Critics of failing systems often ask the same chicken-or-egg question: Do educators and environment cause kids to fail, or do failing students weigh down the teachers and districts around them?
McDowell County Public Schools, a rural district amid the hills of Central Appalachia, is the poorest county in West Virginia and the eighth poorest in the country. More than half of McDowell’s students do not live with their biological parents because of circumstances such as imprisonment or hospitalization, and McDowell has the highest rates of obesity, teen pregnancy, unemployment, dropping out, and drug and alcohol addiction in the state. Kids who make it to school have long been taught in classrooms with too little bandwidth to properly connect to the Internet, and in buildings with original desks and paint. After-school programs don’t exist because of a lack of busing. And, with McDowell’s 52 teaching vacancies in the 2009-2010 school year—the result of attrition from teachers retiring or resigning to teach elsewhere—kids were lucky if they saw a steady face at the front of their classroom.
For its low performance, the West Virginia Board of Education took control of the district in 2001. But, when a decade of oversight hadn’t changed children’s outcomes, the board’s vice president, Gayle Manchin, was both appalled and embarrassed.
“It was very apparent that ‘education’ alone could not increase student achievement, nor was continuing to do what we had always done going to yield different results,” says Manchin, who has been on the board since 2006. “It was not a lack of effort that was the problem; it was a lack of comprehensive effort.”
The origins of McDowell’s circumstances didn’t matter to educators and politicians close to the district, but finding a better way to fix them did. Spurred by Manchin, the American Federation of Teachers and West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin are leading a public-private partnership in hopes of enhancing educational opportunities in the district and addressing community problems inherently caused by chronic poverty and economic decline. An army of stakeholders now hopes to stabilize the county and increase student achievement through the innovative initiative “Reconnecting McDowell.”
Partners in Hope
Since Reconnecting McDowell was announced in December of 2011, partners comprising businesses, foundations, government, non-profits and labor have signed a covenant in which they promise to assist in the areas of education; services for students and their families; transportation; technology; housing; and jobs and economic development. First Book has given all McDowell students at least one book of their choosing, to keep, for their own free reading at home. A lead partner in the initiative, along with offering strategic planning and its knowledge in helping schools meet the needs of their students, AFT’s Educational Foundation committed $150,000.
The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation—which offers grants to support initiatives in education, economic development, health and human services, community development, and civic engagement in West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania—donated $100,000 toward strategic planning. Frontier Communications also provided $100,000 to work on online projects provided by Globaloria. Says AFT president Randi Weingarten, everyone involved has been “doing things together to help ensure that neither demography nor geography equal destiny [in McDowell].”
Weingarten adds that, “Individuals, absent resources, and time and experience can’t do it all; schools can’t do it all.” Yet, she says, successful initiatives can’t appear to be a “takeover” because it will divest a community of the voice it needs in its destiny.
Bob Brown has worked for AFT for 32 years and is the organization’s in-district coordinator for Reconnecting McDowell. He works to match donated resources where they are needed most. A native of West Virginia, Brown relates to the challenges the community has faced through the boom-bust cycles of the region’s coal industry.
“Challenges of the economy and community spill over to schools as issues you might not expect,” he says. Also unexpected has been the students’ response. When it was announced at an elementary assembly that high-speed Internet was coming to their school, students began applauding. “I was really taken aback,” says Brown.
Reconnecting McDowell is slated to last three to five years. Though it’s so new, there’s excitement in McDowell’s schools already, says McDowell County Public Schools Superintendent Jim Brown. “We’ve spent a lot of time researching children living in poverty. Most people believe IQ has more impact on student achievement, … but it’s actually hope,” says Brown, who became superintendent in 2009. “We don’t focus on barriers. We see opportunities for pushing harder. We don’t see people making excuses. We work differently because of the challenges. I’m very proud to watch the schools accept responsibility for ‘whole’ children. It’s been refreshing.”
Manchin believed McDowell would need diverse experts from every endeavor to change the culture, raise the resources and support, and provide a model of sustainability. Having heard community members’ consistent message, “we want a hand up, not a handout,” Weingarten says that, to date, some 40 partners have joined Reconnecting McDowell.
McDowell County (W.Va.) Public Schools
- Superintendent: Jim Brown
- Students: 3,535
- Schools: 12 (includes one alternative school and one technology center)
- Staff: 321
- District size: 550 square miles (21,000 residents)
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 86%
- Per-pupil expenditure: $12,260
- Dropout rate: 3.5% (2010)
- Web site: boe.mcdo.k12.wv.us/mcdowellcounty/site/default.asp