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Community gets to work on West Side school overhaul

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.

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.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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