“That is our belief: that small towns can thrive again, that all children regardless of demography or geography can thrive,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, last month. She grew louder, her voice rising with each word: “From this day forward, we commit that not one more school, not one more hospital, not one more post office, not one more grocery store — should close on our watch!”
Dignitaries from across West Virginia — and union leaders from across the country — had arrived at the end of this block to celebrate the construction of Renaissance Village, a mixed-use complex that officials hope will spark a revitalization of this dying town. And more than that, they’re pinning their hopes on it attracting more teachers to the McDowell County school system, whose ills are exacerbated by a revolving door of novice instructors and substitutes.
Slated to be completed in the spring, the building will have 16 apartments and two floors of commercial and retail space. The $8.5 million project is being funded by the teachers union, tax credits and a capital campaign and is the first multistory building to be constructed in McDowell County in 50 years, according to the union.
The building represents the latest in the county’s ambitious efforts to boost academic achievement by first tackling the effects of rural poverty — including a lack of suitable housing.
Built into the verdant, tree-covered slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, this county was once among the nation’s largest producers of coal. There was a strong middle class and a robust business district in downtown Welch. The decline of the coal industry devastated the county, with population losses accelerated by natural disasters, including a pair of ferocious floods that struck in 2001 and 2002. The arrival of opioids sparked another catastrophe.
At one point, McDowell County had the second-highest rate of deaths from prescription opioids, a number 13 times the national average. Fewer than a dozen counties in the nation have a lower life expectancy. This convergence of events has made McDowell the poorest county in what by some measures is the poorest state in the union, a distinction that residents have internalized.
The events that have befallen McDowell County — and its isolating geography — have created a constellation of challenges for schoolchildren: absent parents, overwhelmed grandparents, a dearth of medical care, a lack of grocery stores and all of the traumas associated with household poverty. More than 40 percent of elementary schoolchildren live in multigenerational households — with parents and grandparents — or are raised by grandparents and other relatives.
The school system faces a daunting challenge: With so many having abandoned the county, how could it ensure its children were not left behind?
The shifts that have beset McDowell County are happening all over the country. With the growing recognition of the ways poverty can impede learning, schools are playing a larger role in meeting the basic needs of children: feeding them, clothing them and connecting them with medical care and counseling. There is evidence, too, that schools are educating a larger proportion of students from low-income households. The Southern Education Foundation, analyzing 2013 data, found that a majority of U.S. schoolchildren qualified for free and reduced-price meals, the first time that threshold had been breached in five decades.
The driving principle is that children who come to school hungry or traumatized or sick are not poised to succeed academically until those problems are addressed. McDowell County has taken this to heart, partly out of necessity and partly because other measures have failed. The state took over the schools in the early 2000s, handpicking administrators and superintendents with the hopes that new leadership could turn the district around. It did not, said Gayle Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who served on the West Virginia Board of Education from 2007 to 2015.
“It didn’t take much investigation . . . to see that the problems went a lot deeper than the superintendent and the classroom,” said Manchin, who now serves on the board of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. So she contacted Weingarten, and together they hatched a plan to expand the county’s existing efforts to tackle the roots and the symptoms of poverty through an alliance called Reconnecting McDowell. The apartment building is their crowning achievement.
And so the McDowell County schools have tried to meet students’ needs, large and small, from connecting them with psychologists to providing them with lip balm — an often-overlooked necessity for children who endure long waits for the school bus in cold weather.
“You’ve heard before that it takes a village to raise a child,” said Shannon Pace, the coordinator of Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention initiative. As part of her job, she manages reams of donations and secures sneakers, undergarments, jackets, backpacks and yes, lip balm, for needy students. “We are rebuilding that proverbial village.”
“They’re not able to access the learning part until we meet their basic needs,” Welch Elementary School Principal Kristy East said of students. Nearly 70 percent of her students come from low-income families, according to state data, and many come with issues — trauma, depression, illnesses — that teachers felt ill-equipped to deal with. “We were realizing that it’s more than what the school system can do,” East said.
