School & District Management

Broad Coalition Aims to Turn Around W.Va. District

By Diette Courrégé Casey — March 30, 2012 6 min read
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As a member of West Virginia’s state board of education, Gayle Manchin was appalled in 2008 to learn that the state had been in control of the McDowell County schools for nearly a decade, with little to show for its efforts.

That feeling stuck with Ms. Manchin, who at the time was also West Virginia’s first lady, and inspired her resolve to figure out a better plan for the 3,500 rural public school students in the state’s southernmost county.

The result: Reconnecting McDowell, an ambitious, five-year partnership of more than 80 public and private groups that aims to turn around one of the state’s lowest-performing rural school districts.

“I’m a big-picture person, so while it is about McDowell County, it’s about much more than [the county]; it’s about rural America,” said Ms. Manchin, the vice president of the state board of education and wife of now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. “If we can create the model that will provide the solution, we will have provided the model for not only other counties in West Virginia, but for counties across the country.”

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.

The premise of Reconnecting McDowell is that schools are a reflection of their surroundings, so changing student outcomes requires changing the community. Educators will work to better schools, and partners with expertise in infrastructure, housing, technology, and health care will address other needy areas.

The 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers has taken the lead in this initiative, which launched in December, and the union and its partners have committed to staying in the county for five years. It’s the first time the AFT has taken on a project of this magnitude in any geographic area, much less a rural one, and the project has already drawn national attention.

Buy-in Needed

The partners, which also include the Alliance for Excellent Education, Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Virginia, Cisco Systems Inc., the College Board, and the United Mine Workers of America, are still in the early planning phases. They haven’t decided what specific school-based changes will be implemented, and they’re unsure about how much those will cost.

But they know whatever they decide will need local buy-in and that likely will be a challenge.

“This is as much a community-engagement program as it is education reform,” said Bob Brown, a West Virginia native and executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, the state AFT affiliate.

A decayed school crossing sign near Sandy River Middle School in McDowell County.

The initiative began when Ms. Manchin couldn’t shake what she’d heard about McDowell County, and began talking about the school system’s problems with anyone who would listen.

During a dinner at the governor’s mansion in 2010, Ms. Manchin brought up McDowell County to Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT. Ms. Weingarten was interested and said she wanted to continue their conversation. Their discussion was the seed that eventually would sprout Reconnecting McDowell.

Organizers knew the problems extended beyond education. McDowell County has the fifth-highest rate nationally of school-age children per capita living in poverty. Forty-six percent of the county’s school-age children don’t live with a parent. The county’s teenage-pregnancy rate leads the state.

McDowell County was a thriving coal-mining community in the 1960s, with more than 120,000 residents. But as those jobs have disappeared, so has its population. About 22,000 people now live in the isolated, mountainous community.

“Any category you want to be last in, we’re first,” said McDowell County schools Superintendent Jim Brown.

Improving Schools

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.

The spirit of the Reconnecting McDowell project is similar to that of the Harlem Children’s Zone initiative, in New York City, or the federal Promise Neighborhoods program. Those projects address students’ in- and out-of-school barriers to success, with education being the focal point.

Few of the Reconnecting McDowell plans are visible yet, but officials say they’re coming.

The Pittsburgh-based Benedum Foundation gave the project a $100,000 planning grant, and the AFT has contributed $150,000 to get it started. West Virginia Gov. Earl Tomblin in January promised $1 million in state funds to help support literacy and early-childhood-education efforts, and three after-school literacy programs will be started this spring by Save the Children, a Westport, Conn.-based nonprofit.

Bob Brown, the AFT-affiliate official who is coordinating the efforts in West Virginia, has been working with lawmakers on legislation that would help the district. One recently passed law will make McDowell County a pilot innovation zone, which means school officials could request waivers of rules and regulations they think hinder their ability to be innovative. That could include, for example, alternative-certification programs to help teacher-recruitment efforts.

“I feel like a rocket ship has taken off and I’m hanging on to one of the ends trying to figure out its direction,” Mr. Brown said.

The project’s partners, which include a mix of state and national groups, will convene this month for a two-day planning session.

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.

They will be divided into subcommittees aligned with their expertise, such as K-12 education, early-childhood education, transportation and infrastructure, economic development, and health care and social services.

They will use community input to develop a master plan to be adopted by the district.

“Since the state took over, it’s been a top-down approach to educating children,” the AFT’s Mr. Brown said. “There’s going to be a lot more collaboration, and this will be a new model where the education of students is not driven solely from the education bureaucracy. It’s driven by recognizing the needs and challenges of the entire community.”

Mr. Brown hopes parts of the education plan will be up and running by the start of school this fall, and organizers plan to have a third-party, independent researcher evaluate and assess their efforts.

Community Response

Teacher recruitment is among the most critical issues that some McDowell educators say must be addressed. The area doesn’t have many recreational opportunities. Teachers can’t find nearby places to live, and many face lengthy commutes. At Iaeger Elementary, a 348-student pre-K-5 school, one teacher drives an hour and 20 minutes each morning and afternoon.

The district has at least 24 unfilled positions this year, and it often doesn’t have enough substitute teachers, said Superintendent Brown. It’s an improvement from last year, when it had 52 unfilled teaching positions.

“You really can’t build a solid school climate and culture with that much discord in a school,” Mr. Brown said. “It isn’t that we don’t know what we’re doing, but it’s having the resources to enact the work that needs to be done.”

Last year, student Trey Lockhart had a social studies teacher who left early in the school year. His high school couldn’t find a replacement, so another social studies teacher gave his class assignments. Mr. Lockhart, now a senior at River View High School, had eight substitute teachers for that class during the year. “There really wasn’t too much to [the class],” he said.

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.

Iaeger Elementary Principal Ray Bailey agrees with the need to focus on teacher recruitment. He has four vacancies this year filled by full-time substitute teachers, and three are retirees.

“They’re coming back to work because we can’t find someone to put in those positions,” Mr. Bailey said.

One way to solve the problem is to improve the region’s roads, he said, which would help with development, including more housing.

Despite the teacher shortage, Mr. Lockhart, the River View High School student, said he feels he’s gotten a good education from the district.

But while he’s optimistic about the opportunities Reconnecting McDowell will bring, he said he can’t say the same for many of his classmates and neighbors who have seen multiple groups try to come in and help. They’ve left, and the county hasn’t benefited.

“The whole county in general has gotten tired of that,” Mr. Lockhart said. “If people could look at it and get on board and try to help, we can be back to one of the top counties in the state. But we have to work together.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as Group Effort Aims to End District’s Stall


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