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There was a time when McDowell County, W.Va., was nationally known for its coal mining industry. At its height in the 1950s, McDowell’s population was nearly 100,000 people -- the third highest in the state. Fast-forward to today and coal mining has all but disappeared, and the county’s population has shrunk by 80 percent. Now, a public-private coalition is undertaking a massive project to rescue the struggling county and its troubled schools.
The coalition, Reconnecting McDowell, is made up of four dozen public and private organizations that have funneled more than $10 million into McDowell County in an effort to revive its 3,600-student school district, which has been under state control for more than a decade. But as organizers fine-tune their plan to restore the county’s 14 schools and the community around them, the group has hit a roadblock: Housing options are slim.
The school system already has dozens of teaching vacancies, so to draw in new teachers, Reconnecting McDowell plans to build a “teachers village” in the county within two years. Bob Brown, the project’s lead coordinator, says the 20- to 25-unit apartment building would resemble a college dormitory, with collaborative workspaces, common rooms and a small gym. That could help draw young teachers from top schools around the country, says Brown. The hope is that the village setup would create ties among new teachers and keep them in McDowell County longer.
“You can’t expect someone to leave life on a college campus for an isolated area where they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t know anybody,” Brown says. “They need a collegiate atmosphere where they can have a social life.”
Brown has spent months traveling to live-in work communities in other cities to find the best model for McDowell. Live-in work communities aren’t new developments, particularly for teachers. The idea started in Chicago and has since spread to Baltimore, Cleveland and now Newark, N.J., which plans to open a teachers village next year. But McDowell County’s teachers village could be the first for a rural community, which leaders say could serve as a model for other counties facing waning populations and crumbling infrastructure.
The project got its start when former West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin asked American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten for help building up the county’s schools. With a promise to tackle issues of poverty alongside education, the two rallied support across the public and private sectors. “A public-private partnership like this has never done before,” says AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass. “Usually these people don’t talk to each other, which is why it’s so incredible.”
With the leadership of AFT, Reconnecting McDowell has put money down on an aging six-story warehouse in the county’s largest town, Welch, but Bass says organizers are still scouting other sites. “The partners very much want this to happen, but we’re not going to just jump,” she says. “We want to make sure it’s right. We feel the urgency, and we very much want to make it a reality.”
Beyond housing, funds have been set aside for reading centers, music programs and online learning resources. Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed a bill to ease the process that McDowell County must follow to become a school innovation zone, which would free selected schools from some state rules and policies, giving them greater flexibility to embrace new ideas and teaching strategies.
Native West Virginian Brown says locals were initially skeptical about “people coming from the outside” to confront community issues like drug use and failing schools. According to statistics compiled by Reconnecting McDowell, the county continues to suffer West Virginia’s worst dropout rate and has become among the nation’s poorest areas -- 72 percent of the county’s students live in households lacking gainful employment. Additionally, the county leads the nation in fatal prescription painkiller overdoses. But as money continues to pour into the county and more organizations sign on, Brown says the doubt has faded.
“What I’ve seen already is hope,” he says, stressing that the project’s effects can already be felt around the county. Brown points to a young woman who moved with her husband to McDowell County six months ago to be part of the project. “It is a massive undertaking, and it’s generated an incredible amount of excitement. The community has bought into this project.”