Equity & Diversity Photo Essay

The Bigger Picture

By Nicole Frugé — April 05, 2012 1 min read
Paiten Pysell, 11, left, a 6th grader at Sandy River Middle School, and Emily Auville, 9, a 4th grader at Iaeger Elementary School, practice cheerleading outside Emily's home in McDowell County, W.Va. Paige Pysell, 9, a 4th grader at Iaeger Elementary, is in the tree.
Fourth grader KeyVon Dale, 9, works on an essay in first-year teacher Andrew Hurst's class. Mr. Hurst, a Michigan native, is one of several McDowell County teachers from outside the state.
Photographer Jim Busby, left, waits as Leanna Mitchem does a touch-up on a student's hair during picture day at Iaeger Elementary School.
A decayed school crossing sign near Sandy River Middle School in McDowell County.
Third grade teacher Debbie Damron hugs a former student of hers, 5th grader Hailey Mitchem, 11, during a dance party to reward students for good behavior. Ms. Damron is one of several teachers at Iaeger Elementary retiring at the end of this year.
Dakota Waldron, 11, a 6th grader at Mountain View Middle School, plays basketball after school at his home in McDowell County.
In McDowell County, W.Va., an ambitious, five-year partnership of more than 80 private and public groups is looking to turn around one of that state's lowest-performing rural school districts. The Reconnecting McDowell initiative launched in December. Above, an intersection in downtown Welch, the county seat and a town of just over 3,000 in the state's southernmost county.
First graders Kara Hagerman, 6, from left, Emilee Mitchell, 7, and Amanda Jackson, 7, eat lunch at Iaeger Elementary School. Two meals a day are served to every student attending school in McDowell County.
A closed bank building in Iaeger, W.Va.
Ronnie Auville, 7, left, works on homework while his mom, Julia, checks the "musical alphabet" his sister Emily, 9, did during school in their McDowell County home. Three of the four Auville family children attend Iaeger Elementary School.
Coal cars sit empty on the tracks in McDowell County. The once-thriving coal-mining area has seen a dramatic decline in population in recent decades.

“Please, don’t say we’re just poor white trash,” requests one teacher on my first day at Iaeger Elementary School in Iaeger, W. Va. Tired of one-dimensional media portrayals, the citizens of McDowell County have been burned before. “An Australian camera crew came in here and did a real number of us,” explains the police chief after he spots me photographing the dilapidated middle school that closed in 1999.

There’s no denying that McDowell County is poor. Nationally, it has the fifth-highest rate of school-age children per capita living in poverty. The isolated, rural school district has spent the past decade under state control, but has seen little improvement. But that stark reality is only the beginning of the story.

Principal Ray Bailey and the Auville family graciously opened their doors to me, an outsider with a camera, in hopes that a fuller, more accurate picture of their community would emerge. Small-town charm, rugged beauty, and a certain grittiness permeate the place. At Iaeger Elementary, the students are so well behaved, it’s hard not to notice. After just a few days on campus, almost everyone greets me by name. It’s a special, welcoming feeling that I’ve yet to experience at another school. The teachers, also, make quite an impression, from Richard Williams, who came out of retirement because the kids needed him, to Andrew Hurst, a young first-year teacher who, despite the challenges, brings passion and energy to his 4th grade class.

“Why don’t we celebrate our successes? When kids raise [students’] test scores, why don’t we give them a high-five or a pat on the back? Sure, we need to strive for more. But why not celebrate the gains along the way?” says Mr. Hurst. They may have a long way to go, but every day of my visit I witness small victories in the classroom. Change is a hard, slow process and what happens in the middle is just as important as the start or the finish.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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