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MCDOWELL COUNTY, W.Va. — It was superheroes day at Welch Elementary School. Principal Kristy East was up at 4:15 a.m. as usual to hit the gym before donning her favorite red Wonder Woman T-shirt for work. Before she left home, she checked the district’s online system to see which teachers were absent and how many substitutes she’d need. There were only a couple, “but some days it’s as high as eight,” East said — roughly half the school’s teachers.
By 6:45 a.m., she was behind the wheel of her silver four-wheeler for the hour drive to school.
At 8:30, the 38-year-old principal pumped Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” over the intercom and gathered staff for the daily, five-minute “hallway huddle.” The thought for the week was from educator and motivational speaker Larry Bell: “Even on your worst day on the job, you’re still some child’s best hope.”
At 8:40, East walked out to the curb to meet the arriving buses and greet each pint-sized Wonder Woman, Ninja Turtle and Spiderman.
After a day of meetings with parents, visiting classrooms, lunch duty and dealing with student behavioral issues, East left for home at 5 o’clock. Not bad, considering many nights she doesn’t arrive home until after 8 p.m.
East’s days are grueling, but they’re not an anomaly. To be an educator in McDowell County requires a level of dedication and selflessness that few people can muster, resulting in chronic teacher shortages and high turnover. The county has 254 teachers; according to district administrators, it needs about 25 more, to fill vacancies in special education, elementary education, math, science and the arts. Instead, McDowell averages losing about a dozen teachers a year — a number that can include up to nearly half its new teachers — perpetuating the gap. Another 25 teachers — 10 percent of its workforce — are eligible to retire and could leave at any time. McDowell superintendent Nelson Spencer says the constant churn of teachers is one reason the district remains in the basement, ranking last among the state’s 55 school districts.
That’s where Reconnecting McDowell, a public-private effort celebrating its sixth anniversary this year, was supposed to come in. More than a year ago, the initiative demolished buildings in downtown Welch, the county seat, to make way for Renaissance Village, a planned 30-plus-unit apartment complex that was supposed to be one of the key recruiting points to get young educators and professionals to come to and put down roots in McDowell: new, affordable housing, with a coffee shop on the premises, easy access to the county’s only movie theater and a public, outdoor pool a short walk away.
But work has stalled on the project, as Reconnecting McDowell’s organizers scramble to replace millions in funding that the Trump administration has put on hold.
The delay has some district leaders wondering how they’ll ever improve academic achievement and student test scores without a stable workforce. Voicing a common complaint by educators here, East said the annual teacher turnover means that “instead of moving forward, you have to back up and retrain the new people.”
It’s proving even harder to find qualified replacements. According to a 2015 report by the state education department, McDowell County’s public schools are among the state’s highest-poverty schools. And in the ranking of West Virginia’s most-impoverished school districts, McDowell has the highest percentage of inexperienced teachers and third-lowest percentage of classes taught by highly qualified teachers.
Regardless, Spencer literally begs young, relatively inexperienced teachers to come teach in McDowell. It’s a desperation that even he questions: “We’re taking the least-experienced people and putting them in the highest-risk school[s] in the state of West Virginia. How successful do you think that’s going to be?”
The shortage of highly qualified teachers is compounded by state budget cuts, which have forced some McDowell schools to eliminate electives. Chasity Kennedy teaches 10th-grade English at River View High School, where her son attends. Budget cuts last year forced the school to eliminate its art program to save her position and that of a math teacher. To ensure students get the art credit they need to graduate, art has been incorporated across the curriculum, challenging teachers to be creative in presenting their subject matter. Kennedy said she had students make protest signs and create a Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out video for the class Facebook page in September, using art “to help them visualize text and complex ideas.”
Academics aren’t the only worry. Spencer said he has heard from students that they don’t want to build relationships with teachers. The students, many already dealing with the effects of family drug and alcohol abuse in a place that has one of the highest opioid death rates in the nation, say they don’t want to be hurt when their teachers leave after a couple of years. It’s such a chronic cycle that “kids build a barrier to avoid that hurt,” he said.
The superintendent doesn’t begrudge the teachers who leave. He recently urged a group of local high school students not to blame them either. “Don’t be hard feeling about them,” he said, explaining that some have families and long commutes. “Don’t blame them. We just need to fix the problem.”
The district has tried to create incentives to draw and keep teachers, including by providing new teachers with mentors and reimbursing tuition for certified teachers continuing their education. It also pays them comparatively well — McDowell teachers earned the third-highest adjusted average salary among West Virginia’s highest-poverty districts, at $50,557, according to the state’s 2015 report. But finding and keeping people as dedicated as East isn’t easy.
East did what most young, beginning teachers do when they graduate college: She applied to every school district within driving distance of her home in Mercer County, the next county over from McDowell, and accepted the first full-time position offered her — teaching third-grade at the then-80-student Anawalt Elementary School in McDowell.
