Local schools were once the hub of small communities across West Virginia and the entire United States.
Just as a community’s economy centered on a mining operation or a mill, the educational and social lifeblood of those same towns was the public schools, where children were taught from kindergarten on, then became parents of students themselves. School communities promised a rich environment in which to grow and a network of support for those who were struggling. They truly were villages raising the next generation.
That hasn’t been the case for a long time now, in many parts of rural America. Populations dwindled, resources declined, people became less involved and schools, running dry of students, have been consolidated. It’s an ongoing, sad-but-true and necessary facet of modern life in a rural state. The West Virginia Board of Education on Thursday approved the consolidation of eight public schools, including Cedar Grove Middle School in Kanawha County and three elementary schools in McDowell County.
The landscape in McDowell and adjacent counties is already dotted with the dilapidated husks of schools closed long ago in communities that exist as shadows of what they used to be. Among the latest batch of consolidations is the elementary school in the McDowell County seat of Welch. It’s another unfortunate blow to a town and a county that has lost so much.
During the coal boom, McDowell County had nearly 100,000 residents, according to the 1950 U.S. Census. That’s as many, if not more, than the current populations of West Virginia’s largest cities, Charleston and Huntington, combined. It’s hard to imagine those days now. The county has fewer than 18,000 residents. It also has the lowest life expectancy — 63.5 years for men, 71.5 years for women — of any county in the entire United States.
School consolidations in areas like McDowell County are inevitable. It’s sad that such actions further drain local communities and create longer bus rides for students. But there’s also an upside and opportunity to be found. If the McDowell consolidations are approved by the West Virginia School Building Authority, a new, $18.7 million facility will take the place of Welch, Kimball and Fall River elementary schools. A new school would not only benefit those students by providing modern resources, it might bring some hope to a region that sorely needs it and, perhaps, provide a new hub for the area where a strong school community can grow.
Of course, this is all occurring in the looming shadow of new voucher and charter-schools programs approved by the state Legislature that seem specifically designed to cripple public education. It leads us to wonder what will happen to these rural communities if even consolidated sites are weakened.