Schools in Rural West Virginia Aim to Improve Students’ prospects

McDowell County Mt View Middle School

Boredom can mean trouble and bad health for children in rural America. In communities where resources are few, schools face the extra challenge of keeping students active, safe and healthy. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from McDowell County, West Virginia, on efforts there to improve life for students and to address the teacher shortage.

JOHN TULENKO: Day and night, coal trains still rumble through McDowell County, West Virginia.

The mines in this southernmost part of the state once employed some 20,000 workers. And back then, the county seat of Welch was called Little New York. Today, most of those jobs and most of those people are gone. McDowell County is the poorest in the state, with the highest rates of heart disease, suicide and drug overdose in all of West Virginia.

For public schools here, finding a way to keep the county’s roughly 3,500 students from becoming any one of those statistics is the number one priority.

Flo McGuire is principal at Southside Elementary.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE, Principal, Southside K-8 School: I grew up here. Obviously, we’re a very rural area. So I really understand what it means to be a kid bored out of your mind because there is nothing to do here.

JOHN TULENKO: Having little to do has affected children and teenagers in many ways.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE: We are the highest ranking in terms of type 2 diabetes, weight. I mean, we are the poster child for bad health.

JOHN TULENKO: For McGuire, the solution is for schools to fill the void with new programs that reach kids in class, after school, and even in the home.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE: Statistics tell us and research tells us, when we have students that are involved in activities, they’re less likely to get involved in drugs, and less likely to get involved in those negative personal habits.

  JOHN TULENKO: While schools do offer team sports, participation is limited.

The after-school program offers mostly homework help. And weekends are void of any organized activities. All that could change through a new effort called Reconnecting McDowell, a partnership among state agencies, community organizations, the teachers union and others, groups that once worked separately, all coming together to improve opportunities for students.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE: Our vision is to be the hub, I guess, of the community. I want to offer dance class, tae kwon do, music, art. Anything that we can get in here to enrich, I guess, their educational experience, we want to.

JOHN TULENKO: One early accomplishment?  A West Virginia University-led effort to revamp phys-ed classes across the district. And schools are encouraging more parents to exercise, through countywide celebrations like this one.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE: Again, if you look at our area, there is nowhere to go to begin those habits. Those habits will begin with the kids that we have here.

GREG CRUEY, Teacher, Southside K-8 School: And if we get the community center open, if we get the exercise equipment that is there, the chances are life gets better for everyone in ways that we don’t expect.

JOHN TULENKO: Greg Cruey heads the local teachers union, part of the larger American Federation of Teachers. It spearheaded the partnership here and wants it to also provide social services, like a school-based health clinic and counseling for students.

GREG CRUEY: When a kid comes to school and the main thing they think about is the instability that they have at home, they come to school to eat, they come to school to feel safe, but learning arithmetic is not a big priority for them.

JOHN TULENKO: Academic performance that’s at the bottom of West Virginia is another major challenge the partnership faces. And it’s not happening just because students are distracted by bigger things. Another likely cause is a shortage of qualified teachers.

Two months into the school year, Mount View High School still had eight vacancies to fill.

Debra Hall is the principal.

DEBRA HALL, Principal, Mount View High School: And they’re not just in fine arts or P.E. or something like that. They’re in math, they’re in science, they’re in English, and it’s every year.

JOHN TULENKO: To fill the gaps, the district relies on long-term substitutes like Elvis Blankenship, whose offer to teach eighth grade honors biology came the night before school started in September.

Are you certified to teach science?

ELVIS BLANKENSHIP, Teacher, Mount View High School: I do not have my science part of — as far a teacher. But I have worked in hospital settings. My wife is a nurse, so what I don’t understand about it, she will actually fill me in with what I need to know about it.

JOHN TULENKO: We were in your class. And I noticed that the students seemed to be spending a lot of time with the textbook. How much do you rely on the textbook?

ELVIS BLANKENSHIP: Actually, I get my outline from the textbook. I’m always afraid that I’m going to be saying something wrong. I don’t want to be — get them so messed up than what they could be.

DEBRA HALL: You know, these long-term subs that we have, they’re dedicated. They know that students need them. They work really hard. But I think that our students deserve qualified, certified, content area teachers.

JOHN TULENKO: But getting them to come here won’t be easy.

DEBRA HALL: It’s a county wide concern. Part of that problem is the roads, the housing. I drive on Route 52. It’s curvy. It’s dangerous. You ride on it with big coal trucks.

JOHN TULENKO: And nearly everyone commutes, because, here, there are few good places to live.

Solutions to deep-seated problems like this one are hard to come by, but the Reconnecting McDowell partnership is trying. It recently purchased this abandoned building, which it plans to turn into badly needed high-quality housing for teachers, another example of its strategy to improve schools from the outside in.

GREG CRUEY: And unless we can change the environment so that teachers want to stay, unless we can change the environment so parents have a higher level of education and can help their kids, unless we can change the environment so that kids that show up are more ready and able to learn, no amount of good pedagogy is going to, by itself, fix our problem with test scores.

JOHN TULENKO: The challenge is immense, but vital to face. Education may be the best route students have to escape the dismal statistics here.

In McDowell County, West Virginia, I’m John Tulenko, reporting for the NewsHour.