Teachers union leads effort that aims to turn around West Virginia school system

Correction: Earlier versions of this article overstated estimates related to the vocabulary of young children. Although research has found family income is related to the vocabulary of young children, child-development experts say there are no authoritative statistics on the number of words the average 3-year-old knows, either nationwide or in McDowell County, W. Va. This version has been updated.

December 15, 2011

The American Federation of Teachers, vilified by critics as an obstacle to school reform, is leading an unusual effort to turn around a floundering school system in a place where deprivation is layered on heartache.

The AFT, which typically represents teachers in urban settings, wants to improve education deep in the heart of Appalachia by simultaneously tackling the social and economic troubles of McDowell County.

The union has gathered about 40 partners, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cisco Systems, IBM, Save the Children, foundations, utility companies, housing specialists, community colleges, and state and federal governments, which have committed to a five-year plan to try to lift McDowell out of its depths.

The McDowell Initiative, to be announced Friday, comes in the middle of a national debate about what causes failing schools in impoverished communities: the educators or the environment?

Reformers such as former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee argue that for too long, weak teachers have used poverty as an excuse and that an effective educator can transcend circumstances. Unions such as the AFT maintain that economic and social factors must be addressed for a child to succeed.


At least two meals a day are made available to every child attending school in McDowell County. A coalition of groups have banded together to tackle the many problems facing the county’s education system. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“I’ve gotten so angry in the last couple of years when people who are new to our field decide that they alone, just by exhorting, will help ensure that geography does not become destiny for some kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, the nation’s second-largest teachers union. It represents educators in the District, New York City and elsewhere, including McDowell. “A lot of the factors that confront kids — poverty, divorce, health care — are real obstacles. People can pretend to ignore them elsewhere, but no one can ignore those factors in McDowell.”

The children who file into Anawalt Elementary School here each morning carry burdens that hang over them like haze from the nearby coal mines.

Most of the youngsters live with grown-ups who do not hold jobs, casualties of coal’s collapse. Many are being raised by grandparents because their mothers and fathers are in prison or struggling with addiction. Eight of every 10 children in the school meet the state’s definition of poor. Some rarely see a doctor.

Their 1924 school building has a failing roof, steps that tremble under the weight of an adult, an unheated gymnasium and antiquated electrical wiring that can’t power air conditioning.

There are no after-school activities, because if the children miss the school bus, they have no way to reach their modest houses and trailers, which are tucked into mountain crevices.

There are no recreation centers, no YMCAs. Leaving the county is so unusual that on a school trip to the Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee last year, several children mistook a highway rest stop, with its glass doors and bright lights, for their destination.

The state, which took over the McDowell public schools nearly a decade ago, has failed to make much of a dent in the county’s abysmal test scores and a dropout rate more than three times the national average.

“I can’t tell you how appalled and embarrassed that made me,” said Gayle Manchin, the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who joined the state Board of Education in 2008. “Those children weren’t any better off.”

Manchin, thinking a more ambitious effort was needed, turned to Weingarten for help.

“I knew if we were going to do this, we had to do it the right way,” Weingarten said. “That’s why we wanted a lot of partners, and the people in McDowell had to want us to be involved and that we were going to have to deal with all the issues — education, social, economic.”

She said the McDowell Initiative isn’t about improving the image of the teachers union, which critics — including the makers of the movie “Waiting for Superman” — contend is more concerned about protecting working conditions for adults than improving student learning.

“This is not a photo op,” Weingarten said. “This is a moral commitment. We’re in the business of making a difference in the lives of people.”

It is unclear exactly what the McDowell Initiative will entail or cost. The union has committed $100,000 and staff time for planning the project over the next six months.

But it is likely to include improvements that directly affect schools, such as expanded broadband so that digital learning can become a regular component of classroom instruction, better teacher training and a fine-tuned instructional program.

Investments would also be geared to help families outside the classroom, such as better access to health care, drug prevention and treatment programs, better transportation, and more recreation.

