West Virginia: The Power of Partnerships

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The power of partnerships that put schools at the heart of neighborhood revitalization was on display as the AFT launched its 2011 back-to-school tour in West Virginia on Aug. 29, the first of several visits that will showcase community commitment to strong public services around the nation and the dedication of frontline professionals who deliver these vital supports each and every day.

The West Virginia leg of the tour kicked off in Charleston with a breakfast, hosted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and first lady Joanne Tomblin, that set the tone for the day's activities. It featured an engaging and constructive discussion of education reform based on respect and shared commitment rather than on vilifying teachers. Participating in the frank, off-the-record dialogue were state and local leaders of AFT-West Virginia, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA), and other education and community leaders.

West Side Story

Judy Hale

AFT-West Virginia president Judy Hale, West Side principal Mellow Lee and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin chat with students at the state’s first community school.


West Side Elementary, the state's first community school and one of two buildings spearheading revitalization in Charleston's high-poverty West Side neighborhood, was the second tour stop. Visitors strolled through bright, inviting classrooms and learned how in-school health, dental and family services; after-school enrichment; state-of-the-art technology; and a year-round school calendar are helping to keep students on track to graduate and supporting a broader fight against poverty in the neighborhood. The community school project is being supported with an AFT Innovation Fund grant and boasts a wide spectrum of community partners, including the faith-based Hope Community Development Corp.

The school visit was followed by a roundtable discussion with West Side Elementary parents and faculty, and a press conference at the school that featured comments by AFT president Randi Weingarten, AFT-West Virginia president Judy Hale, Gov. Tomblin, former first lady Gayle Manchin, state schools Superintendent Jorea Marple and many others involved with the community school project.

The real West Side story, Weingarten told reporters at the press conference, is about "people thinking about how we take issues and adversity, and turn them into opportunity" that can help neighborhoods and public schools be the best they can be. That climate "is clearly in place at West Side Elementary."

"Our future depends on how we educate our students," and everyone, from policymakers to educators and community groups in West Virginia, embraces that principle, Hale told reporters. When it comes to frontline educators, West Virginia communities recognize "we make a difference every day"--and that's a refreshing and promising change from efforts in other states to "demonize teachers," she added.

Randi Weingarten with group

AFT president Randi Weingarten, school librarian Debra Cannada and WVSSPA president Jackee Long celebrate launch of First Book project in West Virginia schools.


At the West Side Elementary news conference, Weingarten, Hale and school officials announced a partnership with First Book, a national organization that has distributed more than 85 million books to low-income children around the country. On Monday, every student at West Side Elementary was able to take home two new books, all donated by First Book. The organization will make a similar donation to students at Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which receives students from West Side. In addition, the AFT Innovation Fund presented the library at each school with a $1,000 grant to be used to purchase books at reduced prices through First Book's marketplace, and First Book matched the grants with a $1,000 credit to each school. The AFT, AFT-West Virginia and WVSSPA also announced matching grants for the project.

"Hope has returned to West Side," said the Rev. Matthew Watts, who leads the Hope Community Development Corp., which is helping spearhead not only school revitalization but also improvements in neighborhood housing, recreation and healthcare. "We have to make a compelling case to those outside of the community" that West Side is vibrant and viable, and work to build a strong middle class that keeps "talent in the community as residents and contributors." In that effort, the AFT and its affiliates have provided resources and have served as "a strong bridge" into the national dialogue on school reform for the high-poverty community.

All of this was music to the ears of West Side school librarian and AFT member Debra Cannada, who said it took her no time to compile a First Book "wish list" for the shelves at the school. "It's so exhilarating to have all these groups" come together around the project, Cannada said, "and it's going to make a difference for those children who don't pick up a book [when] they can pick up a game controller."

Appalachian Spring

Mount View High students

Students from Mount View High school share their perspective at a roundtable discussion on education in their rural community.


From Charleston, the tour moved 120 miles south into the heart of Appalachia for a community roundtable discussion at Mount View High School, near the border of West Virginia and Kentucky. The event drew a broad spectrum of interested partners—public officials, labor, higher education, foundations and private industry—to explore how a shared commitment could battle some of the most pressing problems in rural schools. Many of these were detailed at the roundtable by Mount View teachers, administrators and students. They spoke of the ongoing battle to retain talent and leadership in the isolated rural system, largely because of the lack of available housing; grinding poverty and student homelessness; inadequate transportation systems that deny students recreation and enrichment opportunities outside of school hours and leave them vulnerable to poor health, drug use and other destructive behaviors; and an overwhelmed telecommunications infrastructure that still does not offer the bandwidth necessary to support 21st-century technology in the mountain community.

Manchin told the audience that the problems in McDowell County are serious but solvable if the dialogue centers "around how we can work together to look for solutions." She predicted that, with cooperation and shared commitment, "McDowell County could be a national model" for how rural education can be revitalized.

Panelists at the roundtable discussed ways to construct a three- to five-year revitalization plan for the school system, beginning with a systematic inventory of assets already in place. Several panelists, for example, discussed opportunities to make better use of the district's school bus fleet, rather than let vehicles sit idle during the summer months in a community that lacks the public transportation necessary to deliver enrichment and recreation opportunities to students and adults. Part of that solution, WVSSPA president Jackee Long said, is for policymakers to "pass a decent wage for bus operators so they don't have to drive a coal truck" to earn a competitive wage.

A revitalization plan for McDowell is an opportunity "to bring concrete deliverables in a cohesive way" to students, educators and the community, said Weingarten, and she pledged sustained AFT support for this approach. [Mike Rose/photos by John Lewis]

August 30, 2011

In the News

West Side students to receive free books, Charleston Gazette

Community Involvement Key For Schools, Metro News

Groups bring free books to West Side schools, Charleston Daily Mail

National groups provide Charleston kids with books, Charleston Gazette Blog