CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The atmosphere on Monday evening at Grace Bible Church was typical of a lively Sunday service.
The Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at Grace Bible, led the show at the West Side church. The filled pews of people clapped and hollered in agreement, shouting out an occasional "amen."
But Monday night's focus wasn't the Bible; it was on the education of at-risk children living on Charleston's West Side, which has long been ridden by crime and poverty.
Grace Bible's congregation on Monday was also different, as it was made up of the area's politicians, educators, business leaders and police officers - all of them offering to help "revive the West Side."
The West Side Revitalization and Transformation Initiative aims to create a unique community clearinghouse for families in need living on the West Side, with a special focus on education.
The program will merge several community organizations to provide everything from after-school tutoring to health care for children from birth up to the time they're ready to apply for college or enter the workforce.
A five-year community school project that waives several state policies and allows for reform in Kanawha County's lowest-performing schools has already been approved, and will implement year-round instruction, student uniforms and teacher-specific professional development in schools on the West Side.
The ultimate goal is to end cyclical poverty and drug trafficking in the neighborhood, which is predominantly black, and create opportunities for future generations, while at the same time relieving the burden of the West Side's educators who have to worry about far more than a child's homework, Watts said.
"We are ground zero for education reform," Watts told the packed crowd on Monday night. "Education reform in West Virginia will start on the West Side."
Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, was among those on Monday who stood before West Side citizens and pledged to support the cause.
"As a father, what comes back to me is the reason I do this work and why I have fun doing this work -- because I don't want my son to grow up in a place where half of the students he's in school with think it's normal to not have enough food to eat or to not have enough money to make ends meet. I don't want to live in that kind of state," Smith said, his toddler hanging on his hip. "We will pledge whatever money we got, whatever people we got, and whatever policy initiatives we can help with."
Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, proudly introduced himself to Monday's crowd as "the only state senator from the West Side," and pushed the importance of education equality.
"Unfortunately, sometimes in our public school system, the excuse of being poor or from a neighborhood that doesn't achieve is allowed for poor test scores, and that's wrong. In all honesty, the things that take place on the West Side would never be allowed in other parts of the city," Wells said. "That child doesn't know what their capabilities are. If you set that bar low, they may hit that low bar. I'd much rather set it high ... than have it so low that everybody hits it and nobody's ready to achieve."
Representatives for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Charleston Mayor Danny Jones also pledged their support, in addition to West Virginia University Chief of Diversity David Fryson and Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha.