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MCDOWELL COUNTY, W.Va. — Each morning, 74-year-old Virginia Dickerson watches anxiously as two of her great-grandchildren disappear down a dark alley on their way to the school bus. Then she prays that they’ll stay safe, that the youngest one won’t get in trouble, because he “stay in there all the time,” and that they’ll “be saved and be able to support and take care of themselves, and if they get a family, to be able to support the family and not to get on drugs.”
Graffiti doesn’t mar school property, and schools don’t have metal detectors in McDowell, a county at the southernmost tip of West Virginia. There are no gangs here. Students wave and greet visitors in school hallways. A Bible verse, I Timothy 4:12, hand-scrawled on a sign posted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, welcomes all who enter River View High School: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”
With its popular Hatfield-McCoy Trail snaking through densely treed mountains, trout fishing and have-a-seat-on-my-porch culture, McDowell County could be some sort of utopia if not for the abandoned businesses that outnumber the open ones along its namesake avenue in Welch, the county seat, and its spiraling, two-lane highways so dangerous that churchgoers thank God on Sunday mornings that they made it through the week safely. The county competes with its coalfield neighbors for having the highest unemployment rate in the state. In 2016, it was the county with the highest opioid mortality rate in the nation.
But lately, in the place that for more than 50 years has been the poster child for rural poverty in America, change has been taking hold. Schools have been returned to community control. The four-year graduation rate is up 14 percentage points, from 74 in the 2010-11 school year to 88.3 in 2016, which is above the national average. According to school administrators, teen pregnancies have gone from 64.3 per 1000 births to 52.5 — a nearly 20 percent drop. The county established a juvenile drug court. The county’s dial-up internet service was replaced with high-speed internet in 2014. Students have laptops and access to computers and new books.
The improvements can nearly all be attributed to Reconnecting McDowell, a collaboration among the schools; local, state and federal government agencies; and private entities, including telecommunications, construction and coal-producing businesses, health care providers, teachers unions, and nonprofits. Its partners have put their many political and policy differences aside, pledging to stay as long as needed to help the county “create a new reality,” starting with the lives of its children.
Yet, despite its successes, six years after more than 100 individuals and organizations signed that pledge, McDowell is at a crossroads. Its schools still struggle, many of its gains are hard to quantify and the partnership is grappling with how to keep positive momentum going in the face of budget cuts and uncertainties under the Trump administration.
One proposed cut would eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, a significant funder of an $8 million teacher housing project in Welch that the partnership hoped would provide a concrete symbol of their commitment and the community’s progress. Development has stalled, and people here are slowly losing sight of the purpose of that vacant lot downtown.
Versions of Dickerson’s prayer for the safety of the children are repeated throughout McDowell each morning. The opioid crisis in this county of some 19,000-and-dropping residents, located at the intersection of the Bible and the Rust belts, has tested the everyone-looks-out-for-one-another tradition here, compelling grandparents and great-grandparents like Dickerson, who have family members struggling with finances or substance and domestic abuse, to raise school-aged children decades after they and their own children finished school or dropped out. (Nearly 47 percent of residents over age 25 in McDowell don’t have a high school diploma, the highest percent of dropouts in the state.)
Already under state control for nearly a decade, the McDowell (pronounced MACK-DALL) school system hit bottom in 2009-10. Student performance on state tests ranked it as the lowest-performing school district in West Virginia — which ranked in the bottom quarter of states nationally on math and reading performance assessments.
Some county educators and mental health professionals pointed to a “culture of poverty” or a “poverty mindset” dating back generations as the root of the problems, one that would be hard ¾ maybe impossible ¾ to dig out.
Dickerson’s own family hasn’t escaped the effects of the county’s hard times: two of her daughters battled drug addiction, a granddaughter brought her children to Dickerson when she could no longer support them after her marriage ended, one grandson served a year in federal prison for selling drugs and another is incarcerated.
Now, while the side effects of generations of poverty remain omnipresent in McDowell, its schools have been emerging as bellwethers of change.
Still, although national news outlets have covered McDowell’s turnaround efforts, residents here haven’t necessarily connected the positive steps that have been made so far with the work of the public-private collective, local leaders say. The lack of a visible symbol might be partly to blame. “[People] can’t see anything,” said Welch Mayor Reba Honaker. “People need to see what’s going on.”
McDowell County Schools Superintendent Nelson Spencer isn’t bothered by the initiative’s low profile because the community and its stakeholders are Reconnecting McDowell. “It’s an umbrella,” he said. “It should be the entire community did it and gets the credit for it. … If it was just an outside entity that came in, they would have been rejected immediately.”
But the lack of local visibility and understanding might be undermining the project’s future. More than three-quarters of voters in this historically blue county supported Donald Trump last year based on his promise of returning coal jobs and building roads. West Virginia state senator Chandler Swope, a Republican, said people here didn’t see the vote as a choice between improving education or improving the economy; they saw voting for the candidate who supported coal as a matter of survival. “West Virginia would have been doomed if Trump had not gotten elected,” Swope said.
In fact, since the election, two coal mines and a processing plant have opened in McDowell. But the new additions have brought only 265 jobs to a place where 69 percent of people are unemployed or not in the labor market. The promised infrastructure improvements haven’t materialized yet.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s policy prescriptions spell trouble for Reconnecting McDowell and the progress local schools have made. His budget would do away with funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants and an additional $575,000 in Title II funds, according to the American Federation of Teachers, a lead partner in Reconnecting McDowell. The cuts would effectively eliminate after-school programs at seven of McDowell’s 10 public schools and threaten money that could support 13 full-time teaching jobs or professional development for 95 teachers.
