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Plan detailed for impoverished McDowell County

Teachers and students were excited at Elk Elementary Center near Elkview to visit with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan stopped in Kanawha and McDowell counties Thursday on his two-week Education Drives America tour. The tour began in Silicon Valley, Calif., and will end tomorrow in Washington.

He toured pre-kindergarten classrooms and had a roundtable discussion with state and local education officials about universal pre-kindergarten and early childhood education.

"This state's doing some great work on early childhood education, increasing access and funding in a significant way," Duncan said. "Its so important to the nation that we get our babies off to a good start."

He said he wanted to hear from those on the ground what was working and what wasn't. The secretary said the only way he learns about what is going on is from the people in the field.

Duncan said the U.S. Department of Education has done a lot in the last few years to invest in high quality early childhood education, providing more than $600 million to increase access to disadvantaged children.

"We just think if you're serious about closing the achievement gap you have to close the opportunity gap," Duncan said. "The best investment we can make as a community and as a country is in early childhood education programs."

Jenny Spencer teaches first grade at the school and compared early childhood education to the foundation of a house.

"The earlier the better," she said of children starting school. "It really sets the foundation for the rest of their education.

She said if the schools were to produce students who could compete on the global level, they needed to prepare them early and expose them to as much as possible.

Principal Cathi Bradley moderated the discussion.

She said 90 percent of the students retained at the school did not attend pre-kindergarten classes.

"Any little bit of an edge a child can get will help them," she said. "And really pre-k allows for an easier transition away from their parents. They start earlier and get used to having different adults around and different children around and they get more comfortable."

Bradley was honored Duncan decided to stop by the Elkviewarea school on his tour.

"It's very hopeful that someone in his position can come to our school and show an interest in what we do," she said. "He's trying to find out all the good things going on here and he's actually going to take some of the things we're doing and try to apply it elsewhere in the country. This is really an honor."

His trip then took him to Welch in McDowell County, where he sat in on a town hall meeting.

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 Mc-Dowell 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.

A partnership meeting was held Thursday in Welch, followed by separate planned discussions for students and teachers at Mount View High School. Duncan sat in on the discussion.

During a roundtable with state and federal education officials at Mount View High School, 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 Mc-Dowell 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.

Staff writer Ashley B. Craig contributed to this report.



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