By Philip Elliott
When school started here in the fall, 1 out of 7 classrooms was without a teacher; leaders couldn’t recruit enough educators to this sparsely populated rural area at the southern tip of West Virginia.
When officials turned on the mandatory security cameras at one elementary school, the rest of the building lost its Internet connection; the buildings weren’t wired for this century.
And when parent-teacher conferences came around, fewer than half of the biological parents got invitations; the others were long gone, in jail or dead.
This is the reality facing students in McDowell County, a place perpetually ranked among the worst in the state by almost every measure. Twelve people a month die from drug overdoses here, while more than 100 people are on a waiting list to talk to rehab counselors via Skype. Three-quarters of all students live in a home where parents can’t find work in this one-time coal hub that has slowed. The county leads the state in teenage pregnancies.
With this as the backdrop, the West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday was set to formally alter the scope of these schools. The state took over the schools more than a decade ago and its leaders no longer will limit their mission to the traditional school day. The officials are going to try to turn the schools into a base, not just for the students but for all of those who live around here in small towns with names such as Cucumber and Johnnycake, where storefronts are boarded up and homes abandoned.
Adult literacy, drug rehabilitation programs and basic medical care all will take place under the roofs of these schools. And in many cases, they’re already under way even before the state approves the final deal that expands the schools’ ambitions in exchange for some relaxed oversight.
“In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, we’re also acting as their parents,” principal Florisha Christian McGuire said as she walked through the halls in War’s Southside School.
Classes had dismissed for the day but dozens of students stayed for after-school programs that include dinner.
“You look into their eyes and they have the eyes of someone much older. They’ve seen so much,” McGuire said. “So my role switched from being a principal to social worker.”
The American Federation of Teachers-guided effort is called Reconnecting McDowell, and leaders hope it will stem decades of suffering, both physical and economic.
The effort started out as a conversation between then-West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin and AFT President Randi Weingarten. During the past 18 months, the two high-energy women called allies and pulled together more than 120 partners. Communications firms replaced dial-up Internet service with high-speed upgrades, VH1 donated instruments for the bands, and volunteer firefighters are serving as mentors.
If successful and sustainable, this model could help despairing rural schools elsewhere. It has no less a champion that Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“I think the lessons are not just for this county or for this state, but across this country, that this community effort, this collective endeavor can be as successful as we all hope and think it can be,” Duncan said during a visit here. “The implications are truly national.”
He knows. Before joining President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, Duncan ran Chicago’s public schools and oversaw a shift to such a community-focused model in many of those places of learning.
But that’s not to say it will work here. Previous attempts at economic development in this southernmost corner of West Virginia have come in fits and starts, only to fizzle when well-intentioned visitors grew frustrated, bored or broke.
And similar attempts have fallen short in far more populous places where the challenges weren’t as great.
“It would be a real mystery to me how to do that in a rural area,” said Paul Heckman, an associate dean at the University of California, Davis, School of Education.
Heckman helped schools in Tucson, Ariz., set up a similar community-based program. But there he had a more densely populated area.
“How do you activate this community?” he said about this rural place.
It’s not as though McDowell County is a stranger to outsiders’ help. In 1966 alone, the county received $721,000 from federal anti-poverty programs.
“Eight community centers were opened, each with a library and recreation area, classrooms for Head Start and well-equipped sewing and cooking areas. Instructors were hired to teach adult education and home economics. Recreation directors were employed,” The New York Times wrote in a 1966 article from here.
“Then, with everything in place, the word was sent out to the poor: Come to classes because they are good for you. ... Everything will be different for you from now on.”
“Their heart was in the right place and they came in with the grants and instituted these programs. Everything was fine for six months and they went away and the program died,” said Manchin, now the vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education and among those expected to vote for expanding the schools’ mandate.
