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Reconnecting McDowell

American Teacher
March/April 2012
Feature Story

AFT spearheads landmark partnership to turn around Appalachian community.

ONCE HOME TO MORE than 120,000 Americans, McDowell County, W.Va., has seen its population dwindle to barely 22,000. The exodus started in the 1960s, when the coal industry began pulling out of the county, taking away well-paying jobs.

Today, the county is one of the nation's poorest. Unemployment is widespread. Transportation is difficult in the mountainous, flood-prone terrain, which makes access to healthcare, public services and recreation beyond the reach of many residents. McDowell consistently ranks at or near the bottom of West Virginia counties in measures of health, income and education—problems that often show up in schools and undercut efforts to provide students with an excellent education.

The school system, for example, typically has trouble recruiting and keeping excellent teachers because there is no available housing. Transportation problems compromise opportunities for after-school and summer enrichment programs; boredom is a fact of life for students and helps fuel problems like drug abuse.

These problems are profound, defy piecemeal solutions, and point to the need for a comprehensive, coordinated response—the type of response that the AFT-led Reconnecting McDowell is designed to provide.

Launched in December, Reconnecting McDowell brings together more than 40 public and private partners in a long-term commitment to boost education opportunities and comprehensively address economic, health and other problems that have plagued McDowell County, a community located in southern West Virginia where isolation and poverty have been a grim fact of life for generations.

The partnership was launched at the state Capitol in Charleston at a signing ceremony that featured West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, AFT president Randi Weingarten, state board of education vice president Gayle Manchin, and partner organizations as diverse as Cisco Systems and the United Mine Workers of America. The groups pledged a three- to five-year commitment to provide money, services and expertise that will help students and families in McDowell "not just to dream their dreams but to achieve them," Weingarten told the audience at the signing.

"McDowell County is an American story that deserves a new chapter," Weingarten said, and the AFT is proud and excited to lead a project that reflects the union's long-standing commitment "to help all kids get a quality education, regardless of ZIP code, race or family income level."

"This public-private partnership has the power to change lives for the better in rural West Virginia and inspire other communities throughout the nation to follow suit," said Tomblin, adding that Reconnecting McDowell will help strengthen the state's ongoing efforts in areas such as preventing substance abuse and keeping students in school.

Manchin, the former West Virginia first lady, called Reconnecting McDowell an opportunity to build a national model that could help revitalize rural communities across America. The partners "bring so much expertise to deal with problems inside and outside of schools."

"In my 42 years in education, this is the most important and exciting work I have ever done," said AFT-West Virginia president Judy Hale, who is also an AFT vice president. "Reconnecting McDowell will stand as a model for how to help kids living in rural America."

Next steps

All of the Reconnecting McDowell partners have signed a "Covenant of Commitment," which will guide the initiative. It identifies education, student and family services, transportation, technology, housing, jobs and economic development as some of the primary areas of focus.

Education will be the centerpiece of the effort—a long-term initiative to make education a lifelong gateway to opportunity—and the AFT has pledged to take a leading role in this area, working with local educators, administrators, parents and citizens to pave the path to this goal. Some efforts will address preparation for prekindergarten, guidance and other support services, parental engagement, and college and career readiness.

The AFT is offering expertise in curriculum, professional development, recruitment and other key areas.

One nonprofit partner, Save the Children, will be focusing on early literacy programs in McDowell County elementary schools. And, through the group First Book, the AFT will provide a book to every child in the county and also to support a library makeover at Mount View High School.

"The students in McDowell County deserve and should be provided an equal education," said Jackee Long, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. "With this project comes opportunity—not only for students but for employees and the community as well."

The citizens of McDowell will be the most important partner in this effort. All partner groups are committed to enlisting parents, students, residents, local institutions and others in the process, "making the McDowell County community part and parcel of all our efforts," as the covenant states.

That commitment was apparent the day before the formal launch when the AFT and other partners gathered at the county's Mount View High School to give the community a preview of the partnership. Speakers at the event explained how components of Reconnecting McDowell are the product of extensive conversations in the community—generating a vision for the future from county residents, educators, parents, students, local businesspeople and community leaders.

Respect for the community and its vision of the future will guide these efforts, Weingarten told the Mount View gathering. The relationship between residents and the partner groups will be based on the view that Reconnecting McDowell "is about a hand up, not a handout."

That tone almost certainly will allow the partnership to tap into the most valuable resources at its disposal—McDowell residents' own hope for the future, something that has never left the county even in the hardest times. It's an attitude that still fuels local residents like Andrew Montgomery, who has taught in McDowell schools for 36 years.

"I have hope—that's why I'm here," Montgomery said. "I still believe that we can turn things around and help a greater percentage of students become successful and go on to do bigger and better things."