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.