Big business and unions come to US schools' aid

New union-corporate initiative aims to reinvigorate education system in a West Virginia county that is down, but not out.


    Over the years, the reputation of teachers in the US has taken a bit of a pounding.

    It's unfair,  in my view, as I've never met a bad teacher yet in all my years of dealing with them in my hometown and further afield.

    Nonetheless, conservatives in particular seem to be willing to bash the profession and its trade unions on a regular basis for one reason or another.

    I was intrigued, therefore, by an idea taking root in the state of West Virginia where a major teachers' union - The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) - is teaming up with some pretty big US corporations - and you can't get more conservative than those guys - to help out ailing schools.

    The project is taking place in McDowell County, an area that faces tough economic challenges and whose school test results have been among the lowest in the country.

    The initiative, called "Reconnecting McDowell", aims to turn things around in five years.

    I met Jim Brown, the superintendent of schools, at his desk in the tiny mountain town of Welch to talk about the initiative.

    Brown is in charge of all schools in McDowell County, and is an incredibly positive man operating in an area that faces significant challenges.

    "Forty-six per cent of our children don't live in a home with biological parent, we have 49 per cent of our children in poverty," he told me.

    Dwindling coal jobs - there are still quite a lot of them but nothing like 50 years ago - and two devastating floods in the early 2000s have hit this region hard.

    Once, more than 100,000 people called McDowell County home. Today, that number is just over 20,000.

    Mind you, those 20,000 people are proud, hardscrabble folks, who know their area has issues but are determined to remain where they are surrounded by extended families.

    For many that means living on welfare cheques that add up to just over $20,000 per year - not much at all in this country.

    The state has controlled McDowell's schools for the past ten years, but test scores in this impoverished area remain low and Superintendent Brown says he's delighted to have the help of the AFT and big business.  

    Though some schools in McDowell are new, others need a lot of work.

    I went to Anawalt Elementary school, which was built in the 1920s. Since then, not much has changed.

    It's a wonderful school with a great atmosphere, but the building serves to represent the challenges faced by the Reconnecting McDowell project team.  They tell me that the roof leaks and the stairs are rickety.

    There's a plan to close it and move the children to a purpose built school, but that comes with it's own knock-on effect.

    Moving the school will mean forcing the students to take a school bus for an hour each way to the new site.

    Student optimism

    Reagan Stafford, a student in her final year of high school, grew up with her grandmother after her mother was imprisoned for drug offences.

    Her mother is now a church pastor and, despite her childhood difficulties, Reagan remains very optimistic about her future. 

    "I don't think anywhere else in West Virginia or really in the United States you could find such a close community," she told me.

    "A lot of people try to emphasise on the problems but if you look at some of the people, it's a good place to live."

    Reconnecting McDowell won't be easy, though. Mountainous regions can be remote - they say West Virginia would be the size of Texas if you could smooth out all the mountains - so the aim to build up not just schools but internet, transport, health and housing for locals, and to attract new teachers from outside the area is an ambitious one. 

    "Yes sir, failure's not an option - the children here deserve it," says Brown.

    That's the attitude we found wherever we went in McDowell County: a community that may be down, but one that is determined to get back up again.



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