West Virginia Rural School Plan Offers Hope for Change

Rural schools in West Virginia are attempting to resolve a growing number of challenges, including not being able to recruit enough teachers to staff as many as 1 in 7 of its classrooms, Yahoo News reports. In addition, the school technology infrastructure is also woefully out of date, and only half of the students come from families where both biological parents are present and active in their lives.

In McDowell County, a full 75% of students come from homes where at least one parent is unemployed, drug problems are endemic and teen pregnancy rates are the highest in the state. As a result, the schools in the county consistently come last in almost all the ranking tables employed by the state and the federal government. Education officials in McDowell are up against the wall.

The state took over the schools more than a decade ago and, citing efforts underway to provide adult literacy and basic medical care for students and parents alike, gave the schools back to local leaders and their allies during a meeting in nearby Bradshaw.

The American Federation of Teachers-guided effort is called Reconnecting McDowell, and leaders hope it will stem decades of suffering, both physical and economic. If successful and sustainable, this model could help despairing rural schools elsewhere.

It’s tough for a school to perform well when teachers and administrators are often forced to act not only as educators but as family surrogates. That is the view of Christian McGuire, who is the principal at the district’s War’s Southside School. According to McGuire, the students’ difficult home life means that his job expanded to include the role of a social worker. At least now, thanks to the efforts of West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin and the President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, there’s hope.

The fresh approach started out as a conversation between then-West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin and AFT President Randi Weingarten. During the past 18 months, the two called allies and pulled together more than 120 partners. Communications companies replaced dial-up Internet service with high-speed upgrades, VH1 donated instruments for the bands, and, on Wednesday, IBM announced it would give 10 computer labs.
But that’s not to say it will be enough.

West Virginia isn’t the only state where rural school districts are facing problems. Their numbers are shrinking as only 400 are remaining in operation around the country. And those 400 are rapidly losing students. In Divide, Montana, the local school with only one teacher is serving a mere 4 students this year, although enrollment is expected to grow 50% next September.

According to Democratic senators who represent rural states, money is also an issue. Rural schools are attempting to be all things to all their students all the while they’re making do with less funding per-student, than urban and especially richer suburban districts. Senators like Alaska’s Tom Begich are attempting to remedy that in the No Child Left Behind rewrite, but doing so might put him and his colleague Mark Pryor of Arkansas against other members of the Senate’s Democratic Conference.