National Turnaround Plan Targets McDowell County Schools

12/16/2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In an unprecedented experiment to turn around disadvantaged
schools in rural West Virginia, more than 40 public- and private-sector groups plan
to work together on a big-picture education plan to transform McDowell County. 

"We are hoping to help McDowell County find the dignity and respect and hope
and faith to which it is so entitled," Randi Weingarten, president of the American
Federation of Teachers, told the West Virginia Board of Education on Thursday. "This
will be a monumental undertaking based on unprecedented collaboration."

The AFT union will organize a five-year project it calls "Reconnecting McDowell,"
Weingarten said. More than 40 businesses, nonprofit organizations and national and
state level groups and leaders have marshaled resources to tackle poverty, technology
and transportation problems in McDowell County that contribute to the region's
education crisis.

If the program is successful, the AFT hopes the McDowell County initiative can be
a model for rural districts across the nation.

"I'm tired of people saying that all you have to do is work hard and play
by the rules and you will succeed," said Weingarten. "People in McDowell
County have worked hard and have played by the rules. It hasn't worked. There
are other factors."

Schools in McDowell County, the southernmost county in the state, have been devastated
by flooding, a shortage of qualified teachers, high student dropout rates and some
of the worst math and reading test scores in West Virginia. 

The state took over McDowell's school system in 2001 to fix the county's
"deplorable, filthy, unsafe and disgusting" schools, according to a 2001
accrediting agency report.

The state Department of Education consolidated schools, hired a new superintendent,
and built new facilities.

But after nearly a decade of work, the state admits it has made only meager progress
in improving education at the county's 11 schools.

"There is only so much the state can do," said state Board of Education
member Gayle Manchin, who helped spearhead Reconnecting McDowell.

"There are issues in McDowell that go beyond the school system and get to ingrained
cultural feelings about education and a number of economic problems. If we're
going to fix McDowell, it's going to take an army," said Manchin, wife
of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The AFT says Reconnecting McDowell is bringing in the cavalry.

Business giants like Cisco Systems Inc., Alpha Natural Resources and Frontier Communications
have pledged to improve the county's technology, Internet access and broadband
services, and revitalize the county's downtrodden job market.

Nonprofits like First Book have agreed to provide schools with a steady book supply
and groups like the Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute are working to fix
the transportation infrastructure.

Weingarten said $250,000 has been raised so far for the planning phase of the revitalization
project, and partners will contribute more resources down the road. They hope to
start implementing the project by early September.

Friday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the AFT will publicly sign a covenant with McDowell
County for the education turnaround initiative.

Jim Brown, superintendent of schools in McDowell County, said community members
have voiced some reservations at the scope of the project at several community meetings.
But he said residents are game to try a novel approach to help the county's
3,600 students to get a better education.

"People in McDowell County are not looking for a handout," said Brown.
"But they will take a hand up."

McDowell County was at the epicenter of Appalachia's coal boom in the early
and middle years of the 20th century, with a rural infrastructure that centered
on high-paying mining jobs and an economy based on natural resources. The county
had more than 120,000 residents in the 1960s.

Over the past 30 years, as the coal industry has pulled out of McDowell County,
the population has plummeted. The community and local infrastructure have atrophied.
Problems have intensified.

In McDowell County today: 

  • almost 70 percent of public school students live in households where no parent is
    employed.
  • nearly half of the 22,000 residents are on some form of public assistance.
  • the childhood obesity rate is the highest in West Virginia.
  • the county is first in the nation for the number of accidental deaths from painkiller
    overdoses and antidepressant drugs.

Weingarten says addressing these issues is a gargantuan challenge, but "at
the end of the day, our mission is to provide all children with an excellent education."

"This initiative is about us walking the walk," she said.

By Amy Julia Harris