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Reconnecting McDowell

PSRP Reporter
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 puts 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 educators because there is no available housing. Transportation problems compromise opportunities for after-school and summer enrichment programs, making boredom a fact of life for students and fueling 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.

Begun in December, Reconnecting McDowell brings together more than 40 partners in a long-term commitment to boost education opportunities and comprehensively address economic, health and other problems that have plagued McDowell County.

The partnership was launched at the state Capitol in Charleston at a ceremony that featured West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, AFT president Randi Weingarten, state board of education vice president Gayle Manchin, and partners 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 said. “McDowell County is an American story that deserves a new chapter,” and the AFT is proud to lead a project that reflects our commitment “to help all kids get a quality education, regardless of ZIP code, race or family income level.”

“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, 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 partners have signed a “Covenant of Commitment” to guide the initiative that identifies education, student and family services, transportation, technology, housing, jobs and economic development among the primary areas of focus. Education is the centerpiece—a long-term initiative to make education a gateway to opportunity—and the AFT has pledged to take a leading role, together with local citizens. Some efforts will address preparation for prekindergarten, guidance and other support services. The AFT is offering expertise in curriculum, professional development, recruitment and other areas. One nonprofit partner, Save the Children, will be focusing on early literacy. And, through the group First Book, the AFT will provide a book to every child in the county.

“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. Their commitment was apparent at a preview of the partnership, at which speakers explained how components of Reconnecting McDowell are the product of extensive conversations in the community, and respect for the community’s vision will guide these efforts. That tone almost certainly will allow the partnership to tap into its most valuable resource—McDowell residents’ own hope, something that has never left the county.

It’s an attitude that still fuels residents like Andrew Montgomery, who has taught in McDowell schools for 36 years. “I have hope—that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I still believe that we can turn things around.”