Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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May 8, 2013

In rural W.Va., schools rethink their role

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"In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, we're also acting as their parents," principal Florisha Christian McGuire said as she walked through the halls in War's Southside School.

Classes had dismissed for the day but dozens of students stayed for after-school programs that include dinner.

"You look into their eyes and they have the eyes of someone much older. They've seen so much," McGuire said. "So my role switched from being a principal to social worker."

The American Federation of Teachers-guided effort is called Reconnecting McDowell, and leaders hope it will stem decades of suffering, both physical and economic.

The effort started out as a conversation between then-West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin and AFT President Randi Weingarten. During the past 18 months, the two high-energy women called allies and pulled together more than 120 partners. Communications firms replaced dial-up Internet service with high-speed upgrades, VH1 donated instruments for the bands, and volunteer firefighters are serving as mentors.

If successful and sustainable, this model could help despairing rural schools elsewhere. It has no less a champion that Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"I think the lessons are not just for this county or for this state, but across this country, that this community effort, this collective endeavor can be as successful as we all hope and think it can be," Duncan said during a visit here. "The implications are truly national."

He knows. Before joining President Barack Obama's Cabinet, Duncan ran Chicago's public schools and oversaw a shift to such a community-focused model in many of those places of learning.

But that's not to say it will work here. Previous attempts at economic development in this southernmost corner of West Virginia have come in fits and starts, only to fizzle when well-intentioned visitors grew frustrated, bored or broke.

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