CHARLESTON, W.Va.—Launched six years ago by Gayle Manchin and the American Federation of Teachers to help revive an Appalachian county struggling with decades-long academic challenges and socio-economic devastation, the Reconnecting McDowell public-private partnership today is celebrating tangible improvements and looking forward to more years of efforts to lift people’s well-being in McDowell County, W.Va.
Also today, in an acknowledgment of genuine success, AT&T—one of more than 125 partners—announced it is making a second substantial contribution to Reconnecting McDowell’s Broader Horizons high school mentoring program. The company has contributed $200,000 to support Broader Horizons for the next two years. The latest contribution builds on a previous $300,000 contribution that enabled 57 at-risk high school students to participate in Broader Horizons; all of them have graduated and enrolled in college or entered the military.
Reconnecting McDowell is an unprecedented effort spearheaded by the AFT to strengthen education outcomes by addressing the elephant in the room—poverty—and its consequences for students and their families. For decades, there had been a lack of access to healthcare, social and emotional services, role models for students, modern technology in schools and at home, jobs and other economic development opportunities.
“Over the past six years, we’ve demonstrated that when the broader community comes together and takes on seemingly intransigent issues facing a poverty-stricken area, we can make a difference in people’s lives,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Reconnecting McDowell has found a way to try to break the cycle of chronic poverty and give today’s kids and families a path to a brighter future.”
Weingarten said one of the new focuses for 2018 will be career and technical education programs, which provide high school students with real-world training for jobs that need to be filled.
Gayle Manchin, chair of Reconnecting McDowell and West Virginia’s secretary of education and the arts, said: “Reconnecting McDowell is working because of the commitment of our partners—Fortune 500 corporations and labor unions; national, state and local nonprofits and agencies; parents and pastors; school personnel and students; and local residents who had all but given up hope that anyone cared about them for the long haul. Reconnecting McDowell has given them hope and real signs of improvement, but we know we are nowhere near declaring mission accomplished.”
One of the most successful programs over the past six years has been Broader Horizons, which provides mentors to high school students at risk of dropping out or who are dealing with serious personal difficulties. The program also takes the students to Charleston and Washington, D.C., during the school year to introduce them to a world of higher education and career possibilities. Since 2014, AT&T has contributed $500,000 to support the Broader Horizons program—part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature philanthropic initiative to drive student success in school and beyond.
“We saw a group of students who transformed before our eyes and became motivated to get a high school diploma and continue their education, thanks to caring mentors who became strong role models and helped the students see what they could offer the world if they worked hard,” said J. Michael Schweder, president, AT&T Mid-Atlantic. “Broader Horizons helps students make the connection between the classroom and the workplace and prepares them with the skills and experiences they will need to excel in whatever they choose to do.”
Key accomplishments since the December 2011 launch of Reconnecting McDowell:
- After a 12-year state takeover due to chronically low student achievement, in 2013 the state returned McDowell County Public Schools to local control because of improvements. The state board of education credited the efforts of Reconnecting McDowell.
- The high school four-year graduation rate has significantly increased from 74 percent in 2010-11 to 88 percent in 2015-16.
- The high school dropout rate has decreased significantly from 4.5 percent in 2010-11 to 1.6 percent in 2015-16.
- Two schools have been converted to community schools that provide wraparound services to support children and their families. Other schools are scheduled to be transformed into community schools.
- More McDowell County high school graduates have enrolled in college—f rom 24.6 percent in 2010-11 to 40.3 percent in 2015-16.
- In addition to the AT&T contribution, the Maier Foundation provided a $20,000 grant to fund $4,000 college scholarships for each of five McDowell students.
- County schools had minimal broadband in 2011; partner Frontier Communications greatly expanded schools’ broadband for high-speed internet service. Shentel provided broadband access to 11,000 county households, with reduced prices for homes with school-age children.
- Through Reconnecting McDowell, First Book has distributed 50,000 books in the county.
Social and emotional needs:
- McDowell County had few dentists in 2011; today, all students receive regular dental exams and cleanings either in a mobile van or at an in-school clinic.
- All county schools except one elementary school offer mental health services.
- A county Juvenile Drug Court was established to divert nonviolent young offenders from the traditional juvenile court process (and long sentences) to intensive treatment programs that help students return to school faster.
- The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and utility vehicles is being expanded into McDowell County in two stages. The first section is scheduled to open in 2018 and the second in 2019. The expansion will broaden tourism in the county.
- Reconnecting McDowell received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide technical assistance on economic development strategies.
- Several job-training projects are underway.