One year into the initiative to revive a long-struggling southern West Virginia county, the Reconnecting McDowell initiative has 110 partners and has made notable progress in expanding broadband access, literacy programs and health services.
Educators, government agencies, private companies and nonprofits are all focused on ways to bolster the school system while also addressing chronic problems caused by poverty, drugs and economic decline.
The American Federation of Teachers and state Board of Education Vice President Gayle Manchin helped launch the efforts. Manchin told West Virginia Public Broadcasting the work so far has just scratched the surface, but it’s vital to lay a strong, sustainable foundation for the long-term goals.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said, “but I believe through this first year we have made significant strides. I think we have the credibility with the community now.”
The state Department of Education took over control of McDowell County’s schools more than a decade ago, but the county of 22,000 residents continues to suffer West Virginia’s worst dropout rate and has become among the nation’s poorest areas.
More than a third of the residents live in poverty, and median incomes are less than half the U.S. average.
“We’ve all seen projects where money was thrown at something and it didn’t last,” Manchin said. “The good didn’t survive. So we want to make sure as we invest grant monies and corporation monies that we know exactly where that money is going and how it is going to strengthen that village that’s going to raise these children.”
Frontier Communications has wired every school with fiber optics in the past year so students have good Internet access, and Manchin said Shentel Communications is finishing work on Internet service to 10,000 homes. Five of those homes are brand-new — the first to be built in 20 years.
The Washington, D.C., nonprofit First Book has given out 4,500 books already, with a promise of 18 more per year per student for the next five years.
Verizon has helped fund family literacy centers, Save the Children is running after-school programs, and VH-1 Save the Music Foundation donated $30,000 worth of band instruments to Mount View High School.
On the government side, the state Supreme Court launched a juvenile drug court aimed at getting teens treatment and combating truancy.
McDowell still needs better roads and amenities including a grocery store, restaurant and health club to atract young teachers, she said, and the idea of a Teacher Village housing complex is still on the table.
“Once you recruit the teacher, there is no place for them to live,” Manchin said. “So again, all of these things integrate with each other. You need a teacher, but they need a house. You need a road to be able to get to the house.”
McDowell County lacks a modern, four-lane highway, so the group hopes to gain access to the King Coal Highway under construction from Williamson to Bluefield.
McDowell ranks last in the state in many health areas, with a premature death rate nearly double the state average and high rates of physical inactivity, adult smoking and obesity. The county also leads the U.S. for fatal prescription painkiller overdoses.
The plan hopes to tackle high teen pregnancy and dropout rates, behavioral health and substance abuse, poor nutrition and the lack of physical activity. A community health assessment would be completed by next year.
Goals to be completed by 2015 include implementing parenting and cooking classes for pregnant teens, identifying school child-care sites and establishing several community centers staffed with dentists, nurses and counselors.