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Randi Weingarten and Gayle Manchin: Overcoming poverty is a tall order

The Reconnecting McDowell public-private partnership is driving not just hope but tangible programs to improve the public schools, health and well being, and economic development of McDowell County and its residents.

Things have been tough in McDowell for years, and while there is an understandable desire for highly visible changes right away, this is a long-term effort that must focus on durable, lasting accomplishments, both big and small.

Teachers, administrators; local, county, state, federal agencies and leaders; foundations; non-profit organizations; corporations; parents and other community members are involved in this joint venture because the grievously poor economy has invaded nearly every aspect of life in this part of Appalachia.

Some say the poor economic base creates a high, perhaps impossible, hurdle to climb.

But it's the economic pressures that created the necessity for Reconnecting McDowell, and it's the economic pressures that have energized us to persevere and think outside the box.

Our goals and projects to date and over the next few years revolve around improving public education, social services and economic development. We've already been the catalyst for introducing programs and services that have been embedded in communities nationwide for years, including full access to the Internet in all schools and most homes.

It used to be that a school's computerized security camera system sucked up all the bandwidth, leaving nothing for computer use by students. Now, with expanded broadband in every school, teachers can incorporate technology in daily lessons.

Improving literacy skills is one of the most important objectives of the effort.

Through Reconnecting McDowell, more than 4,000 new books are in the hands of McDowell kids - some receiving the first book to call their very own.

We've established seven Family Literacy Centers with books and other literacy activities - at every elementary school, a mental health center and a Women's, Infants and Children's office.

And thanks to the expanded Internet capability in schools, students and teachers have access to digital libraries.

The American Federation of Teachers and other education partners are working on various aspects of instructional training, teacher evaluation systems and aligning the new Common Core State Standards to curriculum. Exciting new programs are in the planning stages for the 2013-14 school year.

Other efforts involve early childhood education programs, parenting support classes, teen pregnancy programs and a women's substance abuse treatment center.

And the United Mine Workers has been training scores of laid-off mine workers, some from McDowell County, for new careers. At least 14 are now gainfully employed.

We know there's much anticipation about the possible construction of a Teacher Village, since it would greatly enhance teacher recruitment and economic development. No one wants a Teacher Village to come to fruition more than we do.

Reconnecting McDowell is in the midst of the complicated process of securing financing, scouting the best location, and making other decisions to ensure that the housing is sustainable.

Nothing would be worse than rushing into this big investment without making sure the final recommendation is the best option for the citizens of McDowell.

Jim Redmond, a McDowell retiree and grandfather who attended a recent Reconnecting McDowell meeting, spoke emotionally of the impact - and hope - the partnership has given the children and families of the county.

He reminded us why we continue to work, collectively and tirelessly, to overcome the devastating and widespread impact of poverty.

Our intention is to continue to work closely with the community over the next few years to help create a renewed McDowell that will be a place of enduring vitality.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers and Gayle Manchin is chair of the Reconnecting McDowell board.



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