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McDowell regains school control after 12 years

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education voted Wednesday to return control of the McDowell County school system to county administrators for the first time in more than a decade.

The impoverished county has long been ranked among the worst in the state for test scores and graduation rates, and it leads in dropouts and teen pregnancies.

State school board members held their regular meeting Wednesday in McDowell County, where they voted unanimously to return control to the county after 12 years of state management.

In December 2011, a public/private partnership led by the American Federation of Teachers, called Reconnecting McDowell, was created as a big-picture plan for the struggling rural school district. Since then, the group has developed Internet upgrades throughout the community and brought in organizations to donate computers, textbooks and band instruments.

"In my mind, some of the credit for McDowell County Schools' progress to date, and progress yet to come, goes to the work of Reconnecting McDowell," state school board President Wade Linger said in a news release. "It has been a driving force for positive, transformational change for schools, teachers, students and the community."

On Wednesday, the state board also approved a community-schools plan as an extension of Reconnecting McDowell. The plan will team organizations with all county schools to provide additional services, such as academic intervention, extended learning and health and social services.

Other goals for the project include offering employment opportunities to community members and constructing housing for teachers in an attempt to increase recruitment.

Nelson Spencer, superintendent of the McDowell schools, said he and the county board are thrilled to have local control again, but regaining that control has been, and will continue to be, a lot of work.

"Any time that the people in the local community have control over the decisions made is always better than somewhere from the outside," he said. "There is excitement, but we're apprehensive because we haven't had that responsibility [in a long time]. Let's be honest, it's going to be a big change."

The state board seized control of McDowell County's schools in November 2001, citing shoddy buildings, poor instruction and low student test scores.

Many problems have persisted.

Last year, only four of the county's 10 schools met adequate yearly progress, an annual state and federal benchmark of student achievement, according to West Virginia Department of Education records. The previous year, five schools met the AYP.

About 32 percent of students at the county's Riverview High School were proficient in reading in 2012, according to state data. At McDowell's Mountain View High School, the proficiency rate for reading is even lower -- 23 percent.

The percentage of high school students who scored proficient in math on standardized tests ranged between 31 percent and 33 percent for the past school year.

Additionally, McDowell was ranked the unhealthiest county in West Virginia in a report released last month by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

That report cited high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking, family and social support and other factors that influence health.

Spencer, who has served as McDowell superintendent for about a year, said he hopes people realize the many hands involved in turning the county around.

"We don't want the impression that something happened overnight. It has most definitely been a combination of people. You can't pick out one particular thing and say that made the difference," he said. "It's been the efforts of teachers, students and outside assistance, like Reconnecting McDowell. "You can't say it's one year that made a difference," he said. "The ground work has been laid over 12 years, and we're just now reaching the culmination to where the county [can handle it.]"

Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state Board of Education and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., serves as chairwoman of Reconnecting McDowell. She spearheaded the project with the help of Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT.

"We have said from the beginning that we need to take a whole-child and whole-community approach to turning around McDowell County. Establishing community schools is a big step toward fulfilling that goal," Gayle Manchin said in a news release. "I am so honored to be part of this vote to return control to McDowell County Schools. It is never easy to answer all the issues in any county. One lesson that we have learned is that no one can do it alone. Improving a school system is truly about a community building capacity.

"It is about teachers, parents, businesses, the faith community and health-care outlets all saying the children are the most important priority, so how can we join together to provide them the best opportunities?"

Weingarten said establishing community schools has long been a major priority for the Reconnecting McDowell project and has wide-ranging potential.

"The evidence is clear that community schools greatly improve disadvantaged children's chances of success, because the services and programs help overcome the ravages of poverty that affect academic achievement," she said in a news release. "A variety of coordinated services will wrap around schools to ensure that all kids are healthy and ready to do well in school. The McDowell community schools plan was based on elements of successful community schools around the country."

In addition to Linger and Gayle Manchin, the state Board of Education's other voting members are Bill White, Lloyd Jackson Jr., Tom Campbell, Robert Dunlevy, Mike Green and Tina Combs.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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