What they’re trying to do is overlay an urban strategy on a place where cellphones often lack a signal. Boston, Cincinnati and Oakland, Calif., all have created schools where the academic leaders work with community partners on education, health and social issues. Between lessons on Shakespeare and Charlemagne, students can have their teeth cleaned or meet with a social worker.
But here it is something new.
“In 10 years, hopefully you’ll see a McDowell County that is thriving, schools are thriving and students are successful,” Weingarten said. “Back in the 1950s, Main Street looked like a teeming urban street. There was nowhere to walk and nowhere to drive.”
The county had almost 100,000 people in 1950, according to census figures. They lost more than a quarter of that population over the next decade and that number fell another 50,000 in 1970. By 2010, that number had dropped to 22,000.
As the mines that produced $1 billion in coal grew quieter, so did the cash registers. Infrastructure became a luxury. Unemployment rushed in. Alcohol followed. Drugs weren’t far behind.
“The problem at one point was alcohol. Through the last 15 years, I would guess, that problem has changed from alcohol,” said Judy Akers, chief executive officer of the Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center.
Her organization’s clinic in McDowell County is treating 24 people for opiate addiction and has 143 others on a waiting list for the telemedicine program.
The drug problem here had become so severe, officials opened a juvenile program inside the school so teachers — already combating truancy — wouldn’t have to lose more students from their classrooms when they went for counseling.
“We have good people here. We have educated people here,” said Reba Honaker, the mayor of the county seat, Welch, and a former home economics teacher.
Just too few of them stay, she said.
Those who do leave behind statistics that make educators shake their heads.
Some 72 percent of the students live in a home where neither parent is working. About 46 percent of students live in a home without a biological parent; many of them are in jail for drugs. Many of the students will become parents before they become graduates; the county leads the state in the teen birth rate, with roughly 1 in 10 females between the ages of 15 and 19 giving birth.
And McDowell County has the highest death rate for prescription drug overdoses in the country. Twelve people die each month from abusing prescription pills.
Those are the extremes. On a more basic level, there are daily challenges.
Many of the students here have never sat in a dentist’s chair to have their teeth cleaned. There is no central water system here so fluoride is not readily available. And it’s a long drive through treacherous terrain for anything beyond an emergency.
That will change next year if leaders can pull off their plan. The Reconnecting McDowell leaders are trying to recruit dentists to work with the schools to set up medical clinics, not just for students but also their parents.
They’re also looking to expand the existing efforts to help parents’ reading skills.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates 22 percent of the adult population in the county lacks basic literacy skills. So project managers decided to introduce literacy centers not just for children, but also their parents and grandparents. At seven locations adults sit with educators and learn basic skills.
For others, there are home visits to help them learn reading skills.
“Parents want what’s best for their children,” said Jacki Wimmer, an early reading teacher who makes regular visits to seven families. “Some children come to school and they’ve never held a book.”
And for the traditional functions of a school? Those, too, need work.
Of the 350 teaching positions in McDowell County, 51 were not filled at the start of the school year. Those who considered moving here couldn’t find housing. In the mountainous region, there’s no flat land to build new houses. Rental property is hard to come by. The Reconnecting McDowell project has talked about building an apartment building of its own to house 20 or 25 teachers. Plans are in the works.
In the short term, schools turned to substitutes and those who didn’t have licenses. The state could loosen those requirements as part of the expanded roles.
Despite the dour outlook, students and educators alike remain upbeat.
“I like my teachers. I like my friends. I like math,” third-grader Emma Cline said as she played in a computer lab after school, as she does three nights a week. “I really, really like that my teachers care about me.”
If leaders get their way, that care will take on even stronger efforts in coming years.
“You’ve got to look past the mold, the mildew, the trash and the dust,” McGuire, the principal, said as she walked through an abandoned gymnasium she hopes to turn into a community center. The outside doors were locked but the glass on one was broken so she let herself in.
“Think of how many kids could be saved here,” she said, kicking up dust with every step. “We have got to at least try.”