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Rural W. Va. District Attracting More Attention, New Leadership

By Diette Courrégé Casey — May 21, 2012 2 min read
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We’ve been chronicling the progress of Reconnecting McDowell, a new collaboration of public and private partners in at-risk McDowell County, W.Va., and a few developments seemed worth noting.

The state’s high-poverty, low-performing school district again is losing its top leader, and the West Virginia Board of Education has named a replacement.

Jim Brown, who would have been the district’s chief for two years in July, took a superintendent’s job in Raleigh County schools in West Virginia, and the state board picked Nelson Spencer as his replacement. Spencer has worked as a state school improvement specialist with the West Virginia Department of Education, and he’s spent time in McDowell County.

The district has been under state control since 2001 but seen relatively little improvement. The state made the leadership change sound like a positive, but constant turnover in that position through the years—Nelson will be the fourth since the state takeover—has created a lack of consistency and more challenges.

McDowell County schools have been the subject of national scrutiny because of a first-of-its-kind collaboration among private and public partners to improve them. Reconnecting McDowell was launched in December, and the American Federation of Teachers has taken the lead in organizing the 60-plus partner groups that are involved.

We’re following their efforts, and that’s one of the reasons the national Education Writers Association asked me to moderate a panel discussion on collective impact at its conference late last week.

Collective impact refers to highly structured collaborative partnerships that achieve big results on large-scale social issues. Its fundamental requirements include: a common agenda, shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support. McDowell County might not meet the technical definition yet, but its leadership seems to be headed in that direction.

Just a few more pieces of McDowell County news worth mentioning:
• The county is the focus of a new interactive documentary and community participation project that’s unrelated to Reconnecting McDowell. “Hollow” is supposed to give residents a chance to tell their stories (and refute the negative stereotypes and portrayals) as well as “bring attention to issues in rural America, encourage trust among the community and become a place where users can share ideas for the future.” The project is being funded through donations and should be finished in one year.
• Nearly 100 people involved in Reconnecting McDowell met in April to create the partnership’s guiding plan of action. That plan doesn’t appear to be posted online, but we’ve requested a copy.
• A West Virginia Public Broadcasting story reported last week that Reconnecting McDowell leaders are looking to buy a building “soon” where teachers would live. Attracting teachers to the area is difficult because of it lacks housing, so the plan is to rehab an old building into a number of lofts or apartments.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.