Reconnecting McDowell making progress - WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

Reconnecting McDowell making progress

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McDOWELL COUNTY -- In the nine months since the public-private partnership Reconnecting McDowell was launched, much progress has been made toward the long-term goal of revitalizing the West Virginia county's struggling education system and community services ravaged by decades of economic decline, leaders of the partnership said today.

Reconnecting McDowell was announced in December 2011 by the American Federation of Teachers, former West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and 40 partners from labor, business, foundations, government and nonprofit organizations. The partnership agreed to work on McDowell's intersecting problems of underperforming schools, chronic poverty, inadequate access to technology and transportation, acute housing shortages, limited medical services and a declining economy that has caused high unemployment.

"McDowell County is slowly but surely becoming reconnected on a variety of fronts, thanks to the collaborative work of more than 100 partners and friends," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "When the partnership was launched, I said McDowell is an American story that deserves a new chapter. We are now working chapter by chapter and are committed to completing the book over the next few years."

Reconnecting McDowell's goal—to reinvigorate low-performing schools and address complex problems caused by chronic poverty—could become a template for other struggling communities.

"Teachers need resources and training to do their jobs as well as access to housing in order to even consider filling teaching vacancies. Students need access to 21st-century technology and other tools to be prepared for the real world. Families need conveniently located health and social services and job opportunities to climb out of a stubborn economic decline," Weingarten said.

"The AFT, with its members,  must work with communities to solve the problems facing all of us. We call it solution-driven unionism, and there's no better example of what that means than Reconnecting McDowell," she said. 

At a partners' meeting in Welch, W.Va., Weingarten and Gayle Manchin, chair of the Reconnecting McDowell governance board, listed highlights from the scores of accomplishments to date. Manchin said: "This is a marathon, not a sprint, to fully realize the goals of the partnership."

A partial list of accomplishments since the Dec. 16, 2011, launch includes:

  • Reconnecting McDowell now has more than 100 partners and friends.
  • The partnership now has a governance board and has filed for 501(c)(3) status.
  • VH1 Save the Music Foundation has provided Mount View High School with $30,000 worth of musical instruments, in collaboration with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
  • Verizon and West Virginia first lady Joanne Tomblin are presenting a $50,000 check today to First Book to continue its book distribution efforts in McDowell. The money will be used for two projects: to establish 10 Family Reading Centers in the county, including in schools and community locations, and to continue book distributions to students. To date, First Book has given away 4,000 books to McDowell children, with the promise of 18 more books per child per year for the next five years.
  • A ribbon cutting will be held today for two of five new homes (the first new homes to be built in the county in 20 years). The West Virginia AFL-CIO's $6,500 donation for water lines provided the final financing necessary to complete the homes.
  • Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Shentel Communications announced a $9 million investment to wire 10,000 McDowell homes for the Internet by the end of 2012. New fiber optic lines are expected to be in every McDowell school by Oct. 1.
  • Reconnecting McDowell has applied for a federal Promise Neighborhood Planning Grant for fiscal year 2012 from the U.S. Department of Education. If awarded, the grant will help the partnership develop plans to significantly improve the education and developmental outcomes of McDowell children and youth.
  • The Huntington Area Food Bank is preparing to provide weekly backpacks filled with food to every high school student in McDowell.
  • Reconnecting McDowell partners are scouting possible sites for housing that would help the school system recruit and retain teachers.
  • The state Supreme Court announced a new McDowell County Juvenile Drug Court that will help provide offenders with alcohol or drug abuse behavior with intensive individualized treatment and counseling, and will work on programs to curb rampant truancy.
  • The state Legislature passed the McDowell County Innovation Zone Pilot Project, to give the county flexibility and authority to use cutting-edge strategies and solutions to raise academic achievement.
  • The state Legislature also passed the Teacher-in-Residence bill, setting up a partnership with Concord University to create a program in which prospective teachers in their senior years would fill vacant teacher positions under intensive supervision and mentoring. 
  • Frontier Communications committed $100,000 to partner with Globaloria for online learning projects.
  • The AFT has provided teachers, teacher union leaders, and local and state education officials with a variety of training, including professional development, teacher planning, data analysis, team building and communication skills.
  • The state provided $1 million for literacy and early childhood education programs to be administered by Save the Children, which has trainers in three county schools working with students and families to raise literacy rates, strengthen early childhood education opportunities and increase parental involvement. Save the Children matched the state funds with a $500,000 investment.
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