Construction of teacher apartments starts in poor WVa county

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A public-private group is hailing the start of construction for apartment-style housing for West Virginia public school teachers in impoverished McDowell County.

Officials for Reconnecting McDowell held a groundbreaking ceremony for the $8 million Renaissance Village housing project Monday in Welch.

The housing project is the centerpiece of a decadelong effort to revitalize the county's schools and economy and is an effort to attract and retain teachers.

"We understood that it wasn't just about recruiting teachers, it was about giving them good reasons to stay, like good housing so they didn't have to live in Beckley or Bluefield or Virginia," Reconnecting McDowell chairwoman Gayle Manchin said. "So we said: That's going to be our major endeavor. And people looked at us and said, 'Yeah, right.'"

The building will have 16 apartments on two floors alongside two additional floors of retail and commercial space. Original plans called for up to five floors of apartments but turned out to be too expensive.

It's the first new multistory construction in the community of 1,800 residents in more than 50 years. Construction is expected to take about a year.

After U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations in McDowell County in 2003, 23 percent of the population left because there was no other industry to rely on for jobs.

McDowell County has the state's second-highest unemployment rate at 9.2 percent. Nearly one-third of its 18,200 residents live in poverty.

Reconnecting McDowell has more than 100 partners and is spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers. AFT President Randi Weingarten said she grew up in a small town and it's heartbreaking to see rural areas abandoned.

"While no one can do everything, everyone can do something," Weingarten said. "And that become our mantra, ... a belief that small towns can thrive again, that all children regardless of demography or geography can thrive."

The partnership also has worked to improve student performance in the county, including through a mentoring program. The county's high school graduation rate has increased from 74 percent in 2010-11 to 92 percent in 2017-18, while the high school dropout rate has dropped from 4.5 percent to 0.7 percent.

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