March 30, 2012; Source: Education Week

At a program last February sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Gayle Manchin, a former teacher and vice president of West Virginia’s Board of Education, explained that in thinking about the longstanding economic and educational challenges in McDowell County, she came to a revelation via a simple question: “If it takes a village to raise a child, who is going to raise the village?” The answer that she came to—“We are going to raise the village”—refers not just to her fellow educators but also to representatives from fields as far-ranging as health care, housing, technology and business who have joined with foundation and nonprofit leaders in a new initiative known as Reconnecting McDowell.

McDowell County has the nation’s fifth highest per capita rate of school-aged children living in poverty, a direct result of jobs lost in West Virginia’s mining industry, and Manchin believes that the advances that the county makes through this new effort will have broad national implications. As she told Education Week, “If we can create the model that will provide the solution, we will have provided the model for not only other counties in West Virginia, but for counties across the country.” In the Alliance program last February, Manchin noted that during the past ten years, the county has seen “pockets of success in different schools” but that when grants ended projects disappeared and things would be back where they started. As a way to break this cycle, she and other program leaders crafted a detailed “Covenant of Commitment” that calls for partners to help the community “build a new personal, institutional and programmatic infrastructure for success.”

As the lead partner in the effort, the American Federation of Teachers will aim to highlight the link between teaching and broader social and economic, technological, and housing issues. With goals including getting broadband access to the county and new affordable housing for teachers and families along with supporting infrastructure, there is a lot to do. State leaders have already initiated legislation to designate McDowell an innovation zone. Among other things, this could aid teacher recruitment through new teacher certification programs. Commenting on his view on the direction the reform should take, State Sen. Robert Plymale (D-Wayne) has noted, “It has to be grassroots up, and the teachers and staff have to have control of what’s going on in their schools.” It is a hopeful sign for McDowell County, and potentially other parts of the country, that with such a long list of collaborators, state leaders are maintaining a focus on the needs of classroom teachers even at this early point in program planning. –Anne Eigeman