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Reconnecting McDowell works toward September rollout

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Organizers of a five-year venture aimed at rescuing impoverished McDowell County and its troubled schools are expected to have an overall plan ready to launch next month.

Former first lady Gayle Manchin, who is vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education, said six committees have formed their part of the massive project.

Those include housing, infrastructure and transportation, jobs and the economy, early-childhood issues, technology, and "wraparound" services, such as mental health services and after-school programs.

"All these different entities are creating their piece of the plan," Manchin said, "and then we will be putting that together to create the plan we move forward on -- short-term goals and long-term goals."

Reconnecting McDowell lead coordinator Bob Brown said Thursday that meetings on the official rollout will be held either on Sept. 10 and 11, or Sept. 19 and 20. He hopes to have the dates confirmed by late next week.

So far, 87 partners have signed up, Brown said. The American Federation of Teachers labor union helped assemble the public/private partnership, which includes coal companies and other corporations, along with nonprofit foundations and other labor unions.

Brown is an official with the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which is affiliated with AFT's West Virginia chapter.

Many more groups are interested in joining, he said.

Brown met Thursday morning with the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services to discuss dealing with hunger issues among McDowell County seniors. He said the bureau pointed him to a nonprofit group that could help start such a program.

He's also in discussions with Playworks, a nonprofit group that promotes access to children's recreation equipment -- "something that's sorely lacking in McDowell County," Brown said.

Part of the issue with getting more partners is having a concrete plan in place, and Brown said he expects the numbers to grow as prospective partners find out about the project's specifics.

"That's one of the reasons for the importance of this September meeting," Brown said. "We have people who are working with us who have not signed on who want to make sure it's a comprehensive plan and want a piece of the action.

Once the plan is rolled out, "we'll have more partners stepping up to the plate," he said.

Manchin said another such prospective partner-in-waiting is the Appalachian Regional Commission.

"Some of these groups are saying 'we're here for you, we just have to see the plan. We have to see where we fit in the scheme of things,'" she said.

A former furniture store and warehouse in Welch is being converted into apartments for a "teacher village," Manchin said, but it's going to take a lot more than that to beef up the quality of educators in McDowell County.

"We're going to have to be creative in what we offer young teachers coming in, whether it's loan forgiveness or some kind of package deal that would not only encourage them to come, but to come and stay three years with the hope that, maybe if they came, they'd fall in love with the kids and the area and stay," she said.

Manchin hopes one byproduct of the project is that young adults -- whether they're teachers or students -- grow to love the region's outdoor offerings.

"You're close to whitewater rafting, hiking and biking and some of the things that people move to Colorado to do," Manchin said. "Well, you can do that here in West Virginia."

McDowell County ranks last in many health areas. The county has a premature-death rate nearly double the state average, and it also has high rates of physical inactivity, adult smoking and obesity.

According to statistics compiled by Reconnecting McDowell, 72 percent of the county's students live in households lacking gainful employment, and 46 percent of them don't live with their biological parents. Additionally, the county leads the United States in fatal prescription-painkiller overdoses.

The Department of Education took over control of McDowell County's schools more than a decade ago, but the county continues to suffer West Virginia's worst dropout rate and has become among the nation's poorest areas.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a compromise to ease the process that McDowell County must follow to become a school innovation zone. The program frees selected schools from some state rules and policies, giving them greater flexibility to embrace new ideas and teaching strategies.


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