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Michael Harrington could easily have been describing McDowell County, West Virginia when he wrote in The Other America that “everything that turns the landscape into an idyll for an urban traveler conspires to hold the people down. They suffer terribly at the hands of beauty.” Home to breathtaking views of the Appalachians, this sparsely spread community near the Kentucky and Virginia borders contains some of the worst public schools in the nation and is plagued by drug abuse and chronic unemployment. According to the Register-Herald of Berkley, West Virginia, “72 percent of students live in a household without gainful employment and 46 percent of McDowell County students do not live with their biological parents.” The poverty rate for students is 49 percentand McDowell has the highest instance on prescription drug overdoses in the nation.
Attempting to change the social and educational dynamics behind these statistics, organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Excellent Education, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Verizon, and the United Mine Works have begun an ambitious five-year plan to write “a new chapter” for this community: Reconnect McDowell. What makes this reform initiative so unique is the full-spectrum approach these organizations are taking to change the education, economic, and social realities facing McDowell’s impoverished students and residents—think Harlem Children’s Zone for an entire rural county.
Just as in Harlem, school reform will be a major aspect of the process. Currently, just 26 percent of students at Mount View, a major high school in Welch, West Virginia score proficient in reading and just 34 percent reach that bar in math (compared to 41 and 42 percent for the state as a whole—not a particularly impressive standard). The first step in turning these scores around is finding the right educators for the challenge. Unfortunately, adequate housing is not readily available, an obstacle urban reformers rarely face. As the lead coordinator of Reconnecting McDowell, Bob Brown, said, “We get a lot of young, energetic college grads who want to come…. The problem is, they can’t find a place to live.” So, in an attempt to improve the conditions for those willing to try, new apartments complexes are planned in a “teachers village.” Other creative ways to recruit and retain teachers, such as college loan forgiveness, have also been floated.
Teachers who commit to McDowell will need teaching tools that work in such a location. Covering an area of 533 square miles, the slightest precipitation makes commuting on mountain roads treacherous. Because of McDowell’s terrain, and other concerns like attendance rates and resources scarcity, ensuring broadband access is essential for students and teachers alike. Reconnecting McDowell plans to use the broadband for GED programs, online afterschool tutoring, parental involvement, and enhanced integration of technology resources for teachers. High-performing high schoolers will have the option of taking advanced classes online and, starting in 2013 the state has mandated a downloadable social studies textbook. For early childhood students, the district has invested in the computer based Lexia reading program. Hoping to meet this new broadband capacity, West Virginia Network, an organization that provides high-speed internet access to classrooms, is working to connect all schools by September 1st. High-speed access is also being expanded to over 10,000 homes by another contributor, Shentel.
However, as the Harlem Children’s Zone has shown, even with highly qualified teachers and better resources, students and educators need a secure environment in which to thrive. Changing the school culture will do nothing if outside influences remain too destructive. In McDowell, that means prescription drugs. The national rate for drug-deaths is 12.2 (per 100,000 population) and in McDowell, 38.3—mostly from prescription pills.
Drug use accounts for about 70 percent of student expulsions and too many students see parents unable to gain employment because of mandatory drug tests. Thankfully, as part of Reconnecting McDowell, the state Supreme Court announced a juvenile drug court. The aim of this institution will be to redirect school-age youths before they become chronic users by offering treatment and counseling in lieu of confinement. A Nation Institute of Justice study found “drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants.” In addition, the county plans two other drug treatment facilities to open which could hold up to forty-two individuals. It is not much when faced with one of the worst rates of addiction in the nation, but there has finally been an acknowledgement of the problem— a first step. Jim Brown, former McDowell school superintendent, praised the announcement, calling it “a huge step for our schools." He is right to be excited.
Make no mistake, this effort is a massive and largely untested private-public partnership designed to reshape an entire education system and county in one the poorest sections of the nation. There is no guarantee of success. However, despite all the depressing educational, economic, and social statistics, Reconnecting McDowell is pushing ahead. This time, poverty and social ills are not an excuse for failure, but rather a rallying point for the community. That is the attempt in McDowell: healing the entire community. As a presidential candidate once said,