The U.S. Secretary of Education says he likes what he is seeing out of McDowell County.
"Obviously, McDowell has had more than its share of challenges and obstacles," Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday. "But I just love how the community is committing to coming together and doing everything they can to revitalize the community and provide great education for the children."
Secretary Duncan spoke with MetroNews while en route to Mount View High in Welch for a town hall meeting focused on the work of Reconnecting McDowell, a public-private partnership involving dozens of agencies and community organizations.
In general terms, the goal of the comprehensive program is to improve McDowell County’s schools by addressing larger community issues including transportation, technology and early childhood needs along with many other factors.
Secretary Duncan says what works in McDowell County, though, may not work in other parts of the country.
"Every community is unique. Every community has unique strengths and challenges. But I do think, at the end of the day, the goals are so common," the Secretary said.
"The goals are how do we significantly reduce the dropout rates? How do we increase high school graduation rates? And how do we make sure all our students who are graduating from high school are college and career ready?"
Randi Weingarten, the national leader of the American Federation of Teachers, was also in McDowell County on Thursday. Her organization has taken the lead for Reconnecting McDowell.
The state Department of Education took over control of McDowell County’s schools more than a decade ago. Located in one of the poorest areas in the United States, McDowell County has continually had one of the worst dropout rates in West Virginia.
U.S. Department of Education officials say Mount View is one of 20 schools in West Virginia to share in more than $28 million in federal School Improvement Grants, over the past three years, to improve student achievement.
"We’re investing very significantly in turning around schools in McDowell. We’re seeing some tremendous success there. Historically, lower performing schools are doing much, much better," Secretary Duncan said.
"I just love the collective commitment to revitalizing this county."
In a statement, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller said the visit from Duncan reinforces the need to invest in and support rural education.
"Students in rural areas, including McDowell County, face many challenges like accessing needed funding and educational resources and bringing in teachers," Senator Rockefeller said.
Before traveling to McDowell County Thursday, Secretary Duncan visited Elk Elementary Center in Kanawha County for a discussion about early childhood education.
He is scheduled to be in Roanoke and Richmond in Virginia for events on Friday before ending his 2012 "Back To School" bus tour at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.