AFT spearheads landmark partnership in Appalachia

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The AFT has joined with more than 40 public and private partners in a long-term commitment to boost educational opportunities and comprehensively address economic, health and other problems that have plagued McDowell County, a coal-mining community located in southern West Virginia where hardship, isolation and poverty have been a grim fact of life for generations.

Called Reconnecting McDowell, the West Virginia partnership was formally launched Dec. 16 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 many of the state's ongoing efforts in areas such as preventing substance abuse and keeping students in school.

Manchin, the former West Virginia first lady who is a driving force behind the partnership, 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" and are a storehouse of energy and creativity that can help address housing, technology, transportation, recreation and other aspects of life that, for decades, have become daily challenges for residents of McDowell County.

Deep roots

Once home to more than 120,000 Americans, McDowell County today 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. The effects of downsizing extended beyond employment. "Coal companies divested themselves of services and utilities they operated in McDowell," and company-operated transit was sold off and either downgraded or terminated, a Federal Reserve regional case study stresses.

Randi Weingarten shakes hands with McDowell county studentRandi Weingarten chats with McDowell County students following the state school board’s unanimous endorsement of the project.

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. The county consistently ranks at or near the bottom in measures of health, income and education among West Virginia counties—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.

The problems are profound, defy piecemeal solutions, and point to the need for a comprehensive, coordinated response—the type of response that Reconnecting McDowell is designed to provide. "Given the challenges, being conventional won't be good enough," Weingarten told the audience at the Reconnecting McDowell launch. "We will be flexible, creative and entrepreneurial—and will take risks."

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, housing, jobs and economic development as some of the primary areas of focus.

Randi Weingarten signing McDowell covenantWeingarten signing the covenant of commitment as state board VP Gayle Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin look on.

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 intensive preparation for prekindergarten, a well-rounded curriculum, 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 components of school improvement. To facilitate planning, the AFT Educational Foundation has committed $150,000 to help develop an action plan over the next six months; these funds that will be augmented by a $100,000 planning grant from the Benedum Foundation. Education reforms are slated to be in place by fall of the 2012-13 school year.

One nonprofit partner, Save the Children, will be focusing on early literacy programs in McDowell County elementary schools. And, through the nonprofit group First Book, the AFT and AFT staff have donated $14,000 to provide a book to every child in the county and also to support a library makeover at Mount View High School.

Immediately following the formal launch of Reconnecting McDowell, partner groups met in the state Capitol to create action subgroups based on areas of particular expertise among the partners, including technology, literacy, community action and health.

"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."

"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 prime partner

The covenant makes clear that the McDowell community itself 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."

McDowell press conferencePartners announce Reconnecting McDowell project at a packed press conference in the W.Va. state Capitol.

That commitment was clear on Dec. 15, a day before the formal launch, when the AFT and other partners gathered at 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. Speakers at the event also stressed that they heard the voice of the community when it comes to the tone and approach of this project.

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 one of 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." [Mike Rose, AFT public affairs department/photos by Bob Bird]