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New Public-Private Partnership Targets Rural W.Va. Schools

More than 40 public and private groups are joining forces in what officials are calling an unprecedented effort to turn around one of the country's worst rural school districts, and some hope to use it as a model for improving other rural schools.

Reconnecting McDowell centers on McDowell County schools, a roughly 3,600 student district in West Virginia's southernmost county that has continued to struggle since a state takeover 10 years ago. Its schools have the worst dropout rate in the state and among the lowest test scores in reading, science, and math.

The five-year plan organized by the American Federation of Teachers aims to transform schools by also addressing related issues such as poverty, substance abuse, and outdated infrastructure. The plans sound somewhat similar to the Harlem Children's Zone in that schools will become access sites for social and health services for students and their families, according to an Associated Press story.

Why McDowell County? The state's former First Lady, Gayle Manchin, also serves as vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education, and she made numerous appeals to the American Federation of Teachers for help.

As in other rural areas, technology is a challenge in parts of McDowell, with some places lacking even dial-up access to the Internet. The project will expand broadband and cell phone coverage through its partners, all of whom will contribute something of value, such as money, products, services or expertise.

Those leading the effort didn't set out measurable goals, but the covenant says they will find ways to gauge progress. Organizers also didn't give financial estimates on what it would take to transform McDowell, and the only specific contributions outlined thus far include:
• Frontier Communications: providing $100,000 to work with Globaloria, a nonprofit that combines social networking and learning with technology, on online learning projects;
• AFT Educational Foundation: committed $150,000 for the planning process;
First Book, a nonprofit that connects book publishers to needy students: promised to provide books for every county child for at least three years. The AFT and its staff will give $14,000 to immediately provide a book for every McDowell child and fund a library makeover for one school;
• The Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Benedum Foundation: providing a $100,000 planning grant.

Expect to see planning for the next six months, and education initiatives beginning in the 2012-13 school year.

If you want to read more coverage on Reconnecting McDowell, check out The Charleston Gazette in Charleston, W. Va., or The Washingon Post.

[UPDATED (Dec. 22): U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement today applauding the "groundbreaking educational public-private partnership" in McDowell County. He called it a "great example of how union-management collaboration and leading non-profits can come together to push for dramatic improvements in education." If you want to read Duncan's full statement, go here.]

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