WAR, W.Va. — One of the nation’s poorest counties has made significant progress to address issues of health, income and education.
Those with Reconnecting McDowell have been working with McDowell County Schools and other community partners since 2011 to revitalize the county’s high poverty, under-performing schools, drug and alcohol abuse, housing shortages, limited medical services and inadequate access to technology and transportation.
In the last five years, much of that has changed, for the better. Last week, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, toured the Southside K-8 School in War where she told school officials people now have Internet access.
“Everybody knows how your cell phones don’t work terrifically well as we go up and down the mountains,” Weingarten said. “They wired the schools and they created thousands of possibilities for wiring homes, so now the schools are all wired.”
At Southside, students get a warm meal at night. They get dental cleanings. They can take yoga classes, use gym space, learn to program a robot, receive mental health counseling and so much more because the school is now considered the county’s first “community school.”
“We look at the whole child, so to speak,” said Cheryl Cruey, principal at Southside. “We look at the needs they have — their physical, mental health, all of the things to build to make them a successful person.”
These services are provided to children because families can’t get to these places.
“We don’t have community buildings or services here in War that offer any kind of services to children,” Cruey explained. “We know that the drug rate is very high here and families struggle, so we want to provide those opportunities for children.”
The goal, Cruey said, is to also keep teachers and adults in the county. Reconnecting McDowell is working to construct an apartment building in Welch, intended to recruit and retain teachers. So far, two properties have been purchased.
Currently, Southside’s retention rate for teachers is 26 percent because the county has limited housing. Cruey said many teachers live an hour away.
“We’re hard to get to. It’s a long drive. There’s not a lot of opportunities for housing and so on. There’s not anything for them to do as a family,” Cruey said.
Jade Hoover, a behavior therapist from Family Options Providers in Beckley, works with students at Southside through Reconnecting McDowell.
“I have some who struggle with depression, anxiety. They have a hard time just being able to make friends, so I try to help them with that,” she said.
Students have school readiness issues because of problems with poverty at home. Southside after-school teacher Greg Cruey is working to change that.
“We have kids that have such profound problems at home that no matter what we offer them, in terms of instruction, arithmetic and phonics are not their primary focus in life. They’re worried about whether the lights are still on and who is going to take care of them next month,” he said. “Close to half of our kids don’t live with either biological parent.”
Cruey said, most days, some kids don’t know where their next meal will come from.
“After school programs are more than just academics. We start out with a meal. It’s a nice healthy meal and, for some of them, it’s that third meal of the day that they might not get any place else,” he said.
While the school continues to deal with economic issues in the county, they have seen an increase in behavior and attendance rates. Sarah Muncy, community school facilitator at Southside, oversees all the programs through Reconnecting McDowell. She said, so far, more kids are going to school because there’s more to do.
“Our behavior and our attendance has went up. A few years ago, it was in the low 80s percentage and in the past couple of years it’s went up to 91 percent. Our suspension rate is down as well,” Muncy said.
In all of McDowell County Schools, the drop out rate fell from 4.5 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to two percent in the 2014-2015 school year. The high school graduation rate climbed from 74 percent to 80 percent in that same time frame.
As for testing, nearly half (44.5 percent) of seniors took Advanced Placement tests in 2015. The county’s 2015 ACT composite score was 18.3, not far from the national composite score of 21.
During a meeting with school officials, Weingarten stressed the importance to keep Southside’s programs in place while potential education cuts loom from the Trump Administration. She said these programs give kids a chance to succeed in life.
“That’s what this school does every day — creates opportunities for kids, thinking through how do we meet kids where they are? Not stigmatizing them, not making them feel bad, but finding a way to bring out their God given talents,” Weingarten said.
Reconnecting McDowell hopes to expand its community schools initiative, which provides health, family engagement and adult services. The next community school in the works is Welch Elementary.