Ambitious Partnership will Transform McDowell County

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The AFT and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced on Dec. 16 that they are leading an unprecedented public-private partnership with more than 40 partners to enhance educational opportunity for children in the McDowell County public schools in Central Appalachia, while addressing the underlying problems caused by severe and chronic poverty and economic decline.

The initiative, "Reconnecting McDowell," is a comprehensive, long-term effort to make educational improvement in McDowell County the route to a brighter economic future. Partners from business, foundations, government, nonprofit agencies and labor have committed, in a signed covenant, to seeking solutions to McDowell's complex problems—poverty, underperforming schools, drug and alcohol abuse, housing shortages, limited medical services, and inadequate access to technology and transportation. Each partner has agreed to provide services, money, products and/or expertise to lift McDowell County's schools, students and their families.

"McDowell County is an American story that deserves a new chapter. Given the challenges, being conventional won't be good enough. We will be flexible, creative and entrepreneurial, and will take risks," AFT president Randi Weingarten said. "The AFT's mission is to help all kids get a quality education, regardless of ZIP code, race or family income level, and we know that means tackling a wide range of issues in a coordinated way to help revitalize the community."

Educational improvement is the centerpiece of the three- to five-year effort. Weingarten said the project will rely on the AFT's decades of knowledge and experience in supporting schools to meet the educational and social needs of students. The project will work with local educators, administrators, parents and the citizens of McDowell to make education what it should be: a lifelong gateway to opportunity. Efforts will include intensive preparation for prekindergartners, a well-rounded curriculum for academics and social development, guidance and other support services, parent engagement, and improved college and career readiness for high school students.

Gov. Tomblin said he was pleased to partner with the AFT in the effort to revitalize McDowell County.

"Just like in many areas of our country that are plagued by the global recession, educational and employment opportunities are not where they should be for McDowell County residents. This collaboration will further strengthen my existing dropout prevention and substance abuse initiatives by engaging a revitalization effort throughout the county. 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," Gov. Tomblin said.

The project was initiated at the urging of Gayle Manchin, vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education and former West Virginia first lady, who was anxious to find creative, sustainable ways to improve the education and lives of the county's 3,600 students, their families and other residents.

"This impressive partnership will bring much expertise to dealing with problems inside and outside of the schools, including finding creative ways to invest in housing, technology and broadband, transportation, recreation, and infrastructure," Manchin said.

Save the Children will be focusing on literacy programs in McDowell.

"Save the Children is partnering with three elementary schools in McDowell County and working with strong leaders like school district Superintendent Jim Brown to create change for children, but community transformation is not something any one organization can take on alone. The AFT recognized this need, and we're excited to be a part of the coalition to revitalize McDowell," said Mark Shriver, Save the Children senior vice president of U.S. programs.

The partners will develop a plan over the next six months. The education reforms—which will include developing a well-rounded curriculum and providing support, services and enrichment for students and teachers—are expected to be in place by fall of the 2012-13 school year.

The "Reconnecting McDowell" partnership will provide quarterly public updates, including tangible commitments. Some already have been made, including:

  • Frontier Communications—Providing $100,000 to work with Globaloria on online learning projects.
  • AFT Educational Foundation—Committed $150,000 for the planning process.
  • First Book—Announced a three- to five-year plan to provide books for every county child. As a start, the AFT and AFT staff are donating $14,000 to immediately provide one book for every McDowell child and to fund a library makeover for Mount View High School.
  • The Benedum Foundation—Providing a $100,000 planning grant.

Read a front-page story in the Washington Post about the partnership. Visit the "Reconnecting McDowell" website to watch a video on McDowell County, sign the pledge to "Stay Connected to McDowell," and get additional information. [AFT press release]

December 16, 2011