CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many of the students at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary are often late for school or miss it altogether, whether it's because they're sleep-deprived or because there's no one there to wake them up in the mornings.
Some show up only to eat lunch, said Principal Mellow Lee.
About 93 percent of the more than 500 students at the school come from low-income families. The school is adjacent to the Drug Market Intervention zone, which Charleston Police has identified as the most crime-ridden part of the neighborhood.
"We have 5-year-olds getting themselves up for school and walking -- by themselves -- to school whenever they wake up," Lee said. "We can't teach students if they're not at school."
But when Lee left the first committee meeting of the West Side's community development school pilot project on Wednesday, she had options: a pastor offered up his church's van to help transport students to and from school, a business owner suggested making wake-up calls to students' homes in the mornings.
The state Legislature approved the comprehensive community project earlier this year, allowing a slew of innovative education reforms among the five public schools located on Charleston's West Side, which has long been ridden by poverty and crime.
The five-year project will waive certain state policies, allowing everything from a year-round calendar and school uniforms to stricter policies on student tardies and teacher-specific professional development to be implemented at the schools, which show the lowest student achievement data in the county.
The ultimate goal is not only for improved attendance and decreased dropout rates, but also the creation of a sort of community clearinghouse that would merge several organizations to offer services to West Side students. Those services would start at birth and run through high school graduation, ultimately relieving the burden on educators who fear for students' safety, said the Rev. Matthew Watts, who is heading the project.
"Our children here fall behind in the womb. They show up to kindergarten already behind because of a lack of support," Watts told the committee, which is made up of educators, community leaders and business owners, gathered at the Kanawha County Board of Education on Wednesday.
"We want to empower people by trying to break this cycle of poverty and dependence, and we know the answer is education. In my opinion, the civil rights issue of the 21st century is education -- those who have access to it are going to do well. And those who don't, aren't."
Watts says "the story of the West Side" -- where he has long been a community leader -- is one that starts in the 1980s with a crack cocaine epidemic, which changed the dynamic of his community.
"We lost a whole generation of adults. Kids lost their parents to drug addiction and death. The students now in our schools have parents who were born during that crack cocaine era, and they often weren't parented themselves," he said.
More than 65 percent of murders in the Charleston area last year were committed on the West Side, according to a 2012 Charleston Police Department report.