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.”