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