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Partnership Supporting Rural W. Va. School District Moves Forward

Instructional services, wrap-around services, and economic development are three key areas a West Virginia public-private partnership plans to concentrate on going forward.

Reconnecting McDowell is an initiative led by the American Federation of Teachers that launched in December 2011 and has grown to more than 100 public and private partners. The group gathered in Charleston, W. Va., today to discuss the accomplishments of its seven subcommittees and plan for the future.

I talked with Gayle Manchin, chair of Reconnecting McDowell, and Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, after those morning presentations to get an update on the project's progress.

Its seven subcommittees are organized around specific issues, such as early-child education, technology, and jobs/economy. Those groups have been working independently, so allowing each group to see what the others had done enabled everyone to gauge and celebrate overall progress, Manchin said.

Weingarten said most of the partners working to support the project are volunteers, and "it's important to get people together to share so they're not working in isolation."

McDowell County in West Virginia faces some troubling statistics. It leads the nation in overdose deaths from narcotic pain medications, and it leads the state with the highest percentage of teenage births. But the partnership has continued to grow its supporters and accomplishments, such as providing books to students and expanding high-speed internet in schools.

The partnership hopes to create a self-sustaining community, and the partners will be looking at ways to integrate their work around three key areas: instructional services, wrap-around services, and economic development.

They're hoping to get the go-ahead in May to use schools as hubs where partners can provide health, social, and educational services to students, their families, and the community.

The school district's employees have voted in support of it, and Weingarten hopes the state board will approve it next month.

In the past, Manchin said officials tried to fix the county's schools solely through educational programs. To make a stronger community, however, all of its issues need to be addressed, she said.

"It is about McDowell County, but it is about rural America," Manchin said. "Hopefully, what we're doing is designing and implementing a model that fits rural America."

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