CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education voted Wednesday to return control of the McDowell County school system to county administrators for the first time in more than a decade.
The impoverished county has long been ranked among the worst in the state for test scores and graduation rates, and it leads in dropouts and teen pregnancies.
State school board members held their regular meeting Wednesday in McDowell County, where they voted unanimously to return control to the county after 12 years of state management.
In December 2011, a public/private partnership led by the American Federation of Teachers, called Reconnecting McDowell, was created as a big-picture plan for the struggling rural school district. Since then, the group has developed Internet upgrades throughout the community and brought in organizations to donate computers, textbooks and band instruments.
"In my mind, some of the credit for McDowell County Schools' progress to date, and progress yet to come, goes to the work of Reconnecting McDowell," state school board President Wade Linger said in a news release. "It has been a driving force for positive, transformational change for schools, teachers, students and the community."
On Wednesday, the state board also approved a community-schools plan as an extension of Reconnecting McDowell. The plan will team organizations with all county schools to provide additional services, such as academic intervention, extended learning and health and social services.
Other goals for the project include offering employment opportunities to community members and constructing housing for teachers in an attempt to increase recruitment.
Nelson Spencer, superintendent of the McDowell schools, said he and the county board are thrilled to have local control again, but regaining that control has been, and will continue to be, a lot of work.
"Any time that the people in the local community have control over the decisions made is always better than somewhere from the outside," he said. "There is excitement, but we're apprehensive because we haven't had that responsibility [in a long time]. Let's be honest, it's going to be a big change."
The state board seized control of McDowell County's schools in November 2001, citing shoddy buildings, poor instruction and low student test scores.
Many problems have persisted.
Last year, only four of the county's 10 schools met adequate yearly progress, an annual state and federal benchmark of student achievement, according to West Virginia Department of Education records. The previous year, five schools met the AYP.
About 32 percent of students at the county's Riverview High School were proficient in reading in 2012, according to state data. At McDowell's Mountain View High School, the proficiency rate for reading is even lower -- 23 percent.