by Emma Welsh-Huggins
This past Halloween, like in the years before it, a popular costume was “townie.”
Clad in either hunter orange or camo print, purchased from the clearance rack at Walmart, students found it an easy go-to theme for a quick laugh at the expense of the surrounding Knox County community.
Generalizations about Mount Vernon and its inhabitants are common — comments and jabs that quickly turn into negative stereotypes. As Mount Vernon High School (MVHS) graduate Rhiannon Suggs ’15 was quick to say, “I feel like a lot of people at Kenyon unfortunately have the view that people in Mount Vernon are not that smart.” The underlying thought is that for those privileged enough to attend an elite school like Kenyon, Mount Vernon’s starkly different school system is first to come under attack.
In a conversations with two MVHS guidance counselors, a picture began to emerge of a well intentioned system working hard to overcome the varying socio-economic hurdles faced by the community.
The median household income in Knox County is $49,323, lower than the $53,046 national five-year median, and 14.6-percent of residents fall below the poverty line. With numbers like these, the school system faces a serious problem accessing and allocating enough resources for students. According to the state-issued report card for Mount Vernon schools, “Mount Vernon City is among 20-percent of public districts with the lowest operating expenditures per pupil.”
As Guidance Counselor Mryna Kennerly explained, there are three counselors for approximately 1,200 students at MVHS. “We do career [advice], the scheduling, we kind of do everything,” she said. Counselors conduct personality assessments for possible careers, provide college application resources for juniors and seniors and use social media and other outlets to remind students of upcoming deadlines.
For the most part, these efforts pay off.
Sixty-five percent of last year’s graduating class enrolled in a four-year college or university, while 27-percent went to two-year technical schools. “And the other group,” Kennerly gently joked, “I hope they’re working. We hope they’re being productive citizens of Mount Vernon.” She emphasized that the high school’s ACT and SAT average scores have long stayed above the national average — in a tone that suggested she was more than used to combating a stereotype of lesser academics.
But a slightly different social perspective begins to emerge when former MVHS students now at Kenyon are asked about their experiences at MVHS. Avery Baldwin ’17 and Suggs both attended the public school and left with opinions ranging from relief to a kind of buyer’s remorse.
“Having the public school experience, I don’t know, it kind of prepares you for the real world more than anything else — even more than Kenyon, I’d argue,” Suggs shared.
In turn, Baldwin, who attended MVHS for one year before transfering to a private boarding school, commented on the failed school system tax levies that are now harming current students’ high school experiences, with pay-to-play athletics that many students cannot afford, and sharply reduced of extracurricular activities. Baldwin added that there seems to be an almost tangible understanding among the community that students will not venture far for college.
Places like the University of Findlay, The Ohio State University at Newark and Mount Vernon Nazarene University are the most common choices for graduating seniors.
Michael Hayes ’14 has spent most of his life in Gambier and attended MVHS. He explained in an email that living in Gambier, in such close proximity to Kenyon College, definitely affected his experience at MVHS. His neighbors were Kenyon professors and he grew up with Kenyon graduates as friends before he even applied.
Hayes noted that some of the MVHS students “idealized this place [Kenyon] because of how beautiful the campus is. There were other students who thought that Kenyon was only for rich kids from big cities.”
Kenyon is economically out of reach for a majority of students, and Suggs explained yet another common stigma: “Because a lot of the kids who go to Mount Vernon can’t afford it, it’s kind of not even talked about.”
Although not all Kenyon students come from economically privileged backgrounds, the educational experience at Kenyon speaks to a different kind of intellectual privilege that many MVHS students may never have. As a small and isolated community, those on the Hill are at times unaware of the community right next door.
MVHS lies less than six miles away from campus, how many would be able to find it as easily as they do Walmart?