Seeing beams going up on the teacher housing project, now called Renaissance Village, would give Reconnecting McDowell the visibility it needs, as test scores also haven’t risen as fast as many here hoped, leaving it without stand-out numbers to trumpet the initiative’s value. The county still ranks last in the state on reading and math exams, despite incremental improvements.
Even if test scores haven’t budged much, McDowell schools have changed dramatically in the decades since Dickerson had to leave in 1961 after becoming pregnant, and the changes are accelerating. Girls are no longer required to leave school and sit out a year after having a baby. The U.S. Supreme Court banned school prayer in 1962. Now breakfast, lunch and, in some cases, dinner are free thanks to expanded federal support. In the last few years, schools have overhauled their curriculums and gone beyond teaching to provide services like dental care and mental health counseling.
Entire school communities are benefitting from the introduction of the mental health services and supports into the schools. “It’s been amazing,” said Kristy East, principal of Welch Elementary School. “We have a lot of students with anger issues,” she said, noting that many students have incarcerated or deceased parents. “They just don’t have those coping skills,” she said. “[Teachers] aren’t trained to deal with that.”
When Dickerson’s 13-year-old great-grandson was “disrespectful in school,” Dickerson turned to the district’s in-school mental health counseling services for help. In 2015, McDowell was one of three counties in West Virginia to receive federal Project AWARE grants (totaling $9.7 million) to “bring mental health practices into the school and ensure teachers are equipped to manage the mental health problems of students and their families,” McDowell County Schools Project AWARE coordinator Kenneth Birchfield said. Now, more than 3 percent of students receive in-school individual mental health therapy or group counseling, according to school officials. Hanging over the initiative, which is targeted at kids who have experienced trauma at home, is the fear that the administration could “zero out funding at any time.”
Birchfield says that while mental health services previously existed in the region, they weren’t offered in schools, and none were located in McDowell County. The agencies also weren’t communicating and were replicating one another’s efforts. Reconnecting McDowell provides “an extra layer of communications and collaboration,” bringing them all together to share information and marshal resources. Birchfield hosted the first joint meeting of the newly constituted Project AWARE leadership team in September.
To support grandparents like Dickerson, the district also launched a Second Time Around Club for “grandfamilies raising grandkids,” which is supported with federal Title I funding for low-income schools. Nearly half of district children live in a home without a biological parent, according to Reconnecting McDowell. The club, along with the district’s family advisory council, brings grandparents and guardians into the schools, giving them an opportunity to de-stress while learning parenting and coping strategies.
Birchfield was a featured speaker at the Grandparents Day celebration for the Second Time Around Club in September, when some two dozen attendees learned how to build their young charges’ self-esteem by not “over complimenting them,” while also taking a painting lesson, being served a hot ham lunch and getting a primer on the meaning of social media acronyms like BTW, L8R and POS. The last one stumped most of them. It stands for “parent over shoulder,” Birchfield explained.
Children’s more mundane-seeming needs are now also being taken care of in the schools. More than half the county’s 3,056 schoolchildren received in-school dental checkups and treatment in 2016, school officials said. The district was connected to a mobile dental service through the Reconnecting McDowell partnership.
Still, though educators are pleased with the progress they’re making to ensure students are physically and emotionally ready to learn, they are frustrated by their inability, so far, to make more academic gains. A switch to the federally supported Common Core State Standards in math and English set the county back. The county’s math proficiency rate dropped to 14 percent when new Common Core tests were introduced in 2015. That rate has since increased to 21 percent, but is still below the state average of 34 percent.
Dickerson’s 15-year-old great-granddaughter, Vitonni, is in a “high math class” at Mount View High School. Dickerson, who still works full time as a deputy clerk in the Magistrate Court building, shakes her head as she talks about how math has changed. “We had algebra,” she said. “Nowadays we have this math called hard core? Common Core? You have to go around John Henry’s barn to say two plus two is four,” she laughed, adding that when her great-granddaughter kiddingly asks her for help, she fires back, “I can’t, because I don’t know nothing about no Common Core math.”
Attendance is another persistent problem, said Timothy Hughes, the county’s school psychologist. Given the problems associated with poverty and substance abuse in the home, “education isn’t a priority as it is in the more affluent areas,” Hughes said. “Some parents aren’t educated beyond high school and don’t understand the importance of an education.” Students are often left to fend for themselves or to care for younger siblings, missing the bus and school. Attendance dropped from 93 percent in 2011-12, to 90 percent in 2016-17. “If you put an intervention in place and a student isn’t there, you can’t help them,” Hughes said. He added that he’s also had students tell him that they “just want to grow up and draw a check.”
Asked if he will see a change in this cultural mindset in his career, Superintendent Spencer said, “I don’t know.”
“If we help one child, that’s well worth it,” Spencer said. “That is a success and that is a win.”
Meanwhile, parents and grandparents like Virginia Dickerson continue to encourage their children to get an education and a skill and leave McDowell. Dickerson earned her own diploma in 1985, the same year as her daughter Renetta and some 24 years after she left school to have the first of her seven children. She keeps her diploma in the drawer of her desk. “I carry it everywhere I go ’cause I was proud of it,” she said.
Dickerson doesn’t know what the future holds, for herself or her hometown. Of her two great-grandchildren still living with her, Dickerson says that her great-granddaughter “hasn’t said anything about what she wants to do,” and she thinks her great-grandson wants to design homes. She said she prays for her husband’s health and her own, because “nobody’s going to have to look after me.”