CHARLESTON, W.VA.—Reconnecting McDowell, the partnership of public, private, non-profit and labor groups which was formed exactly one year ago to revitalize the educationally struggling, economically depressed McDowell County, W.Va., has made substantial progress, including expanding broadband in every county school to provide Internet access.
"The success thus far of Reconnecting McDowell is due to the passion and commitment of diverse groups joining forces with a community that has lacked resources but not hope," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten and Gayle Manchin, vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education, spearheaded Reconnecting McDowell, which was launched on Dec. 16, 2011, with the goal of improving the county's educational opportunities while addressing chronic problems caused by severe poverty and economic decline—mainly due to the bust of the once-thriving coal industry.
"The McDowell community has a heightened sense of optimism because of what we've accomplished in just one year," Manchin said.
Weingarten and Manchin emphasized that Reconnecting McDowell is just one year into what will be a long-term program.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint. We want to make sure that we do things right, not just get them done, so that we provide McDowell with sustainable programs that can be built upon for another generation," Weingarten said.
Reconnecting McDowell began with 40 partners; it now has about 110 partners and a board of directors, who are seeking solutions to challenges McDowell faces involving education, jobs and the economy, social and health services, housing, technology and transportation.
One of the key goals is to recruit teachers to fill vacancies in McDowell and to retain them—a challenge for many reasons, especially because of the severe housing shortage and mountainous terrain. While Reconnecting McDowell is continuing to work on multiple tracks to accomplish this—including exploring options for building a Teacher Village—it is making some early headway.
Katie Walker had been teaching in Calhoun County, W. VA., when she viewed an online AFT video about Reconnecting McDowell. "After watching the video with tears in my eyes and seeing the great need for teachers here, I saw that I could make a difference," said Walker, now a math teacher at Mount View Middle School in McDowell.
Key achievements of Reconnecting McDowell's first year:
Students and schools literally "reconnected" to the world:
- Frontier Communications wired every county school with fiber optics to expand bandwidth and allow students to have consistent Internet service.
- Shentel Communications is now working, similarly, to wire 10,000 homes for Internet access.
- First Book has given away 4,500 books to McDowell's 3,600 students, with the promise of 18 more books per child per year for the next five years.
- Verizon provided $50,000 to First Book for 10 Family Literacy Centers throughout the county, set to open in early 2013.
- Save the Children is operating after-school programs for about 200 students in three elementary schools, with special emphasis on literacy skills.
Recruiting and retaining teachers:
- The state Legislature passed a Teacher-in-Residence bill that will allow Concord University seniors studying education to fill teacher vacancies, under master teacher supervision. The first recruits would begin in 2013.
Connecting children to the arts:
- VH1 Save the Music Foundation provided new band instruments, valued at $30,000, to Mount View High School.
Efforts to curb truancy and drug abuse:
- The West Virginia Supreme Court opened a juvenile drug court to provide teenagers with treatment and programs to deter truancy.