“My goal was the same thing that everybody else does,” East said: “Go get a couple of years of experience, keep applying in Mercer County, and when I can get closer to home, go closer to home.”
But fifteen years later, after getting her doctorate degree, climbing the promotional ladder and falling in love with McDowell and its children, she still lives in Mercer County and makes the arduous trek across the mountains to work.
Only 56 percent of McDowell schools’ 285 professional staff, including school administrators and other personnel in addition to teachers, live in the county. A 2012 analysis of existing housing in McDowell by the Council of the Southern Mountains, a community action agency, found it had “the highest number of substandard housing units of any county in the state,” making it “inadequate for middle to upper class income families.” As a consequence, many teachers and district employees commute. The superintendent, who himself lives outside the county, estimates that many on his staff spend $5,000 to $7,000 per year on fuel and the wear-and-tear costs on their vehicles. That’s roughly 20 percent of the average starting salary for a first-year teacher in the county.
That cost in time and money contributes to an annual turnover rate for beginning teachers that fluctuated from a high of nearly 48 percent to a low of 10 percent, according to a recent five-year study.
“If we had roads and highway systems, if we had sewers and water systems, if we had amenities for young people to come in and do, I think they would be more apt to stay,” Spencer said, adding that some teachers who leave cry because they feel they have no choice. “I had one text me the other day saying, ‘I wish I was back there, but I just can’t do it. I have two kids, I don’t have childcare.’ ”
A proposed four-lane highway through the county could help bring in more people and aid with retention. It, too, has been delayed by a lack of funding. In October, however, voters in the state approved a $1.6 billion road bond that includes $32.8 million for road projects in McDowell. But even if the delayed apartment complex and highway eventually materialize, East said young teachers will need other things to do to keep them there. “There’s no shopping. There’s no real sit-down restaurant, no chain restaurants,” she said.
That’s one reason the county is working hard to “grow its own” teachers — identifying potential future educators and childcare workers in high school — a strategy that many cash-strapped districts and schools are using to address shortages in high-need areas.
“I need all of you,” Spencer told a group of students in the district’s Careers in Education and Early Child Development program who visited his office this fall. “I need great teachers in McDowell County that will stay in McDowell County.”
The message is reaching young people like Amber Shirley, 23, a graduate of McDowell County Schools who has wanted to be a teacher since first grade, when she played school with friends. “I was always the teacher,” she said. Now, just a few months out of college and after six months student teaching at a local elementary school, she has gone from having a class of 20 third-graders to teaching factor trees and other math concepts to 86 sixth-graders at her alma mater, Mount View High School, a grade six-12 school in Welch.
The first couple of days were “rough,” Shirley recalled. “But after you get to know them all, you make a connection with them. And they know we have things in common with them, too. It gets a lot better.”
For teachers who do stay, teaching in McDowell means embedding in their school’s community, participating in after-school activities, attending football games, pep rallies and, most importantly, getting to know the families. It’s also about joining a larger effort to break a long-standing cycle of generational poverty. When she arrived at Welch in 2012, East said most students’ biggest goal was to work at Walmart. “They just wanted to work there like that was it,” she said.
McDowell teachers aren’t unique in having roles outside the classroom. Teachers in remote rural settings are routinely called on to do things not taught in teacher preparation programs, according to Catharine Biddle, a professor at the University of Maine who specializes in the study of rural schools and communities. “They’re also frontline social service providers,” Biddle said, “trying to meet students’ needs with very little training and very few resources.”
In McDowell, that means learning to cope with the emotional and behavioral problems of students who are being raised by grandparents, who have incarcerated or deceased parents due to drug abuse, who have no food at home or who have experienced domestic abuse.
“You don’t think it takes a toll on you, but it really does,” said East, whose teachers are receiving professional development to learn how to help students and each other cope with trauma.
Despite the challenges, educators here still have a lot of hope that the tide is turning for McDowell. In many cases, it’s the very challenges faced by teachers here that are enticing a new set of recruits. Diana Upton, a West Virginia native, returned to McDowell this year after a 26-year absence to teach eighth-grade English at Mount View High School. She was “tired of all the negative press I’ve heard about McDowell County.”
Upton has 28 years of experience and holds three teaching licenses. “I am highly qualified,” she said. “I told them [in the interview] that I’d like to get out the good news about McDowell County because these students can and will do great things.”
That same resolve to prove people wrong about McDowell is what gets East out of bed every morning at 4:15. “It’s hard,” she said. She’s single and “had just gotten a boyfriend” this fall after years of struggling with how to balance her social life with the needs of her 292 students. But asked why she has stayed so long made this Wonder Woman cry. “I love it — the people.”