Reconnecting McDowell turns attention to absenteeism & reading proficiency

WELCH, W.Va. — The partners involved in Reconnecting McDowell will next focus their efforts on addressing school absenteeism and ensuring all students reach reading proficiency by the 3rd grade as part of a larger education and economic revitalization effort in McDowell County.

“What we’ve asked the partners to do is to focus on two things which are state priorities, which are national priorities, that we know will really flip the switch in terms of outcomes for kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

On Tuesday, she spoke with MetroNews from a day-long Reconnecting McDowell quarterly meeting in Welch that drew more than 100 program partners.

Gayle Manchin, chair of Reconnecting McDowell and a member of the West Virginia Board of Education, was also there.

“Children can’t learn if they’re not in school and, if children can’t learn to read by 3rd grade, they cannot read to learn during the rest of their school experience,” Manchin said.

According to Weingarten, 89 percent of students who reach reading proficiency by the 3rd grade go on to graduate from high school.

Reconnecting McDowell, a comprehensive, long-term effort aimed at improving McDowell County’s economy through education, launched in 2011 in a West Virginia county that consistently ranks at or near the bottom when it comes to health, income and education.

Since then, those involved have been working to address McDowell County’s issues of poverty, underperforming schools, drug and alcohol abuse, housing shortages, limited medical services and inadequate access to technology and transportation.

“It is not a one person job. The superintendent cannot change the culture of a county. The principal in the school cannot change the culture of that community or the families,” Manchin said.

“It takes wraparound services. It takes economic development. It takes transportation. It takes our career tech centers. It takes people from all walks of life.”

The partners include those from businesses, government, nonprofit agencies and foundations among many others.

Weingarten is already seeing signs of change and, she said, Reconnecting McDowell is setting an example for the rest of West Virginia and the entire United States.

“You can work collaboratively, respecting each other, building on each other’s strengths, to get to the urgent needs of helping ensure that every child has a high quality education so they can not only dream their dreams, but achieve them,” she said.

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