The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), known mostly for their transformative work in urban areas, is bringing hope to those in Appalachia who have seen devastating heartache over the past decade as the coal industry that once stimulated their economies has failed to provide like it once could. In places like McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia, the only hope for children who want to rebuild their hometowns or escape the realities of it, are by achieving a proper education.
Unfortunately many teachers in these areas have stopped trying to be innovative and settled into the regions mindset of ignoring the needs of the future in hopes of escaping the reality of the present. Hope has been abandoned in McDowell County and a group of philanthropists, organizations, and politicians are now hoping to make it right.
The AFT wants to simultaneously repair McDowell’s schools and fix the social ills that plague this West Virginia community. According to the Washington Post who recently ran a feature on the situation,
The union has gathered about 40 partners, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cisco Systems, IBM, Save the Children, foundations, utility companies, housing specialists, community colleges, and state and federal governments, which have committed to a five-year plan to try to lift McDowell out of its depths.
Also partnering with the AFT is the Housing Investment Trust, whose hard work and expertise in helping those who desperately need it in cities like New York City, St. Louis, and San Francisco will now come to Appalachia.
The situation for school children in McDowell County is much different from those of many of their peers across the nation. According to the Washington Post,
The children who file into Anawalt Elementary School here each morning carry burdens that hang over them like haze from the nearby coal mines.
Most of the youngsters live with grown-ups who do not hold jobs, casualties of coal’s collapse. Many are being raised by grandparents because their mothers and fathers are in prison or struggling with addiction. Eight of every 10 children in the school meet the state’s definition of poor. Some rarely see a doctor.
Their 1924 school building has a failing roof, steps that tremble under the weight of an adult, an unheated gymnasium and antiquated electrical wiring that can’t power air conditioning.
There are no after-school activities, because if the children miss the school bus, they have no way to reach their modest houses and trailers, which are tucked into mountain crevices.
There are no recreation centers, no YMCAs. Leaving the county is so unusual that on a school trip to the Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee last year, several children mistook a highway rest stop, with its glass doors and bright lights, for their destination.
The romanticism of Appalachia does not compare to the realities of living there. The scenic mountains and long winding roads make for a great drive, but do not entice businesses to come to the region. With the reality that the only industry that can succeed in the area, coal, is not succeeding many have given up hope and have taken to drugs and alcohol as escapism. This leaves many children displaced to older family members who have the time and love to care for their loved ones, but not necessarily the resources. The AFT’s plan of not only providing better educators and funding but “wraparound services” to help take care of the various aspects of Appalachian life that lead to poverty looks to alleviate the burden on many parents who want nothing more for their children to succeed, but having never done it themselves cannot prepare their children adequately. According to the Washington Post,
The difference between those programs and the McDowell Initiative is that the “wraparound services” will have to be created from scratch in McDowell, which spans 535 square miles, not simply imported from a nearby neighborhood.
The southernmost county in West Virginia, McDowell has produced the most coal in this mining state. For generations, that was enough to sustain the community, which swelled to 100,000 by 1950. But once coal and the related steel industry started declining in the 1960s, McDowell’s descent was rapid. The first food stamps issued by the federal government went to an out-of-work McDowell coal miner and his wife in 1961. Today, the population is about 22,000.
“Anyone with any energy, money and drive is gone,” Philip LaCaria was saying recently as he stood outside his law office near the courthouse in Welch. Nearly every other storefront on the main street is vacant, but LaCaria’s practice is thriving. Half his clients are fighting drug charges, he said. “People use drugs as an escape, to escape reality,” he said. “The folks here don’t have any perception of the future.”
Just when it seemed that McDowell had hit rock bottom, the floods came. Violent water churned through the small towns in 2001 and 2002, further devastating lives. Hundreds of houses were abandoned, left to decay.
Drug addiction has emerged as a major problem and one reason why so few county residents are employed at a new federal prison in the county — they can’t pass the drug test, said Bob Brown, an AFT senior national representative. The few remaining coal mines are having trouble attracting workers for the same reason, he said.
The state has been in control of the school district since the beginning of last decade but proper improvements have yet to be made. This is one of the main reasons that Gayle Manchin, wife of Democratic Senator and former Governor of West Virginia Joe Manchin, has made the McDowell Initiative a personal issue. According to the Washington Post,
The state, which took over the McDowell public schools nearly a decade ago, has failed to make much of a dent in the county’s abysmal test scores and a dropout rate more than three times the national average.
I can’t tell you how appalled and embarrassed that made me,” said Gayle Manchin, the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who joined the state Board of Education in 2008. “Those children weren’t any better off.”
Manchin, thinking a more ambitious effort was needed, turned to Weingarten for help.
“I knew if we were going to do this, we had to do it the right way,” Weingarten said. “That’s why we wanted a lot of partners, and the people in McDowell had to want us to be involved and that we were going to have to deal with all the issues — education, social, economic.”
She said the McDowell Initiative isn’t about improving the image of the teachers union, which critics — including the makers of the movie “Waiting for Superman” — contend is more concerned about protecting working conditions for adults than improving student learning.
“This is not a photo op,” Weingarten said. “This is a moral commitment. We’re in the business of making a difference in the lives of people.”
Having grown up in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia has always been an intriguing mystery to me because as you drive its sprawling scenic mountain roads you experience an untamed beauty and overall sense of calm. If you stop at a gas station for a fill up however you are likely to encounter the locals who although constantly surrounded by beauty look paralyzed with fear. A fear based in the fact that they are living in dangerous conditions and there is little hope of them ever being able to escape those mountaintops. In situations like that education may be the only ticket out of town, but without a functioning education system a child born in an area like McDowell County West Virginia has little chance of succeeding and almost no chance of breaking away from the negative mindset that has overtaken the region for far too long.. We cannot be a nation who allows entire regions to become hopeless pits of despair. Luckily some good people have come together to combat this problem in West Virginia and if it has positive effects hopefully it can be a model for similar regions across the United States.