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Photo: Katlin Kazmi

Welcome back, 

As I end my time with you in this newsletter series, I wanted to dedicate my final dispatch to the area I chose as my career outside of the food truck: education. I believe education has the power to literally save both lives and our culture, if only we rank it at the top of our priority list.

I am currently a public school administrator at the middle school level, but I am a teacher at heart. Beginning in 2016, I spent a considerable amount of time over three years working with a team of like-minded educators to shift our district’s educational focus from conventional educational practices to include 21st century skills, such as communication and critical thinking.

We had the support of our division and began working with schools and teachers on making meaningful changes to curriculum — changes that incorporated community partnerships, shifting mindsets and working on relevant assignments and projects intended for real audiences. Our work towards visible improvement in our own area schools was coming to fruition, and the feeling was nothing short of elation. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and a resulting shift in educational priorities.

 Photo: Katlin Kazmi
To say the educational experience looks different in 2020 is an understatement.

I think a better description would be that the educational system has been flipped upside down, bounced like a basketball and pushed down a hill. Much of the work we had put into making real gains got put on the back burner as we, rightly so, now had to brainstorm an entirely new model of learning without any research to guide our decisions. Many districts opted for blended hybrid or fully virtual learning environments this fall in an effort to keep both students and teachers virus-free and to meet established state guidelines.

This style of learning immediately brought to light intense areas of concern, specifically for families in Appalachia. Child safety, daily meals, access to the internet, childcare, transportation and financial stability are among the challenges for our students and their families that keep me up at night. Equity became the buzzword right along with PPE and social distancing. The notion that the public education system is the backbone for many of the families in this region was reinforced tenfold.
Photo: Katlin Kazmi

It’s here that the real conversation begins. 

If education is such a source of survival for many families in Southwest Virginia, why are we, as citizens, not fighting for it on the front lines every single day? The national budget for education has been on a steady decline for over a decade. This, in turn, puts more pressure on state and local governments to provide funding for schools.

Areas with small population sizes (the landscape for many towns and communities in Appalachia) are at a particularly extreme disadvantage. Our region cannot compete without the resources to do so. The change begins with our vote and our voices towards the improvement of education, but rarely does this topic enter the conversation when we discuss our choices for elected officials.

We must fight for our educational system to be a top priority.
We must fight to provide parenting classes for mothers and fathers. 
We must fight to incentivize partnerships between schools and community businesses and organizations.
We must fight to show our students that the path to success involves hard work and perseverance, two of the very skills this area helps create. 

Photo: Katlin Kazmi

It takes a village to raise a child, this is for sure, and we can use our own abilities to educate children in our communities. Teach your grandchild how to preserve berries and explain why it’s an important skill. Invite a neighbor child to learn a trade or a skill from you as you work in your shop. Invoke your own child’s curiosity with a visit to a local creek to learn about Hellbenders and native fish. Education can take place anywhere, at any time. If we cannot gain momentum on a national and state level, let’s rely on the very culture that built us to steer our students towards a better future. 

I would argue it is in our own self-interest to get involved in the education of our youth. I believe we are going to continue to see an increased need for government support and a decline in quality of life if we do not make education a priority. More than anything, we must all do our part to ensure our local youth sees the positive facets of Appalachia and gains the understanding that we create our own opportunities by the choices we make.

Appalachia’s biggest export is our people. We create hardworking go-getters and then they drive up Interstate 81 to find work. We have the power to keep them here by prioritizing our educational system, using our skills and abilities to make Appalachia better and working diligently to make opportunities available for them after graduation.

Students visit The Pakalachian. Photo: Katlin Kazmi

To bring it full circle, as owners of The Pakalachian Food Truck, Mohsin and I try to practice what we preach. When we were building the truck, I actually brought the empty vehicle to school and turned it into a math lesson for my students! We have tried to create a business in Appalachia that seeks to better the area for all individuals who chose this place as their home.

While our focus is firstly on making unique food with quality ingredients, we hope to impact the region further through our emphasis on sustainable practices and opportunities for practical learning. Every aspect of our business is an avenue for improving the area in which we live. 

It’s been great spending time with you this month. We hope you’re able to visit us in Abingdon soon!

Best, 

Katlin

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