CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State School Superintendent Jorea Marple slipped out of her high heels in the corner of the Charleston Civic Center stage and jumped a bit of rope with kids from Putnam County's Lakeview Elementary, minutes before she began her keynote address at the Department of Education's KidStrong wellness conference.
The children were there to demonstrate fancy jump-rope tricks. Marple was grabbing a little fun before she spoke.
A few minutes later, shoes back on, she shifted gears and challenged 800 attendees to find collaborative ways to tackle three heart-wrenching problems she said are "too big for schools to handle alone."
Teen pregnancy, obesity and child hunger keep many young West Virginians from learning effectively, "and we would be naïve to think that the schools can fix them in isolation," Marple said. "That's why we're committed to collaboration."
In each community, "teachers, health care workers, politicians, grandparents, aunts and uncles" must join forces to address each problem, she said. "It's a moral imperative."
Marple praised Sen. Rockefeller's recent Charleston forum on hunger. "Hungry children often can't sit still. They may put their head down on the desk. They may misbehave and often say they're sick." All that gets in the way of learning, she said.
More than 40,000 West Virginia children live in extreme poverty, she said. "That means they don't eat sometimes.
"This year, we carried out a pilot project to feed all our children without cost in eight counties," she said. The preliminary results in Mingo County are startling, she said. "Their suspensions and discipline problems are down dramatically. Not a single kid was expelled this year, and attendance is up. The teachers say the kids are focusing much better."
The state Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Resources are collaborating on these issues, she said. They have pooled funds to hire wellness specialists for each region.
As part of their jobs, the specialists are charged to go into communities and bring people together to address these issues, she said: "the parents, teachers, health care workers, grandparents, politicians."
They started with teen pregnancy this year. West Virginia is the only state in which the teen birth rate increased between 2007 and 2009 "West Virginia increased 17 percent," she said. "Wrong direction!