CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A five-year campaign to turn around the troubled schools in long-ailing McDowell County began Friday as more than 40 initial members of a public/private partnership signed a covenant at the West Virginia state Capitol.Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was among those committing to the "Reconnecting McDowell" covenant. Those joining him included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which helped recruit the coalition. Other signers Friday were public and union officials, as well as executives from such private-sector partners as Cisco Systems Inc. and Frontier Communications.These representatives then headed into the first in a six-month series of planning meetings meant to identify the county's specific needs, map out a detailed strategy, and also estimate a cost. Help with this phase includes $150,000 from AFT's Educational Foundation and $100,000 from the Benedum Foundation.Reconnecting McDowell aims to improve the county's schools, which have been under at least partial state control for a decade, by also targeting such related problems as chronic unemployment, substance abuse, inadequate housing and a fragmented infrastructure.McDowell traces its decline to the mechanization of coal mining, and the steep ridges that ripple across the county have also hindered development. Tomblin, a onetime teacher who also hails from the coalfields, cited the array of challenges facing McDowell County."Countless communities across the country have been suffering due to the global recession," the governor said. "McDowell has been trying to counteract deeply embedded and difficult problems for many years."But Tomblin also said that Friday marked the start of an exciting "journey to change young lives." Echoing that optimism, Weingarten predicted that there would be no quick fixes or easy solutions."If there were, they would have been solved years ago by the people in McDowell," Weingarten said. "We don't pretend to have all the answers. . . . Being conventional won't be good enough."Weingarten also credited Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state school board and former first lady, for pressing her and other education advocates to aid McDowell County. As she said before the board endorsed the covenant Thursday, Manchin said Friday that McDowell County can become a model for the rest of West Virginia and rural America.The state Department of Education took over McDowell County's schools a decade ago, and retains partial control. The county posts the state's highest dropout rate and ranks at or near the bottom in reading, science and math.Senior Trey Lockhart attends the county's newly opened River View High, which replaced two older schools, and said it offers an encouraging sign for McDowell. The 18-year-old cites the classroom interactive whiteboards, Internet access and satellite linkups for Spanish and other remote coursework. Hoping to attend medical school one day and become a radiologist, Lockhart is the state school board's student member, and also represented River View during Town Hall meetings on the Reconnecting McDowell concept.But Lockhart noted that when he's home, something as basic as getting online becomes a chore. In a county that lacks any interstate or divided-line highways, both Internet and cell phone coverage are also spotty at best."I've got dial-up, and sometimes it connects and sometimes it won't," Lockhart told The Associated Press on Thursday. "It just depends on what day of the week it is, I guess."Reconnecting McDowell aims to solve that problem and similar obstacles to learning for the county's children. The partnership offers stark statistics for the county: 72 percent of students live in households lacking gainful employment; 46 percent of them don't live with their biological parents; the county leads the U.S. for fatal prescription painkiller overdoses.Covenant partners also include Save the Children, Alpha Natural Resources and the United Mine Workers union. Weingarten said those signing on have pledged to provide funding, goods, services and expertise. The nonprofit First Book, for instance, will give books to every child in the county over the course of several years. Frontier will help the social network and partner Globaloria mount online learning projects, AFT officials said.A number of partners have West Virginia connections. Cisco's chief executive John Chambers grew up in the state. The Alliance for Excellent Education is a nonprofit focused on high schools, and its president, Bob Wise, is a former governor. So is Gaston Caperton, longtime head of the College Board, which oversees such admission exams as the SAT and ACT. His wife, Idit Harel Caperton, founded the nonprofit that set up Globaloria.
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