WELCH -- Tackling illiteracy, more housing options for teachers and parenting classes for pregnant teens are some of the goals outlined Thursday in a wide-ranging plan aimed at rescuing impoverished McDowell County and its troubled schools.
The Reconnecting McDowell plan includes creating jobs, hiring teachers and improving transportation and technology. The private-public partnership also focuses on children and family involvement.
The plan provided no specifics on funding. Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state school board and former West Virginia first lady, said organizers believed it was important to have project partners in place first.
"We felt if we built it right, the money will come," she said.
At least 87 partners have signed up so far. The American Federation of Teachers helped assemble the partnership, which includes coal companies and other corporations along with nonprofit foundations and labor unions.
Members of the group met Thursday, followed by discussions with students and teachers at Mount View High School. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attended a town hall meeting Thursday night, where he fielded questions from an audience of several hundred people.
Duncan said he was inspired by the efforts to rally behind McDowell County.
"I think the lessons are not just for this county or for this state, but across this country, that this community effort, this collective endeavor, can be as successful as we all hope and think it can be," Duncan said. "The implications are truly national. So we want to be a great partner. We want to be a great listener. We want to be a significant investor. And we want to do everything we can to help our young people be successful."
Earlier in the day, during a roundtable with state and federal education officials, a group of 17 high school students all raised their hands when asked whether they planned to go to college. But few did so when asked whether they planned to stay after graduating.
River View High School senior Joshua Clevenger wants to go into theater acting and directing but doesn't see a future in McDowell County.
"It's hard to get something like that here because if you look at what we need, we need doctors. We need lawyers. We need people who others can come to," Clevenger said. "It's killing McDowell County because there's nothing here to go to."
The state Department of Education took over control of McDowell County's schools more than a decade ago, but the county of 22,000 residents continues to suffer West Virginia's worst dropout rate and has become among the nation's poorest areas. More than a third of the residents live in poverty, and median incomes are less than half the U.S. average.
The plan's education goals include increasing adult literacy rates, improving early childhood programs, securing funding for free children's books and supporting art and music programs.
Church-based programs would focus on family literacy, and increasing the number of Head Start and preschool classes for 3-year-olds would be studied in order to eliminate a waiting list.
The plan would use certified educators to fill as many as 29 vacant teaching positions by 2017. Often, long-term substitutes or regular instructors teaching outside their areas of expertise have pitched in. When no substitute is available, students commonly are dispersed to other classrooms.