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.
“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.