Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

McDowell County: Where Success is Measured by More than AYP

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

McDowell County Public Schools have been in the news a lot recently and for good reason. They are part of an exciting partnership that brings together public and private partners to revitalize the rural West Virginia community in which they are located.

McDowell faces an uphill battle, especially where statistics are concerned. Once a vibrant coal mining community with more than 120,000 people, McDowell experienced a mass exodus and decline after the industry collapsed in the early 1960s. Today, the county has around 22,000 residents with a median household income of $22,000. For the past decade, McDowell County has ranked last in the state in education, over 40% of students don’t live with their biological parents and 72% of students live in households without gainful employment. Roads are in a poor state of repair, making transportation difficult, many homes lack running water and medical care is hard to find. Significant problems for schools come with these realities – property taxes generate low revenue to fund schools, teachers are hard to recruit and keep, and resources of all kinds are scarce.

In December 2011, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and the American Federation of Teachers, along with the support of former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin, announced the launch of Reconnecting McDowell. The public-private partnership brings together more than  40 partners, from unions to non-profits, business entities and government, committed to reinvesting in the county. Significant progress has been made in several areas already. The West Virginia AFL-CIO has provided funding to begin digging water lines for several new homes to address the housing shortage that makes teacher recruitment difficult. Frontier Communications gave $100,000 to Globaloria for online learning projects. Save the Children received $1 million in state funds for trainers to work with students and families to implement early childhood and literacy programs in three McDowell schools.

More recently, the state passed legislation designating McDowell an innovation zone that will allow states to develop solutions based on local needs. In April, a juvenile drug court was established for McDowell; it will direct nonviolent juvenile offenders who demonstrate substance abuse behavior away from the traditional process to an individualized treatment process. These developments are all part of an unprecedented coordination effort of existing groups and resources, with additional investment. 

On May 17, 2012, at the Learning First Alliance’s annual Leadership Council Meeting, we featured a panel on Reconnecting McDowell. It included Superintendent Jim Brown, AFT West Virginia President Bob Brown, Gene Longo from Cisco and Dana Waldo from Frontier Communications.  These individuals represent the collaboration among school administrators and educators and business community, and they discussed the challenges McDowell faces, while acknowledging the tremendous strides they are making as a cohesive team. In addition to being an inspiration, the story provides much food for thought. After some rumination, there are at least three key observations and lessons we can draw from their experience.

First, strong committed leadership is essential, especially for a community such as McDowell, rural, disconnected and impoverished. Leadership comes in a variety of forms; there are the high profile individuals, such as AFT President Randi Weingarten, Tomblin and Manchin, who are well-connected and prepared to draw attention and resources to a project. Then, there are the leaders who commit to showing up every day, through all the challenges, and are in it for the long-haul. These leaders are advocates, but they also ensure that the hard work and investments of others do not go to waste.

Secondly, the public-private partnerships are strong in the County and the investments go well beyond the school facilities. Business leaders commit money and resources to the project, and administrators and teachers are working with community entities, in particular the religious institutions, to rebuild the school and community. The business leaders and other private partners see Reconnecting McDowell as a long-term project, and the parties involved respect and trust their counterparts as committed experts working to create sustainable changes in the community.

Finally, successful public schools and student achievement cannot be separated from community development. A sole investment in public school infrastructure would not yield the same results; a more complete revitalization is necessary. Many students want to return to the community after pursuing a higher education. Economic development is vital when it comes to creating jobs for McDowell County children in the 21st Century.

McDowell is a shining example of a model that, with alterations to fit individual contexts, could have positive implications for other rural districts. The county is a microcosm of the challenges facing rural America. Ultimately, the timeline is one of the most important takeaways. It frames all the other work into a clear message, which in an election year, will inevitably be pushed aside: there is no instant silver bullet fix when it comes to raising student achievement. More broadly, economic growth and development – change even – takes time and this initiative is on a five year plan. The individuals in McDowell, from the champions who encouraged the initiative, to the teachers, administrators and parents in the community, work hard every day. They know that sustainable change is incremental and they are committed to all aspects of the effort.

Instead of focusing on raising student test scores in struggling rural districts, why not focus on developing wrap-around districts? I’m not a betting person, but I would hazard a guess that in ten years, those kids will score significantly higher and they will be well fed, have running water, basic health care and possibly broadband access. As McDowell continues to reconnect, it will be one more example of what we know to work in public schools, in action, on behalf of all students. AYP is a benchmark that carries relatively little significance for the community. As a federal percentage, it cannot measure the strides this district is making, changes that will make a difference for generations to come. McDowell hasn’t made AYP (yet) and no one is calling it a failure.

Image captured from "The McDowell Story" video update (0:52), available at http://www.reconnectingmcdowell.org/about