The majority of malicious woundings in Charleston in 2012 were on the West Side, with more than 40 percent of rapes and robberies committed in Charleston also on the West Side.
Now, Watts says the densely populated area -- home to nearly 4,000 children -- has a disproportionate amount of crime, with a majority of children living in single-parent households of "the working poor."
"It's literally a tale of two cities ... who would expect this seven minutes from the state Capitol?" Watts said. "This is a highly concentrated drug and violent crime area acknowledged by the Charleston police. Mary C. Snow is in the middle of the highest rates of violent crime and drug trafficking. Those children live in that environment with unique challenges, and they are affected by it.
"These kids come to school like it's always the last supper."
Among the dozens of education and community leaders at the pilot program's first meeting, held Wednesday, was David Fryson, West Virginia University's Chief Diversity Officer.
WVU is vowing to use its resources to help reform the West Side community and its schools, Fryson said.
"We think this is a great project, in addition to what we normally do with our land grant extension deals. We feel like we can make a direct connection to WVU with all of our resources to rebuild the West Side ... There are a lot of things we can do in terms of teacher and community development. We want to run alongside. We're not here to lead, we're here to add value," Fryson said. "I remember the West Side doing much better than it is now. I have a personal investment."
Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring called the project "one of the most important projects in the Kanawha County Schools system."
"This is a long road. It's not going to happen today ... but we have some good ideas. We really have to get to the heart of it all and come up with a comprehensive plan," Duerring said. "It's a synergy we've never seen before -- all the arrows going in one direction for what we can do to improve education for our children on the West Side."
Cheryl Plear, who will act as Kanawha County Schools' liaison for the project, said since her work with the schools on the West Side, she's seen things that she's never seen before in her 40 years of teaching, and called the principals in the area "courageous."
Plear said that as the project grows, people need to remember it's a pilot -- it has the potential to be replicated across the state and across the country, depending on the outcome.
"The bottom line is schools cannot do it alone. We need the involvement of everyone in the community to help us meet the needs of these kids," she said.
Mary C. Snow Elementary, Grandview Elementary, Stonewall Jackson Middle and up-and-coming Edgewood Elementary, which will consolidate Watts and J.E. Robins Elementary, will be involved in the project.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.