Reconnecting McDowell sees continuing progress

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Student achievement is beginning to inch up, families have greater access to health and social services, and McDowell County, W.Va., while still hurting from decades of economic decline, is in a better place since Reconnecting McDowell was launched four years ago, according to leaders of the public-private partnership.

Specifically, the goal in 2011 was to provide educational and other school supports; wraparound services in schools and communities to provide access to much-needed social services, health care, recreational outlets, modern technology; as well as economic development opportunities.

"We've accomplished a great deal because of the unique collaboration and contributions of a diverse set of partners," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "While this is marathon and not a sprint, I think the people of McDowell have a real sense of hope because a lot of companies, foundations, non-profits and government agencies have not just talked the talk, but walked the walk to give McDowell County a hand-up,"

"This shows the power of taking a whole-child/whole-family approach, collaborating with a wide array of partners and being willing to be involved for the long haul. Too many school districts trying to help disadvantaged children go for a quick fix and come up short," Weingarten adds.

At a March 29 news conference, the Voya Foundation announced a $50,000 grant to replenish the book inventory at the seven literacy centers that were opened by Reconnecting McDowell throughout the county. The centers will receive most of the approximately 14,000 books to be purchased from First Book. The rest will be used for a new program starting in the fall that will put books on school buses so elementary school-age kids can read during their long rides to and from school.

"Reading is the foundational building block for all of education. Once kids have easy access to books, they have the opportunity to learn to love reading, and then, the sky's the limit. It is Voya's pleasure to make this contribution to a wonderful community," says Chip Wheeler, Voya's director of community relations.

Gayle Manchin, chair of Reconnecting McDowell, announced that required environmental work is being conducted on the Best Furniture buildings before they can be demolished, clearing the way for construction of Renaissance Village, an apartment building primarily intended as housing to recruit and retain teachers. The removal of asbestos and pigeon droppings will take about a week to 10 days.

The initial reason for launching Reconnecting McDowell was chronically low student performance. In addition to professional development for teachers and more resources in the schools, including high-speed Internet, Weingarten and Manchin insisted that academic improvement also required access to programs and services that would help overcome the consequences of poverty. Today, Southside K-8 School has been converted to a community school with healthcare, mental and oral health services, food programs and other wraparound services that the community determined were needed for the students and their families. Dental vans now visit all schools, outpatient mental health services are offered at both high schools and at Southside, and scores of high school students have participated in a mentoring and job shadowing program.

"We're beginning to see the fruits of those efforts," McDowell County Schools Superintendent Nelson Spencer says. "Perhaps the most gratifying accomplishment we can point to is the December 2015 state education performance audit, which shows tangible progress from the years when the state controlled the county schools."

The audit rated all McDowell County public schools either "emerging" or "accomplished" in a list of criteria, and every school was rated "fully compliant" on measures of academic progress.

In the fall of 2016, Welch Elementary School and River View High School will begin the process of becoming community schools by working with members of the schools' communities to select services and providers to address the needs of students and their families.