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Turnaround plan targets rural W.Va. schools

By Lawrence Messina
Associated Press / December 15, 2011
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CHARLESTON, W.Va.—A coalition that includes a Fortune 500 company, labor unions and nonprofit foundations outlined plans Thursday to spend the next five years focused on rescuing a rural West Virginia school district, one of the country's most downtrodden.

McDowell County, home to about 22,000 residents, is the target of a public-private sector campaign that its organizers say is novel. Called Reconnecting McDowell, it aims to turn around the county's underperforming schools by also tackling such related problems as poverty, substance abuse and crumbling infrastructure.

The American Federation of Teachers assembled the partnership, and union President Randi Weingarten won state Board of Education's approval following a Thursday presentation.

"What we are hoping to do is help that community find the dignity and respect and hope and faith to which it is so entitled," Weingarten said. "This will be a monumental undertaking."

McDowell County schools continue to struggle a decade after a state takeover, with West Virginia's worst dropout rate and last or near-last rankings for reading, science and math. Once the busiest county in the Appalachian coalfields, McDowell now suffers from one of the country's lowest median incomes, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Those welcoming the effort include Trey Lockhart, the state board's new student member. A senior at the county's River View High, the 18-year-old represented his school at a meeting between county residents and partnership organizers.

"They're trying to make McDowell County thrive again," Lockhart said.

Organizers say Reconnecting McDowell envisions the county's schools becoming hubs for much-needed social and health services. With some areas lacking even dial-up access to the Internet, the project aims to expand broadband and cell phone coverage. Other thorny topics facing the partnership include economic development, transportation and housing.

The coalition expects the ALF-CIO-affiliated Building America Community Development Enterprise, for instance, to help provide middle-income housing for teachers who now live in neighboring counties or even nearby Virginia. Weingarten said a teacher there told her that in order to reside in the county, she's living in a remote mobile home.

"She's doing that because she wants to teach in McDowell," Weingarten said.

Cisco Systems Inc. will help improve the county's Internet access, while the nonprofit First Book has pledged to provide every child in the county free books over the next five years. Other participants range from coal operator Alpha Natural Resources to the nonprofit Save the Children.

Weingarten said the partners will spend the next six months mapping out detailed strategies for McDowell County, identifying specific needs, and also arriving at a price tag for this effort.

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