Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

May 8, 2013

In rural W.Va., schools rethink their role


But here it is something new.

"In 10 years, hopefully you'll see a McDowell County that is thriving, schools are thriving and students are successful," Weingarten said. "Back in the 1950s, Main Street looked like a teeming urban street. There was nowhere to walk and nowhere to drive."

The county had almost 100,000 people in 1950, according to census figures. They lost more than a quarter of that population over the next decade and that number fell another 50,000 in 1970. By 2010, that number had dropped to 22,000.

As the mines that produced $1 billion in coal grew quieter, so did the cash registers. Infrastructure became a luxury. Unemployment rushed in. Alcohol followed. Drugs weren't far behind.

"The problem at one point was alcohol. Through the last 15 years, I would guess, that problem has changed from alcohol," said Judy Akers, chief executive officer of the Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center.

Her organization's clinic in McDowell County is treating 24 people for opiate addiction and has 143 others on a waiting list for the telemedicine program.

The drug problem here had become so severe, officials opened a juvenile program inside the school so teachers — already combating truancy — wouldn't have to lose more students from their classrooms when they went for counseling.

"We have good people here. We have educated people here," said Reba Honaker, the mayor of the county seat, Welch, and a former home economics teacher.

Just too few of them stay, she said.

Those who do leave behind statistics that make educators shake their heads.

Some 72 percent of the students live in a home where neither parent is working. About 46 percent of students live in a home without a biological parent; many of them are in jail for drugs. Many of the students will become parents before they become graduates; the county leads the state in the teen birth rate, with roughly 1 in 10 females between the ages of 15 and 19 giving birth.

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