Buildings in McDowell County

The balance of West Virginia’s population has been drifting northward since the 1950s. Political power seems to be moving now, too. Should our southern counties be worried?

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

Enticing teachers to move to economically depressed areas across the U.S. isn’t easy, but in McDowell County, one group hopes that’s about to change for their local schools.

Reconnecting McDowell is changing the face of education in Welch in southern West Virginia with something they call a Teacher Village—housing that will include approximately 30 apartment-style units, group areas for teachers to collaborate and relax, and amenities like a street-level coffee shop that will be open to the general public. Groundbreaking on the village is expected in spring 2014.

McDowell County is the first rural community to build housing to attract young teachers, and the county could be a model for others facing waning populations and crumbling infrastructure. “The whole Reconnecting McDowell program is really unique, certainly in a rural area, but anywhere really,” says Janet Bass, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Reconnecting McDowell has already funneled more than $10 million into the county in an effort to revive the 3,600-student school district—under state control for more than a decade.

The Reconnecting McDowell board of directors approved a plan in late 2013 to purchase property in downtown Welch for affordable housing for teachers and other professionals. Community Housing Partners, the architecture firm designing the housing, presented options for the Teacher Village when the board chose to enter into a purchase option on the property of the long-closed Best Furniture and Katzen buildings. The facilities will resemble a college dormitory with collaborative workspaces, common rooms, and a small gym that could draw young teachers from top schools around the country. “This is a huge milestone for a greatly anticipated endeavor intended to help retain teachers in McDowell County and to spark economic development,” says Gayle Manchin, chair of the Reconnecting McDowell board. The board will decide in early 2014 whether to renovate the existing buildings or construct new.

“We continue to hear that new housing is essential to bring in great teachers who will want to stay and to spearhead an economic revival in the downtown area,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We are helping this proud community reclaim the promise of great schools and access to the services and programs they need to thrive.”

About three years ago Gayle approached Randi about helping McDowell County schools. After some discussion they decided it couldn’t just be about education, but that addressing poverty and inequity must be part of the mission, too. “We set out to deal with the underlying problems these families are facing,” Janet says. Gayle and Randi assembled a team of partners, which has since grown tremendously. Reconnecting McDowell currently has more than 100 partners across government, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and the community—from Fortune 500 companies to local government. Visible improvements in the county’s 14 schools have already been made since the partnership started in late 2011. Every school now has high-speed Internet, and by spring 2014 middle school students will be eligible to receive free laptops. “There’s just been an incredible amount of work that’s been done,” Janet says.

Written by Laura Wilcox Rote
Photographed by Nikki Bowman

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