Hillsboro community leaders working hard to give them an opportunity
Hillsboro High School Principal Max Heinrichs seemed surprised by surveys Hillsboro students filled out for the Hillsboro Star-Journal.
Many students were passionate about Hillsboro. They wanted to stay or come back because Hillsboro is their hometown — where they grew up.
Of the 38 students polled, 20 said they enjoyed a small town environment.
“I hate big towns,” a Kansas State University-bound student said.
But, that same student also said that he or she would only return to Hillsboro, or Marion County, if a good software engineering job were available.
The population of Marion County has dipped 10 percent during the last decade. The decline has created economic hardships for local schools and businesses.
Marion County economic development director and Hillsboro school administrators know that educating students on opportunities in Marion County is crucial to the future of Hillsboro and the county.
USD 410 Superintendent Steve Noble led a conversation on “Youth Attraction” March 5 at an Economic Development Strategy Summit.
Marion County Economic Development Director Theresa Huffman organized a Marion County Economic Development career fair this past spring. The purpose of the event is to try to expose fifth- and sixth-graders to entrepreneurial and career opportunities in Marion County.
Huffman stressed that with the Internet and an increase in computer technology there are more opportunities for people to work out of their homes.
One Hillsboro student expressed a desire to pursue a career in graphic design; one of Huffman’s sons works out of his home in Marion doing graphic design.
“There’s going to be new opportunities that we just don’t have yet,” Huffman said. “There are opportunities for young people because of such easy access to the Internet and all the social media.”
Some students want to pursue jobs that may not allow them to reside in Marion County: airline pilot, chemical and nuclear engineer, developer in the food science industry, meteorologist, and event coordinator.
And other students just don’t want to come back to Hillsboro.
“In small towns, gossip is horrible, and people don’t forget,” one student said. “This is strong enough to turn me away from small towns.”
However, multiple students expressed interest in becoming nurses or police officers — positions that are in-demand inMarion County.
Mason McCarty is heading to Tabor College this fall and is planning to study history. His original plan was to go to McPherson College to study criminal justice. McCarty said that he is still interested in becoming a police officer in a town like Hillsboro or Marion. He already has the connections with his father being a former chief of police in Hillsboro.
“I could see myself living here,” McCarty said. “Everyone is from here; I’ve lived here my whole life.”
Dentists, doctors, and veterinarians were also professions with multiple students expressing interest.
“I think it’s good for kids to go away to go to school,” Huffman said. “We have to make sure to have something to draw them back.”
Of the 38 students polled, 29 said they planned on going to a four-year college. While not all the students specifically named their college of choice, the answers given were diverse.
Multiple students are heading to Kansas State University and Wichita State University, and multiple students said they were going to stay in Hillsboro to attend Tabor College.
There were also students who said they were going to go as far away as Emerson College in Boston, some to Arizona, and others are considering Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
The vast majority of students were headed to schools in Kansas. Noble cited that Kansas has quality schools at each of the levels of post-secondary education: community colleges such as Cowley County and Garden City; small four-year schools such as Tabor and Kansas Wesleyan; Division II level schools such as Fort Hays State University; and then Division I schools such as the University of Kansas, KSU, and WSU.
“This state values education at its core,” Noble said. “Education doesn’t guarantee you anything, but there are more opportunities when you’re educated.”
Hillsboro and Marion County are tasked with attracting a skilled work force with their college degrees. A low cost of living is one of Marion County’s advantages. Huffman talked about one of her sons coming back to town and being amazed at the low cost of housing.
But, Noble also talked about being a bridging community as well as a strong bonding community. Of the 20 students who expressed a desire to return to a small town, 16 had lived in Hillsboro 14 or more years. Bonds with family and friends that have been created in a lifetime of living in a small community are the main features, attracting students back to Hillsboro.
Hillsboro leaders are trying to bridge the gap to young people who may be new to Hillsboro.
“Youth look for community vitality,” Noble said. “Are there opportunities for young people to take on leadership roles? If a community only bonds and doesn’t bridge it has a tendency to die.”
Vitality is something Hillsboro Economic Development Director Clint Seibel is concerned about.
One student who had lived in Hillsboro for three years said, “It’s an area more for older people.”
Seibel wanted to refute the idea that Hillsboro is only a retirement community, saying there are many young families in Hillsboro. Huffman echoes this sentiment.
“When they start their families, that’s when they want to come back,” she said.
One student even said, “The only thing that would make me want to return to this small town is if I were to have children. It is a very safe community.”
Noble said Hillsboro leaders are working to attract young people to town.
“Hillsboro is not a community that wants to just circle the wagons,” he said. “Hillsboro is in a prime position. We have a four-year college. We’ve got great recreational opportunities.”
This is Noble’s second year on the job as superintendent. He and his family purposely chose Hillsboro as one of the few places they wanted to live.
“This is a great community,” Noble’s wife, Gia, said after a HHS softball game May 18. “How can you not love this community?”