These improvements, known as “wraparound services,” have been successful in other turnaround efforts, notably the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, where families get free access to an array of health and nutrition counseling as well as after-school programs, truancy prevention, literacy programs, financial advice and domestic-crisis resolution.

The difference between those programs and the McDowell Initiative is that the “wraparound services” will have to be created from scratch in McDowell, which spans 535 square miles, not simply imported from a nearby neighborhood.

The southernmost county in West Virginia, McDowell has produced the most coal in this mining state. For generations, that was enough to sustain the community, which swelled to 100,000 by 1950. But once coal and the related steel industry started declining in the 1960s, McDowell’s descent was rapid. The first food stamps issued by the federal government went to an out-of-work McDowell coal miner and his wife in 1961. Today, the population is about 22,000.

“Anyone with any energy, money and drive is gone,” Philip LaCaria was saying recently as he stood outside his law office near the courthouse in Welch. Nearly every other storefront on the main street is vacant, but LaCaria’s practice is thriving. Half his clients are fighting drug charges, he said. “People use drugs as an escape, to escape reality,” he said. “The folks here don’t have any perception of the future.”

Just when it seemed that McDowell had hit rock bottom, the floods came. Violent water churned through the small towns in 2001 and 2002, further devastating lives. Hundreds of houses were abandoned, left to decay.

Drug addiction has emerged as a major problem and one reason why so few county residents are employed at a new federal prison in the county — they can’t pass the drug test, said Bob Brown, an AFT senior national representative. The few remaining coal mines are having trouble attracting workers for the same reason, he said.

By 2001, the McDowell public schools had fallen into such physical decay and academic failure that the state took over, repairing or shuttering several and building new facilities.

But school consolidation has created new problems, with children riding longer routes over narrow, curving mountain roads.

And despite the state takeover, school leadership has been in flux. Jim Brown, named superintendent last year, is the third since 2001.

He came armed with a turnaround strategy for the county’s 12 schools. But by the end of his first day, he tossed it away. “It took six months to really understand the dynamics here,” he said.

The poverty, broken homes and isolation mean that most McDowell students start school behind.

Still, last year — for the first time in two decades — McDowell schools showed some growth in scores on tests administered by the state. But Brown knows the road ahead is steep.

Attracting good teachers is a major challenge because of a lack of middle-class housing. Absenteeism is chronic among staff and students. This year, 409 of the county’s 3,600 students have been flagged as truant, he said.

Paige Blankenship, 9, likes attending her school, Bradshaw Elementary, in the western part of the county. She lives in a trailer with her mother, aunt and grandmother.

Her father isn’t much of a presence in her life. He lives in another town and was supposed to visit Paige on Sunday. She waited all day, phone in hand, but he never showed.

Paige shares a bedroom with her mother, Sherry, who quit her job as a butcher to care for her mother, Tondael, who has respiratory troubles. Paige’s grandfather, a coal miner, died at 52 from liver and kidney cancer.

Paige’s aunt, Georgia, 44, is a former emergency medical technician who suffered a heart attack recently and stopped working.

Their home is wedged into a hill about 75 yards from the railroad tracks. They live on about $23,000 a year in public assistance. “We don’t have much, but we’re okay,” Sherry said under fluorescent lights in the small living room, which had framed pictures of Jesus and angels on the wall. “We’ve never missed a meal.”

On a recent night, Paige, Sherry and Georgia drove to the nearby Subway attached to a gas station for a treat: dinner out. They said grace before digging into a pizza and a taco salad.

When Paige is not in school, Sherry takes her to church activities. She prays that her bubbly girl will stay clear of drugs and other threats.

Paige speaks about going to college someday, but it’s hard for her to imagine what it’s like because no one she knows has been there. “I want to be a nurse, a doctor, an EMT and a therapist person who works with sick kids,” said Paige, a talkative girl with dirty blond hair, glasses and a dimpled smile.

“My hugest dream is to be the first lady who can be president of the United States.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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