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Lifelong residents dedicated to reviving crime-stricken neighborhood

By Mackenzie Mays, Staff writer
Rev. Matthew Watts talks with Raven Davis, 9, left, and Nisaiah Pannell, 7, right, at Grace Baptist Church during an after-school program.
CHRIS DORST | Gazette The Rev. Matthew Watts hugs 7-year-old Nisaiah Pannell during his after-school program at Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s West Side. The program is one of several that care for hundreds of students a day in the area, which is marked by persistent poverty and has some of the lowest test scores in the state. “If these after-school programs go away, it’s going to be havoc over here,” Watts said.

This is the second story of a three-part series about community efforts and education reform on Charleston’s West Side.

Once you know it, nobody can take it from you.

That’s what the Rev. James Ealy has been telling children on Charleston’s West Side for nearly 20 years now.

Ealy, a pastor at New Covenant Baptist Church and a member of the Charleston City Council, had been developing after-school programs and trying to get the area’s struggling children more involved in their education long before a new Community Schools pilot program was approved by the state Legislature last year.

“Early on, when the drug-trafficking was at a premium around here, I said we need to get out there and do something, and everybody said, ‘Reverend, you don’t understand. That’s how those people make their living.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well this is how I make mine. Let’s turn it around,’” Ealy said. “Everybody talks about how bad it is on the West Side now, but really it isn’t bad at all. Back then, there really was a lot of gunfire and what-have-you. Some of these folks still wouldn’t dare come out of their doors after dark.

“Can we turn it around? Yeah. And the chief way to do that is to not be afraid.”

With a string of recent shootings on the West Side that twice in one month put students at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary on lockdown, and the new Community School program that would combine school with a slew of social services, more eyes are on the West Side than ever before.

But Ealy, who points to a crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s as the start of a downward spiral in the area, knows it takes more than just a hefty to-do list. He can be leery of outside help — he once had funding pulled from his after-school program because he prayed over the children’s meals.

Ealy now pays for his program with no assistance from the Kanawha County school system. His program provides tutoring, free meals, music lessons and organized sports to about 50 children a day.

“This is all a good thing, but what we’ve got to understand is you can’t show up once and hope it’ll turn around when all the trouble comes. You’ve got to be here all the time contributing and trying to help out. It isn’t a one-time thing. The problems here, we deal with them on an ongoing basis,” he said. “We need folks that are going to be out here on the streets weekly, daily.”

Programs like Ealy’s are especially important in the summer months, since many of the West Side’s children depend on the schools for food, he said.

At Mary C. Snow for example — the area’s largest elementary school — more than 93 percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced price meals. Partly for that reason, the school is one of few in the state to operate year-round.

All five of the schools on the West Side have among the lowest test scores in the state — with three of its elementary schools flagged as Priority Schools, the lowest designation given by the West Virginia Department of Education.

Ealy is quick to point out he’s not the only one looking out for the children of the West Side when they leave the classroom. Programs like his, and places like the Bob Burdette Center and the Boys and Girls Club, are just as important to the West Side’s students as the changes happening inside of the schools — where new learning methods and special teacher training are being developed, said Ralph Miller, who operates an extended learning program out of Mary C. Snow Elementary.

Miller, who grew up on the West Side and created the Charleston Community and Family Development Corporation 17 years ago, said his primary goal is to rid kids of the problems they face at home so that they can focus on learning.

His programs give extra attention to students in need.

“They have other things on their mind like, ‘What am I going to eat the next day and are my parents going to find a job?’ Kids come to the school with all sorts of issues, and we’re trying to get them to do just one thing, and that’s learn,” Miller said.

“They’re already getting an education outside of school. It may not be a positive one, but believe me, the streets are educating them.”

Miller said the Community School project is the only thing that can get everyone involved in the students’ education to work together — something the West Side has struggled with over the years.

“Our problems have gotten larger. We had more community back then. We had a community store. Parents knew each other and watched each other’s kids. There’s nothing like that today. The community is pretty much disconnected. It gets fragmented like that and nobody’s working together. Now it’s, ‘It’s just me and my four and no more, and we’re going to do what we can to live,’” Miller said. “Now we’re joining arms with each resource that we have to say, ‘How do we coordinate?’ So that when they come to school they’re not talking about what happened at home last night or how many fights or shootings are going on, they’re talking about learning.”

Miller said his extended learning program deals with about 80 students on average — a number that has grown steadily each year and includes a waiting list.

“We could add 250 kids tomorrow if we had the resources,” he said.

The Rev. Matthew Watts — a leading voice in the Community School program — also runs an after-school program of his own out of Grace Bible Church, and said he doesn’t want to imagine the West Side without those programs.

“If these after-school programs go away, it’s going to be havoc over here. People don’t understand what this community is doing for children,” Watts said.

“What we’re trying to do is be this laboratory to see what’s happening with these children, what’s happening with these families.”

Collectively, more than 500 students are in a free after-school program on the West Side funded outside of Kanawha County Schools, Watts said.

“People are doing it with their own resources. But the children over here are dependent on us. Now is not the time for us to get wary,” Watts said.

“What this negative backdrop has done is it has galvanized people to work even harder and to realize that we’ve got to come together.”

In Tuesday’s Gazette, the final story in the “Revival” series will focus on the logistics of the Community School program and how it is affecting teachers.

Reach Mackenzie Mays

at or at 304-348-4814.


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