The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 2, 2012

McDowell to center community around school

By Sarah Plummer
Register-Herald Reporter

— McDowell County Educators and the West Virginia Department of Education were featured as part of national Digital Learning Day Wednesday, outlining their new collaborative efforts to turn around — or “reinvent” — the McDowell community.

During the Digital Learning Day broadcast, aimed to celebrate innovative teaching and digital learning, the new initiative called “Reinventing McDowell” was unveiled.

The initiative is an effort to improve student learning by improving the social and economic factors that hinder it including high poverty rates, pervasive health problems, drug addiction and high unemployment.

According to the broadcast, the McDowell Board of Education must combat the fact that 72 percent of their students live in a household without gainful employment and 46 percent of McDowell County students do not live with their biological parents.

McDowell County has been last in West Virginia education for most of the past decade.

Partnering with the West Virginia Department of Education in this project is the American Federation of Teachers.

Randi Weingarten, president of the federation, said the project will focus on providing technology, housing, job development, student learning and assistance for other socioeconomic issues.

“We have to focus on instruction for kids, but we can’t say we are going to focus on issues of learning if you can’t focus on these other issues,” she said.

Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state board of education, continued, “We are going to raise the village to support the child by looking at health issues, meals and nourishment, after school programs, and enrichment programs.”

One aspect of the plan will be to offer a year-round program to ensure students continue to learn and are provided nutrition and support all year.

“Reinventing McDowell” will involve non-profit organizations, state support, businesses, DHHR, workforce development and the community.

McDowell County Superintendent Jim Brown said the school board has invested $2 million in giving their schools the capacity to support technology; however, the county-wide network will not support the system.

This is one example of the need for county-wide infrastructure to support student learning, he said.

With the assistance of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, McDowell County expects to be up to 100 megabits per second by March 1.

“Getting the technology is just one aspect. We need highly effective, extremely motivated teachers behind the technology and to be able to recruit and retain these highly qualified teachers,” he said.

Manchin said the program will be working with trade unions to construct five or more affordable houses as a way to recruit additional teachers.

The presentation on McDowell was part of a public forum and presentation featuring teachers and educators across the nation called National Town Hall, the marquee event of Digital Learning Day.

According to a press release, Digital Learning Day had 39 states participating, including 15,000 teachers and 1.7 million students who connected via skype, twitter, or an online chatroom.

Digital Learning Day, presented by the Alliance for Excellent Education, is meant to showcase the benefits of using technology in education, including better preparing students for jobs or college.

The broadcast featured U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Bob Wise, president of Alliance for Education and former governor of West Virginia, moderated the broadcast.

“Technology has made nearly everything in modern life more efficient, accessible, richer, and faster, yet students are frequently asked to check their smart phones, laptops, and other devices at the door when they enter a classroom,” he said. “It is time we stop asking students to ‘power down’ when they go to school and instead to ‘power up’ and use their interest in technology as a new way to learn.”

Wise explained that “Digital Learning Day is not about technology for technology’s sake — simply slapping a netbook on top of a textbook will not move the education needle very much,” said Wise. “Instead, it’s about recognizing the great potential that effective technology has to transform the world of learning when combined with powerful teaching and rigorous content.”

“The president and I are convinced that with technology, we have an extraordinary opportunity to expand educational excellence and equity, and personalize the experience for students,” said Duncan. “Technology can enable the high-quality teaching and learning that today’s students need to thrive as citizens, workers, and leaders in the digital age, and the globally competitive knowledge economy.”

In a roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan, Weingarten discussed Internet availability and affordability.

Many families, they said, cannot afford high Internet costs and this may counter their child’s digital learning.

Weingarten brought up the possibility of low income families with school-aged children being able to purchase Internet for as low at $10 a month, much like reduced home phone lines for families that meet the financial criteria.

Duncan agreed, stating that while digital learning is becoming more and more necessary, “we don’t want to increase the economic divide.”

 — E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com