In rural McDowell County W.Va., schools rethink their role


LEARNING–Shaevon Boyd, a third grader at Southside K-8 School in War, W.Va., works on a reading assignment during an after school program on May 7. The school located in McDowell County, an area overwhelmed with poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, and teacher shortages, provides after school access to computers, tutoring, recreation and a meal. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)


by Philip Elliott

WAR, W.Va. (AP) — When school started this fall in this sparsely populated rural area at West Virginia’s southern tip, 1 of 7 classrooms was without a teacher because leaders couldn’t recruit enough educators.

When officials turned on the mandatory security cameras at one elementary school, the rest of the building lost its Internet connection because it wasn’t wired for this century.

When it came time for parent-teacher conferences, fewer than half of the biological parents got invitations because the others were long gone, in jail or dead.

This is the reality facing students in McDowell County, a place perpetually ranked among the worst in the state by almost every measure.

Every month, 12 people die from drug overdoses here, while more than 100 people are on a waiting list to talk to rehab counselors via Skype.

Three-quarters of all students live in a home where parents can’t find work in this one-time coal hub. The county leads the state in teenage pregnancies.

With this as the backdrop, the West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday went ahead with a plan to alter the scope of these schools.

The state took over the schools more than a decade ago and, citing efforts underway to provide adult literacy and basic medical care for students and parents alike, gave the schools back to local leaders and their allies during a meeting in nearby Bradshaw.

The American Federation of Teachers-guided effort is called Reconnecting McDowell, and leaders hope it will stem decades of suffering, both physical and economic. If successful and sustainable, this model could help despairing rural schools elsewhere.

“In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, we’re also acting as their parents,” principal Florisha Christian McGuire said as she walked through the halls in War’s Southside School.

Classes had dismissed for the day but dozens of students stayed for after-school programs that include dinner.

“You look into their eyes and they have the eyes of someone much older. They’ve seen so much,” McGuire said. “So my role switched from being a principal to social worker.”

The fresh approach started out as a conversation between then-West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin and AFT President Randi Weingarten. During the past 18 months, the two called allies and pulled together more than 120 partners. Communications companies replaced dial-up Internet service with high-speed upgrades, VH1 donated instruments for the bands, and, on Wednesday, IBM announced it would give 10 computer labs.

But that’s not to say it will be enough.

Previous attempts at economic development have come in fits and starts, only to fizzle when well-intentioned visitors grew frustrated, bored or broke.

“Their heart was in the right place and they came in with the grants and instituted these programs. Everything was fine for six months and they went away and the program died,” said Manchin, now the vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education, which voted unanimously to expand the schools’ mandate.

What they’re trying to do is overlay an urban strategy on a place where cellphones often lack a signal.

Boston, Cincinnati and Oakland, Calif., all have created schools where the academic leaders work with community partners on education, health and social issues. Between lessons on Shakespeare and Charlemagne, students can have their teeth cleaned or meet with a social worker.

“In 10 years, hopefully you’ll see a McDowell County that is thriving, schools are thriving and students are successful,” Weingarten said. “Back in the 1950s, Main Street looked like a teeming urban street. There was nowhere to walk and nowhere to drive.”

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