As she struggled to tackle absenteeism, East discovered that many children were missing a full day of school because they or their siblings had a dental or medical appointment. Because of a shortage of medical professionals in the impoverished county, many people have to drive an hour or more on the county’s winding, two-lane roads to see a doctor or a dentist. For a family with one car, it meant that every child in that household would miss school.
So East brings as many health-care workers as she can to the school. Mental health providers from local clinics send psychologists and therapists to see young patients for appointments, converting empty classrooms into makeshift offices. It allows them to communicate directly with teachers about a child’s progress.
One day in early September, a mobile dental team arrived before the first bell rang, turning a computer lab into a dentist’s office. There, hygienists and a dentist inspected and cleaned teeth amid posters warning about the dangers of the Internet and encouraging students to “always be polite” online.
“I’d rather do this than math,” said Pace’s son, Braxton, 8, before settling into the dental chair.
East aims to help her staff see the behavior of students through the lens of what the children might be experiencing outside the classroom — something that has transformed aspects of the school. This year, teachers learned how trauma at home — an unstable family, a shortage of food, a parent on drugs or in jail — can cause a child to act out.
Discipline at Welch Elementary now looks different. Children who break the rules are sent to Kimberley Newbill, a social worker whose official title is “attitude and behavior coach.” Newbill tries to determine the root of the misbehavior and help students develop coping mechanisms.
At lunchtime one day, a half-dozen students lingered in her classroom for detention. But rather than have them sit idly at desks, Newbill had them arrange themselves on mats. In this classroom, hundreds of miles from the nearest beach, at a school where many children scarcely leave the county, she switched on a relaxing guided meditation recording.
“Listen to the seagulls. Listen to the water,” Newbill told the students, who stood quietly, eyes closed. “Focus on that.”
Not far from the groundbreaking, on a hill near Welch’s downtown, 33-year-old Misty Stanley lives in a rowhouse painted bright green that sits atop a steep set of broken steps. For Stanley, the help from the county came even before her youngest daughter, Marabella, set foot in Welch Elementary.
Pace, the Communities in Schools coordinator, arrived at Stanley’s home with the mission of ensuring Marabella would be ready for school when the day came. Working with the organization Parents to Teachers, she brought children’s books and crafts, showing Stanley activities that would give Marabella a foundation to learn reading, math and writing. The goal is to close the gap in preparation between middle-class children and their impoverished peers. Research shows that by the time children in poverty enter kindergarten, they already lag behind other, better-off students.
But Stanley said Pace did more than prepare her children for school. She brought donated clothes and diapers when Stanley could not afford them. Stanley said Pace felt like her only friend as she battled drug addiction. Once, after a bad fight with her husband, she drove off with her two children — and landed on Pace’s doorstep.
“I pretty much lost all hope, and it felt like there was nothing for me to pretty much live for,” said Stanley, recalling the throes of drug addiction. “She helped me in more ways than I could even explain.”
None of these things can help tackle an intractable problem facing McDowell County and rural school systems everywhere: a lack of teachers. At Mount View High School, which sits in adjacent buildings built on an abandoned strip mine, a fifth of teaching positions are vacant or filled by long-term substitutes who may be doing little more than babysitting students. The school has not had a full-time English teacher for ninth- and 10th-graders for three years, said Debra Hall, the high school principal.
This year, desperate for a qualified instructor, Hall started using a program called Proximity Learning. A certified teacher, working remotely, gives live lessons over Skype three days a week. The rest of the time, students work on their own and turn in their assignments virtually.
For Miranda Osborne, a top student in the senior class, the rotating cast of teachers and substitutes has proved frustrating. And she blames the high school’s persistently low test scores on the teacher vacancy problem.
“With the substitutes and all of that, it’s hard for a kid to get immersed in it,” Osborne said.
The vacancies have created other issues. Students have grown distrustful of new instructors, often asking upon their arrival: “How long are you going to stay?” And the high school can’t offer many electives. Osborne has already taken all of the classes offered at this campus. So this year, she’s taking college classes online, an experience that can be isolating.
Hall knows the dearth of housing and the slow parade of businesses leaving has made it difficult to attract teachers. And she is skeptical a single building in downtown Welch will make much of a difference. The solutions in the meantime, she said, are far from ideal.
“It isn’t fair,” Hall said. “But it’s the best I can do.”