School & District Management Photo Essay

Schools in Fayette County, W.Va., Contend With Coal Dust, Rotting Roofs

By Education Week Photo Staff — December 17, 2015 2 min read

Doyle Maurer, Education Week’s multimedia intern, describes his experience photographing facilities in Fayette County, West Virginia, for a recent story that detailed the area’s predicament with outdated and decaying school infrastructure. A native of the state, Doyle describes returning to see schools in the area as eye-opening.

A space heater is surrounded by kickball marks in the coal dust that coats a gymnasium wall at Ansted Elementary in Fayette County, W. Va. Space heaters have replaced a once-functional basement coal furnace in the school.

Fayette County, W. Va., is in a predicament when it comes to public education facilities. Some of its schools have rotting roofs, loose bricks in the walls, and coal dust in the gymnasiums. The county, about an hour from the state capital, is home to three of five schools in the state that are still heated with coal furnaces. One school in the county, Collins Middle, was partially closed nearly a year ago because it was deemed “unsafe for student occupancy,” though some students still attend in a building next door. Michael Martirano, West Virginia’s state superintendent, proposed a plan to consolidate four existing high schools and use three of those buildings for new K-8 schools, but it wasn’t approved by state officials who oversee funding for school facilities. For many years, county residents have been resistant to approving a local bond measure that would help pay for new school buildings.

Shawna Sparks, parent at Collins Middle School in Fayette County, helps a local resident measure the shifting of a wall in a closed portion of the school’s building.
Terry George, the state-appointed school superintendent in Fayette County, stands next to the broken furnace and a coal bin sprinkled with asbestos chips that had fallen from the ceiling above. A controversial school consolidation plan would have shuttered some schools and include a new $56 million high school.
Pat Dickerson, left, talks to Tami Langley at Ansted Elementary in Fayette County. The cooks said they have to cover all their food and cooking utensils with plastic bags before they leave at night because coal dust from the furnace settles in the kitchen.
Students walk between classes at Collins Middle School in Fayette County. The orange fencing stands between them and a building that closed in January 2015, because it was deemed unsafe for student occupancy.
The underside of a newly-patched roof covers a breezeway that students use between classes at Collins Middle School in Fayette County.

After part of Collins Middle School closed, many of the kids were sent to other facilities in the area which resulted in crowded classrooms. The remaining students at the school have meals delivered to them from another school in the county. They eat in what they call the “cafetornasium,” a concrete room that triples as the cafeteria, auditorium, and gymnasium.

Seeing these schools made me wonder if the children are any different from those at other schools in the country or if their situation in Fayette County is simply normal for them. How aware are they that the condition of their schools is not typical? As a West Virginia native who went to schools in Kanawha County, some of what I saw in Fayette was familiar. I don’t remember coal dust, but we had a breezeway, an old building, and a dark and gloomy gymnasium. The past seven months of my life are the first in which I haven’t lived in my home state. I’ve spent about half of that time in New Mexico, some of it exploring the country, and the other few months in Washington D.C. Getting away from my home for awhile, seeing other things, and then coming back with a new perspective was eye-opening for me. In order for me to really see and photograph what was going on in these schools I had to slow down, step back, and focus on separating my past from the frames I was making. We all have a bias, but the first step to creating honest photographs is be aware of it.

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

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