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The number of mining jobs in the county jumped from 450 in the fourth quarter of 2016 to 715 in the second quarter of this year, however, and coal mining now accounts for approximately 16 percent of all jobs. While that growth is significant, much further growth isn’t expected, said John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University.

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That’s not necessarily the news people here want to hear. But economists like Deskins say that diversification is the key to stabilizing any economy, and that businesses that produce in the county but sell outside the region are necessary to make a more economically viable community. However, even he acknowledges that he’s not certain what will work for McDowell. “What it really takes is entrepreneurs to try new things, and entrepreneurs will find what works and what doesn’t work.” Those new entrepreneurs must be developed in the schools, Deskins said. “The economy never will be able to attract businesses unless it has educated, healthy workers.”

The leaders of Reconnecting McDowell have taken note. The county needs to integrate more “entrepreneurship education opportunities into K-12 education and career and technology,” Mallory said. Reconnecting McDowell is encouraging agribusiness development, including small local farms that grow vegetables for schools and farm-to-table restaurants (or even that grow medical marijuana), and ecotourism development, to take advantage of the county’s wildlife management areas and the rugged Hatfield-McCoy Trail system.

“The facts and data do not support that McDowell is a coal mining economy. Look deeper, education is driving this economy.”

“The things that draw young people to Colorado, we certainly have in abundance in southern West Virginia,” said Gayle Manchin, secretary of the state’s Department of Education and the Arts and a past president of the West Virginia Board of Education, who now chairs Reconnecting McDowell. To spur change, the public-private initiative made college and career readiness one of its planks and staff from the district’s Career and Technology Center were named to the subcommittee charged with addressing it.

The center gives students the chance to attain the skills and credentials they’ll need to be eligible to work those new jobs, while instilling a mindset to help them succeed, said Manchin. “The message it sends is that the more education you get, the better the job.”

State law requires school districts to offer career and technical education, but districts have flexibility in selecting which programs to offer. Katie Linkous, school counselor for McDowell’s center, said that it has focused on 13 programs to help meet the needs of employers and the community, particularly in health care, education, and law and public safety. Linkous credits Reconnecting McDowell with “bringing career and technology to the forefront in [the] county,” giving greater exposure to what the center offers residents. “We have to recruit students and let them know what they can gain from coming here,” she said. “It’s not something a counselor can make them do.”

Related: In one state, students are ditching classrooms for jobs

A “Revitalize Appalachia” sign hangs in downtown Welch, the McDowell County seat. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

With local labor market data showing health care workers “always in top demand,” according to Linkous, the center’s Therapeutic Services program is teaching students skills they can use for entry-level health care jobs or to advance into the center’s licensed practical nursing program, open to adult students only. Linkous said she has had students accept job offers before graduation. Other programs include Early Childhood Education; Pro Start Restaurant Management, which encompasses the farm-to-table movement; Power Equipment Systems, for ATV and UTV repairs; Computer Systems, including a course in computer coding, applications and game design; and Machine Tool Technology and Welding for those thinking of working in the mines.

While the center doesn’t have its own entrepreneurship program, its staff attended a training and integrated elements of that curriculum into their own courses, Linkous said. The center also recently introduced its own mentorship program, Mirror Image, in which students who show an entrepreneurial spirit mentor eighth-graders. The older kids build leadership skills and give their young counterparts an early taste of the career training program.

Located in the former Vocational Center building in Welch, the county seat, the center is open to all 11th- and 12th-graders in the district. According to Linkous, some 200 students — roughly half of the 407 eligible — attend programs that take one or two years to complete. Participation has been steady over the last couple of years even as the county’s numbers of high school juniors and seniors dropped. Students enrolled at the center receive graduation credits alongside the certifications and credentials in their programs of study, and the center is working on memorandums of understanding with Bluefield State College to accept credits from its Law and Public Safety and Careers in Education programs.

All of the state’s career centers are modeled as simulated workplaces or microbusinesses in which students get to name a company, rotate through job titles, learn to dress appropriately for those jobs and take random mandatory drug tests as required by the state and requested by employers, Linkous explained.

A student in Chasity Kennedy’s class completes an assignment. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

“First and foremost what we hear from employers is [they want] a clean drug test,” she said. “Requiring that has been really helpful in instilling in a kid’s brain that that’s what the workplace requires. Knowing they passed the drug test is a confidence booster for them. It’s something to be proud of in an area that has a lot of drug abuse.”

The center boasts a 95 percent job placement rate among its graduates, meaning that they’re either working in their program field (generally within the county) or have gone on to college or enlisted in the military, Linkous said.

Whether the center’s success will make a difference is uncertain. The school district has lost 479 students since Reconnecting McDowell’s launch in 2011, including 144 this school year. With enrollment losses come budget cuts and teacher layoffs, and the Career and Technology Center is not immune.

“What it really takes is entrepreneurs to try new things, and entrepreneurs will find what works and what doesn’t work.”

Many students, like those in Chasity Kennedy’s honors English class at River View High School, already have big plans for their future that don’t involve staying in McDowell. Fifteen-year-old Breanna Poor plans on becoming a surgeon and “would like to get out of West Virginia for a while.” Her classmate Blake Lockhart, 15, wants to attend Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, possibly to become a biomedical engineer “making prosthetics and helping out the veterans for what they’ve done.” And Kennedy’s son, Colton, 15, said he’d join the Army, “serving wherever they need me.”

But Kristen Calhoun, 15, said she “wants to go to college of her own free will and be what I want.” And she wants to come back to teach in River View’s math department and “give the kids an idea that they are able to do whatever they want to do. And, that they have to work for it no matter how much is against them.” And while Karam Hauter said he’d like to visit other states and attend college for accounting, he plans to come back to McDowell to live and help his father and older brother run the gas station and store.

Interpreting for his sister Malak, he said that she, too, wants to visit other states, but return to McDowell to be with their family. Asked what she likes about her home here, she replied that she “feels safer here” and “likes the people.” Here is “more nice than back home.”

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