CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Over the last six years, McDowell County has improved school attendance rates, Internet access, community service programs, public health and more because of the community partnership Reconnecting McDowell.

On Tuesday, AT&T — one of the more than 125 partners — announced it will contribute another $200,000 to support the high school mentoring program Broader Horizons over the next two years.

The company’s previous contribution was $300,000 which enabled 57 at-risk high school students to participate in the program. All of them have graduated and have enrolled in college or entered the military.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been heavily involved in the effort to spur economic growth in the county. She said Reconnecting McDowell has a lot to celebrate since its formation in 2011.

“We have seen an increased graduation rate from in the 70s to the high 80s (percent). We’ve seen the doubling of the number of kids who are going to college. We’ve seen a reduction in opioid abuse,” she said on Tuesday’s MetroNews “Talkline” during a visit to Charleston.

In addition, the high school dropout rate has decreased significantly, two schools have been converted to community schools that provide wraparound services to support children and their families, all county schools except one elementary school offer mental health services including dental cleanings and several job training programs are underway in the county.

Community partners have been working to address 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 connection with the downturn in coal.

Weingarten said it’s difficult to get teachers to stay in southern West Virginia when the starting salary is so low. Current teacher salaries begin at $33,000 — one of the lowest in the country.

There needs to be an attraction to live in McDowell County, Weingarten said.

“We don’t have the housing stock, the transportation, we don’t have a Main Street in Welch for example that has families with carriages walking down the street. Part of it is we have envision a quality of life that families would want to have,” she said.

Weingarten said efforts to build a housing complex in the county for teachers are on hold for now due to financial problems.

“We really want to make sure the financing is in place so that we don’t have to charge rents that are beyond what teachers can pay,” she said.

State Education Secretary Gayle Manchin said on “Talkline” they want to set an example for other struggling communities across America that have also been disrupted by the economic downturn.

“What we want to build here is a template that shows this is how you build a program that reinvigorates, reinvents communities, revitalizes people and families and do it in a way that’s sustainable and replicable,” Manchin said.

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