WELCH -- Tackling illiteracy, more housing options for teachers and parenting classes for pregnant teens are some of the goals outlined Thursday in a wide-ranging plan aimed at rescuing impoverished McDowell County and its troubled schools.
The Reconnecting McDowell plan includes creating jobs, hiring teachers and improving transportation and technology. The private-public partnership also focuses on children and family involvement.
The plan provided no specifics on funding. Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state school board and former West Virginia first lady, said organizers believed it was important to have project partners in place first.
"We felt if we built it right, the money will come," she said.
At least 87 partners have signed up so far. The American Federation of Teachers helped assemble the partnership, which includes coal companies and other corporations along with nonprofit foundations and labor unions.
Members of the group met Thursday, followed by discussions with students and teachers at Mount View High School. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attended a town hall meeting Thursday night, where he fielded questions from an audience of several hundred people.
Duncan said he was inspired by the efforts to rally behind McDowell County.
"I think the lessons are not just for this county or for this state, but across this country, that this community effort, this collective endeavor, can be as successful as we all hope and think it can be," Duncan said. "The implications are truly national. So we want to be a great partner. We want to be a great listener. We want to be a significant investor. And we want to do everything we can to help our young people be successful."
Earlier in the day, during a roundtable with state and federal education officials, a group of 17 high school students all raised their hands when asked whether they planned to go to college. But few did so when asked whether they planned to stay after graduating.
River View High School senior Joshua Clevenger wants to go into theater acting and directing but doesn't see a future in McDowell County.
"It's hard to get something like that here because if you look at what we need, we need doctors. We need lawyers. We need people who others can come to," Clevenger said. "It's killing McDowell County because there's nothing here to go to."
The state Department of Education took over control of McDowell County's schools more than a decade ago, but the county of 22,000 residents continues to suffer West Virginia's worst dropout rate and has become among the nation's poorest areas. More than a third of the residents live in poverty, and median incomes are less than half the U.S. average.
The plan's education goals include increasing adult literacy rates, improving early childhood programs, securing funding for free children's books and supporting art and music programs.
Church-based programs would focus on family literacy, and increasing the number of Head Start and preschool classes for 3-year-olds would be studied in order to eliminate a waiting list.
The plan would use certified educators to fill as many as 29 vacant teaching positions by 2017. Often, long-term substitutes or regular instructors teaching outside their areas of expertise have pitched in. When no substitute is available, students commonly are dispersed to other classrooms.
The plan calls for a former furniture store and warehouse in downtown Welch to be converted into 10 two-bedroom loft apartments for a "teacher village." A teachers group is helping determine appropriate businesses, arts and culture that could help attract and retain teachers.
Similar apartment complexes for teachers would be built in other communities.
Teachers on Thursday suggested more training, giving them leadership roles within the school, making salaries competitive with other states, and making new hires feel welcome.
Katherine Tabor, a curriculum supervisor at Mount View High School, said there was a 42 percent teacher turnover at the combined high school and middle school last year. Hiring and training new teachers "is like (the movie) Groundhog Day all over again," she said.
McDowell County ranks last in the state in many health areas, with a premature death rate nearly double the state average and high rates of physical inactivity, adult smoking and obesity. The county also leads the U.S. for fatal prescription painkiller overdoses.
The plan hopes to tackle high teen pregnancy and dropout rates, behavioral health and substance abuse, poor nutrition and the lack of physical activity. A community health assessment would be completed by next year. Goals to be completed by 2015 include implementing parenting and cooking classes for pregnant teens, identifying school child-care sites and establishing several community centers staffed with dentists, nurses and counselors.
According to statistics compiled by Reconnecting McDowell, 72 percent of the county's students live in homes where caretakers are unemployed.
The plan would identify sites to locate new businesses, create wireless hotspots and expand an existing loan program to support small business growth.
Job mentoring programs would be formed for students and small business owners, and union partners would develop apprenticeship trade programs.
Students' transitions to community college would be strengthened through awareness programs, dual enrollment opportunities and satellite campuses near or in high schools. A proposed "Challenge Academy" would identify students to complete a GED program.
McDowell County lacks a modern, four-lane highway, so the group hopes to gain access to the King Coal Highway under construction from Williamson to Bluefield.
Efforts already are under way to help the county gain access to high-speed Internet and to extend water lines in the county to serve hundreds of families.
Manchin said the project has the potential to be a blueprint far beyond West Virginia's borders.
"Every child in this country should have access to the same quality of education," she said.