people. The primary driving force, as observed by the students, seems to be not necessarily the lack of opportunities in the area, but rather a general lack of pride in the community amongst young people and the perception that one’s potential is not fully realized without leaving. Another significant issue highlighted during the interview was the concern about blighted properties in Uniontown and across Fayette County, which has instilled a sense of shame within the community. I was previously aware that blight was an issue in Fayette County, but I did not expect it to be as prevalent as it was around the high school’s campus. I was also surprised that it was mentioned as a specific concern.

While visiting Laurel Highland High School, we engaged with Randy Miller, the Director of Curriculum & Instruction, John Diamond, the principal, and a team of high school guidance counselors. Their insights shed light on how the school is equipping students for the future, along with the challenges they face. One notable observation shared by both high schools was the remarkable success of the Fayette County Career & Technical Institute, demonstrating its significant advantages for students who are certain about pursuing a vocational path. A distinctive feature of Laurel Highlands High School is its program structure, enabling students to attend the technical institute while simultaneously enrolling in advanced courses such as AP or college-level classes. The school takes pride in its academic offerings, highlighting that students generally face little difficulty in securing college admissions. However, many encounter financial constraints, leading them to favor local or state schools despite some reservations. Another key insight from the interview emphasized the pivotal role of parents as decision-makers. Unlike Uniontown, Laurel Highlands focused on engaging parents and recognizing their influence on students. The school has grappled with effective parent communication and low engagement levels, yet it has witnessed successful turnouts at events such as financial aid night. Furthermore, it was revealed that parents often serve as the driving force behind students leaving the area after high school, aspiring for their children to lead better lives, with the belief that departing the region is pivotal to achieving this goal. It was interesting that both schools faced some of the same issues and has similar observations regarding students leaving the area after high school and low engagement levels amongst both students and parents. 

These meetings brought to mind the insights from the course reading “Explaining the ‘Brain Drain’ From Older Industrial Cities: The Pittsburgh Region” authored by Susan B. Hansen, Carolyn Ban, and Leonard Huggins. The reading extensively examines the phenomenon of brain drain, a prominent issue in western Pennsylvania. Brain drain refers to the emigration of highly skilled individuals from a specific area. This trend is particularly noticeable in Appalachia, and Fayette County is no exception. Discussions with school administrators and faculty underscored the occurrence of this pattern among their own students. Many young individuals aspire to pursue opportunities beyond their hometown, seeking educational and professional prospects elsewhere, ultimately contributing to the area’s brain drain.

The latter part of our day was dedicated to engaging with diverse community members across the county. During lunch at the Connellsville Canteen, we had the pleasure of finally meeting Michael Edwards in person and engaging in informal discussions with several residents, all graciously invited by the cohort. Subsequently, we were given a tour of the Entrepreneurship and Education Center adjacent to the Canteen. This space is being developed to host a range of educational seminars, classes, and workshops open to the public. Later, we had the opportunity to meet Daniel Cocks in person at The Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from Washington, D.C. Although we couldn’t gather substantial community insights during this visit, it proved to be a interesting experience. Our itinerary then led us to a productive meeting with community leaders Bill Talkington and Brad Trott at Corner Creamery in Uniontown. The focus of this meeting centered on planning a comprehensive community survey that will provide valuable insights into the area’s demographics and lifestyles. We will be closely examining the data gathered from this survey, which Bill and Brad will soon be distributing throughout the community. Moreover, our interaction shed light on the significant roles played by Bill and Brad in Uniontown’s development, from their involvement with the Sheepskin Trail to their contributions to the Redevelopment Authority. The day culminated with our attendance at a high school football game at Albert Gallatin High School, providing an invaluable glimpse into the daily lives of local residents. Members of our cohort took the opportunity to engage with several attendees, fostering a deeper understanding of the community’s dynamics.

My time in Fayette County was truly enriching, and the insightful discussions with various individuals left a lasting impression. I view all the locations we visited, including the high schools, the Entrepreneurship and Education Center, and Corner Creamery, as integral community assets. Fayette County’s wealth of resources holds tremendous potential for nurturing sustainable economic development in the region. Considering our brief visit from Thursday night to Saturday morning, we could only explore a fraction of the area. Given more time, I would have welcomed the opportunity to engage with a broader spectrum of community members and visit additional locations, particularly high schools from other districts in the county. Such an extended visit would have significantly contributed to our group’s objectives.

There were several aspects of this community that surprised me. Exploring Fayette County, I was struck by how similar it was to my hometown in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Similarities abounded, from the rural landscape dotted with towns to the strong emphasis on ecotourism. It was intriguing to find such a reminiscent place on the opposite side of the state. As I mentioned above, I was also surprised by how prevalent blight was in Fayette County, especially in Uniontown. Witnessing numerous abandoned and deteriorating properties throughout the town was a stark reminder of the challenges facing the community. Equally surprising was the lack of pride among the youth, their focus often drawn to the area’s shortcomings rather than its potential. While this mindset echoed my own experiences, it was a contrast to the earlier descriptions of the remarkable pride in Fayette County’s communities. Observing the stark contrast in pride levels between the younger generation and the adults was a thought-provoking experience.

Following our insightful interactions with the local high schools and community members Bill and Brad, we have devised several strategies to advance our project and stimulate economic development in Fayette County. Reflecting on our strategic analysis and the objectives established during our visit, we have identified three key solutions. Firstly, leveraging the insights gathered from our meetings at Uniontown Area High School and Laurel Highlands High School, we aim to find ways that the University of Pittsburgh can provide tailored career resources that promote workforce development and economic diversity for young people in Fayette County. Secondly, we will continue collaborating with student interns Dominic and Delaney to promote Uniontown’s cultural heritage through Celebrate Uniontown by engaging social media programs, aiming to enhance community engagement and pride. We plan to use social media initiatives, such as the @uniontown_pa Instagram and the school’s Tomahawk Talk website, to showcase interviews with community members and professionals, providing valuable career insights to young individuals. Lastly, the imminent community survey in Uniontown, PA, will serve as a guiding resource, unveiling demographic trends and community preferences to steer future initiatives and resource allocation effectively. Our overarching aim is to establish a robust foundation for future projects and programs in the area.

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