WELCH, W.Va.—The effort to overcome a decades-long struggle to recruit and retain educators in McDowell County, W.Va., has gotten a huge lift today with the groundbreaking ceremony at Renaissance Village, the centerpiece of the Reconnecting McDowell public-private partnership to revitalize schools and the local economy.
Reconnecting McDowell was launched in December 2011 as an unprecedented partnership—spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers and former West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin, and now including more than 100 partners—to strengthen public education and small-town and rural communities by tackling the consequences of poverty and the exit of major industry.
At the time, the McDowell community faced a lack of access to healthcare, social and emotional services, broadband internet service, mentoring for adolescents and suitable housing to attract and retain teachers.
Renaissance Village will be the first multistory construction in Welch in more than 50 years, comprising 16 apartments on two floors alongside two additional floors of retail and commercial space. The building will make modern housing more accessible to McDowell educators and other professionals, many of whom drive long distances to get to work.
Teachers have expressed great interest in living near their schools and their students’ families. Construction should take about a year and is focused in the town center, with an eye toward revitalizing Main Street, the critical artery for many rural communities.
The initiative forms part of the AFT’s rural and small-town agenda. Randi Weingarten, president of the union, said the construction caps an eight-year effort to lift a community ravaged by poverty and opioids after the coal industry left town.
“This is a pivotal turning point for McDowell County and for Reconnecting McDowell,” Weingarten said. “We kept a promise made eight years ago to work with the community to make tangible and sustainable progress on improving the lives of McDowell children and their families. Our union fights every day for Americans to have a better life—access to the American dream—and this work in McDowell is the embodiment of our values.
“The rural way of life is worth fighting for. I grew up in a small town, and it tears at so many of us to see small towns and rural areas abandoned, by the market and other forces. The AFT is committed to doing our part and collaborating with partners to see that rural communities have equal access to education, high-quality healthcare, reliable public services, and an environment where people can gather, break bread and share stories. Not one school, not one hospital, not one post office, not one grocery store, should close on our watch. And we are committed, as we have done in McDowell and in Massena, N.Y., to use our knowledge and passion to help in other rural communities.”
Emily Hicks, who graduated from West Virginia’s Bluefield State College in 2019 and from McDowell County’s Mount View High School in 2015, is a participant in Reconnecting McDowell’s Broader Horizons mentoring program and a special education resource teacher at Welch Elementary School.
“Reconnecting McDowell made an incredible difference in my life. It gave me confidence, hope and the spark to stay in McDowell and pay it forward by becoming a teacher myself,” Hicks said. “I believe there will be a lot of interest to rent apartments at Renaissance Village so teachers can do their jobs, be part of students’ communities and not have to travel far to get home.”
Welch Mayor Harold McBride said Renaissance Village represents more than just new construction. “For McDowell County, Renaissance Village is not just about the green shoots of economic development but something more important—hope. It’s been a long time since the people of Welch and McDowell County have had a reason to feel hopeful. Reconnecting McDowell’s work in the schools and communities has given us a new lease on life,” McBride said.
The construction is a long-held dream come true, said Manchin, chair of Reconnecting McDowell, a partnership of more than 125 national, state and local foundations; nonprofit organizations; labor organizations; corporations; lawmakers; and county residents. “We have always known that McDowell has great teachers, but the Achilles’ heel to recruiting and retaining them has been lack of available, modern housing,” Manchin said.
The building will be managed by a new nonprofit called Renaissance Village Inc. Rent will be affordable, but the amount has not yet been set.
While the partnership’s work to improve student performance continues, there has been steady improvement on key academic, social and emotional indicators since Reconnecting McDowell was created nearly eight years ago:
Academics (according to the latest statistics from the West Virginia Department of Education):
- The four-year high school graduation rate has increased steadily from 74 percent in 2010-11 to 92 percent in 2017-18.
- The high school dropout rate has decreased from 4.5 percent in 2010-11 to less than 1 percent in 2017-18.
- The number of McDowell high school graduates enrolling in college has increased from 24.6 percent in 2010-11 to 40.3 percent in 2015-16. Virtually every student in the Broader Horizons mentoring program has enrolled in college.
- Across all grade levels, student proficiency in math has increased slightly, from about 15 percent in 2014-15 to 23 percent in 2017-18.
- A smaller proportion of students are performing at the lowest level of the math assessment. In 2014-15, about 58 percent of students performed at Level 1, the lowest level. In 2017-18, that percentage dropped by 10 points to about 48 percent.
- A greater percentage of students are performing at Level 4, the highest level, on both the mathematics and reading assessments.
- After a 12-year state takeover due to chronically low student achievement, the state returned the McDowell County Public Schools to local control in 2013.
Social and emotional needs:
- Every student has access to medical and dental services.
- All county schools but one elementary school offer mental health services.
- Two schools have been converted to community schools that provide wraparound services to support children and their families. The goal is for all schools to have wraparound services serving academic, health and social service needs.
- A county Juvenile Drug Court diverts nonviolent young offenders from the traditional juvenile court process and long sentences to intensive drug treatment programs that help return students to school faster.
- Foundations and corporations have provided college scholarships, expansion of broadband for high-speed internet service in every school and community, free laptops, and tens of thousands of books.
- The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System has been expanded for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and utility vehicles in an effort to broaden tourism in the county.