Readers of Eduflack know I often speak of my roots and connections to West Virginia. I am a proud graduate of Jefferson County High School in Shenandoah Junction, WV (Go, Cougars!) But I am particularly privileged to have served on the staff of one of the greatest U.S. Senators in our nation’s history, the Honorable Robert C. Byrd.
Working for Senator Byrd, I was able to see much of what makes West Virginia and the nation great. I had the ability to travel the Mountain State’s 55 counties, from its beautiful ranges to its research universities, its large cities to its company towns, its river rapids to its coal mines. Yes, West Virginia has much to be proud of. But it is also a state with communities ravaged by poverty, poor health, and struggling schools.
Which is I was so taken by an announcement made last week by the American Federation of Teachers. On Friday, the AFT officially launched “Reconnecting McDowell County
,” a “comprehensive, long-term effort to make educational improvements in McDowell County the route to a brighter economic future.”
Reconnecting McDowell County has an impressive list of partners
, including WV Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the WV Congressional Delegation, Benedum Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Virginia, College Board, Safe the Children, WV AFL-CIO, and the West Virginia State Police, just to name a few.
The effort’s Covenant of Commitment
is a particularly interesting read. The effort is focused on six key issues: 1) education; 2) services for students and their families; 3) transportation, technology, and other issues; 4) housing; 5) jobs and economic development; and 6) the McDowell Community. In the Covenant, the partners note:
We understand that there are no simple solutions — no easy answers or quick fixes. Together, we are striving to meet these challenges, but we know we won’t accomplish that in a day, a month, or even a year. We will find ways to measure our progress, and we believe that the changes we propose and implement must be judged by rigorous standards of accountability. We accept that this will be a long-term endeavor, and we commit to stay engaged until we have achieved our goals of building the support systems the students need and helping the residents of McDowell County to take charge of their desire for a better life ahead.
Yes, I realize that McDowell County is not alone its history, its current challenges, or its desire to change. Across the nation, we have counties, cities, and communities that face similar struggles. What makes this interesting is that Reconnecting McDowell is committed to demonstrating the demographics do not equal destiny. Old industrial towns, even old coal towns, can be reborn in the 21st century. We can rebuild currently struggling schools around a new culture of improving instruction, greater accountability, and rising student performance. And we can work together to put all of the conditions — from housing and health to education and jobs — in place for achievement and success.
We should all keep an eye on Reconnecting McDowell, looking at its metrics and watching its progress. And we should be asking why we aren’t launching similar efforts in other states, in other counties, and in other communities across the nation. The principles laid forward by Reconnecting McDowell are universal.