By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Though important strides have been made in the first year of the Reconnecting McDowell initiative, officials are hoping to make even bigger changes in the second year of the private-public partnership designed to improve education and quality of life in McDowell County.
Nelson Spencer, superintendent of McDowell County Schools, said one of the major differences the school system has seen in the past year is better access to broadband Internet. Frontier Communications wired all county schools with fiber optics to expand bandwidth while Shentel Communications continues working to wire approximately 10,000 McDowell County homes with wireless Internet.
“One of the biggest things right now is that Reconnecting McDowell helped get the broadband issue resolved in our schools,” Spencer said. “Our schools now have better Internet capability than they’ve ever had because of that. For example, we could go to a computer lab and half the time students would be knocked off halfway through their lab because we didn’t have capability to have that many students in the computer lab at the same time. Now numerous students can be on the Internet for a longer length of time.”
Spencer said reading labs have been implemented in many schools to help improve literacy. Other literacy programs include an after-school program sponsored by Save the Children that his working with 200 students in three county elementary schools. The First Book program also gave away 4,500 books to students this year with a promise to give 18 books per child per year in the next five years. Verizon Wireless also provided $50,000 to First Book to open a Family Literacy Center for the county in 2013.
A juvenile drug court was opened by the West Virginia Supreme Court in 2012 to provide treatment and deter truancy from school. The VH1 Save the Music Foundation also donated new band instruments to Mount View High School to help local arts programs.
However, Spencer said the biggest change is all the national attention McDowell County has received from the initiative.
“The biggest change is the spotlight that has been put on McDowell and some of the issues and concerns we have,” he said. “It is great to see assistance being provided to those needs. Within the past year there has been a lot of organizational and logistical things take place before we can really see the results of the work taking place. All of the subcommittees are scheduling their meetings and getting together. We are laying the groundwork. We are delighted to see some advances, and we are looking forward to seeing even more accomplished in our second year.”
Spencer said teacher recruitment and retention remains the biggest obstacle the school system faces.
“Some of our schools have a 20 to 30 percent turnover rate in teachers, and we are working on that,” Spencer said. “Education is not the only focus of Reconnecting McDowell. It leads to so many issues. When you don’t have that retention you are dealing with satellite issues such as student behavior, absenteeism and classroom management caused by the retention issue.”
Janet Bass, a spokesperson with the American Federation of Teachers and Reconnecting McDowell, said teacher retention will be one of the major issues the initiative will focus on in 2013. Already, the state legislature passed a teacher-in-residence bill allowing Concord University seniors studying education to fill teacher vacancies under master teacher supervision in 2013.
Bass said the lack of newer, affordable housing in McDowell County has contributed to the low teacher retention rate.
“We are going to work hard to try to come up with a plan for the teacher village,” Bass said. “This is something we have been working on. We want to do it right not necessarily fast. It would have to be the right location and the right building. This is something that would fulfill a lot of our goals such as new housing to attract, recruit and keep teachers since there is such a shortage in the county. This would also help teachers because when they are living in a community they can work together. Collaboration among teachers and within school management is important. Teachers wouldn’t feel so alone in their classrooms. This is also good for economic development. The right location and financing are a big part of it. That will be a big push in the new year as well as finding other ways to bring social services and other aspects of quality education to the schools.”
Bass said McDowell County residents have played a vital role in helping the initiative get off the ground.
“The residents understand that and are working with us,” she said. “People in the communities are working with us to make long-lasting changes. We said this would be a long-term project and it will be. These residents are happy with these goals, and that we were able to accomplish a lot in the first year.
As many of the issues Reconnecting McDowell faces can be resolved overnight, Bass said she and others with the initiative want the community to know they are committed to the project long term.
“We feel good that we have been able to accomplish a lot of tangible things to make a difference in the county,” Bass said. “One of the most important things is that we have given the county a commitment, and I think that they are happy. This does take a while. We hoped to have done more in one year, but we realize it takes time and more than bringing on a lot of partners. It is actually working with the partners to put projects in place that will be sustained for years and generations to come ”
Reconnecting McDowell was launched on Dec. 16, 2011 with 40 partners and has expanded to 110 partners and a board of directors. The goal of the initiative is to find solutions to issues the county faces involving severe poverty, education, jobs and the economy, social and health services, housing, technology and transportation.
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org