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Reconnecting McDowell Gains Supporters, Faces Hurdles

It's been two months since we've heard any formal update from the West Virginia project aimed at turning around one of the state's lowest-achieving school districts, and the latest news is a mix of promise and setbacks.

Reconnecting McDowell is an initiative led by the American Federation of Teachers and made of more than 80 public and private partners. Its goal is to make drastic improvements to its schools in the next five years.

One of the troubling pieces of news involves the area's widespread drug problem. McDowell County leads the nation in overdose deaths from narcotic pain medications, and drugs have led to a prominent community member's death.

The August newsletter from Reconnecting McDowell had an article about Thomas Hatcher, a local mayor, teacher, and AFT member who was killed July 17. Police have arrested Hatcher's daughter-in-law and her brother on first-degree murder charges, and police say they robbed him to buy prescription pills, according to the newsletter.

Hatcher supported the Reconnecting McDowell project, and his death underscores one of the serious problems facing this rural community.

Still, the project had some good news, such as the West Virginia Network, putting high-speed Internet access into all McDowell County schools by Sept. 1. Shentel, another Reconnecting McDowell partner, also is expanding high-speed Internet access to 10,000 homes.

Other highlights cited in a recent Associated Press article included:
• Its number of partners has grown from 40 to 87;
• The partnership has made a down-payment on a five-story former furniture store and warehouse that will be used as a housing complex for teachers. No official announcement from the AFT has been made on this critical initiative, which will give teachers new to the area a place to live;
• Music channel VH-1 donated $30,000 for new instruments and to support the band at Mountview Middle School. Verizon has donated $100,000 for books; and
• The state AFL-CIO has paid for new water lines for the first new homes in the county in 20 years. Those are being built by the nonprofit Council of the Southern Mountains.

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