Enrichment Corporation plant in the 1950s has brought a steady stream of engineers and professionals to the area, although many are sojourners who move on. It also employs some of the rural working class, the original “Heatherans.” This mix of locals and outsiders has been augmented in recent years by families moving out of the city and into newly constructed subdivisions.
The Heath community was described as small and tightly knit by almost everyone we interviewed. “Everyone knows everyone else’s business,” and gossip travels quickly. Status is often measured by the number of generations one’s family has lived in Heath, and people know each other and their families by name. Strangers with northern accents and probing questions stick out, although since the shooting the community has become more accustomed to inquisitive outsiders.
The high school is in many ways the center of life in the Heath community. Community members who graduated decades before still congregate at high school sporting events, choir concerts, and band performances. Parents are heavily involved in students’ extracurricular activities, from sports’ booster clubs to selling refreshments and building sets for the school play. A year or two before the shooting, when officials proposed combining the three county high schools into two to provide more varied classes and more extracurricular activities, Heath residents were the most fervent dissenters. Old school loyalties run deep.
With between 500 and 600 students each year, Heath is the smallest of the three county high schools, each of which is fed by a middle school and two elementary schools. The predominantly white county school system is separate from the Paducah city schools, which have a considerable black population. Heath’s curriculum, like its student body, is a mix of traditional and new. The school boasts three large computer labs, a computer in every classroom, and a classroom with videoconferencing equipment, as well as a greenhouse and an active agricultural education program. Students come from a wide range of economic backgrounds, from trailer parks to million-dollar mansions. Racially the school is almost entirely white, with a handful of blacks, Asian Indians, and Hispanics. Students score above state averages on the Kentucky Core Content Tests, and the dropout rate for the 1999–2000 school year was 2.9 percent.2
About 60 percent of graduating seniors go on to college, yet most remain nearby at Paducah Community College or Murray State University.3 Hence friends made in high school are friends people keep for life, especially among those who begin work right after high school. Like most Kentucky schools, primary responsibility for the school’s operations and curriculum lie with a site-based committee, which in the case of Heath High School is composed of the principal, two teachers, and three parents. The County School Board has a minimal oversight and funding capacity.