The Reconnecting McDowell Project
has promised to marshal public, private and nonprofit group resources to expand McDowell County’s housing opportunities. McDowell County’s shortage of adequate housing is a barrier to recruiting the teachers needed to staff the county’s classrooms. But that didn't stop some teachers from making the move.
“I grew up in McDowell my whole life and I know the challenges the kids face here,” Gary Estep, Mt. View High School Mathematics teacher said.
“I came here because I want to make a difference in the area that I grew up in,” he said.
Estep graduated from Iager High School in 2006. He’s familiar with the challenges.
“Well I always enjoyed living here and I think it’s a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to raise a family," Estep said, "just because of the closeness and the tight knit community that we have."
"But the one thing that is a drawback for this area is that our students are not exposed to a lot of cultural opportunities and a lot of business and economical opportunities that other students in the state of West Virginia and in surrounding states and in the country are exposed to.”
McDowell County schools were taken over by the state more than 10 years ago because of high dropout rates and poor performance. Last year, only three out of the 12 schools in the county made what’s known as AYP
, or adequate yearly progress – a standardized measure of how schools are doing. The standards stem from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“The reputation that our students have is well they’re not able to do it," he explained. "It’s a very bad stereotype in no way shape, fashion or form is true. The students are able to comprehend conflicts and ideas just like any other student.”
But less than half of schools in West Virginia achieved the required scores on the WESTEST last year to meet AYP standards. It's the test that the state uses annually to measure progress.
Under No Child Left Behind, a greater number of students must test at a proficient level each year to reach AYP.
Estep believes the children are not to blame for the low test scores.
"You realize that it’s not your fault," he said.
"Students they understand...there’s a stereotype about our test scores and about the performance that they have but it’s like they understand there’s nothing they can do about it."
"I mean, you can’t just expect someone to just pick up a book and automatically become a genius in the field of mathematics or English. Its’ very hard for adults to teach themselves Algebra and Trigonometry."
“When our kids are given the opportunity to learn they do so. What it tells me is that we need to work harder to give our students a better opportunity to succeed."
While 65-70 positions were filled this year in McDowell County, board of education officials report they are often forced to hire teachers with an out of field authorization or professionals that are not considered highly qualified. Estep says he can verify that.
“I know what it’s like to be in a classroom where there’s maybe not an English teacher, maybe not a Math teacher or a teacher for any subject for that matter," he said, "and then be tested on it and not do well."
"People ask, what’s wrong with the students in McDowell. The answer is nothing. The students learn what we teach them.”
Lois Henderson is the Librarian at Mt. View High School. She’s worked in McDowell for 34 years but is originally from Hampshire County.
“This just became home,” Henderson said. “I started at Kimball Junior High which the building doesn’t even exist anymore.”
“I like teaching I love my kids and if I wasn’t so torn up with arthritis I’d probably just stay forever.”
Seventy-thousand coal mining jobs evaporated over the past 30 years in the Central Appalachian region, hitting McDowell County the hardest. Henderson says she’s watched the jobs disappear, and the population dwindle, creating more challenges for the region.
“Sometimes...we are the only people that might care in that child’s life," she said. "Sometimes this is the only meals that a child gets is their breakfast and lunch that they get here at school.”
Estep showed a Reconnecting McDowell video to his students. He says they were stunned to hear statistics like 72% of students live in a house with guardians who don’t work or nearly half the residents are on some form of public assistance.
As a Math teacher Estep used the statistics as an opportunity to instill hope in his students.
“They’ve grew up in this county their whole life too and it was a shock to them and they said there’s no way we can change," Estep said, "and I looked at them and said guys all you have to do, the one statistic about unemployment they were really shocked about, and I said if you just leave this school and all you ever do is just get a job, you don’t go to college you don’t go anywhere else just get a job, you’ve changed that statistic.”
This week students across the state took the West Test to find out how they measure up.
As this school year comes to a close, McDowell County is looking to fill about 15 positions for next year. School officials expect to have the jobs posted on their website
in the next few weeks.