How Do We Move Mountains?

Here's hoping that 2012 will be the year when we stop abandoning schools and people as "failures" and begin reconnecting communities to build long-term educational, social and economic success.
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"We know the statistics," Jim Brown said firmly. "I'm sick of the statistics; we could fill a book with them."

They hardly needed repeating. Standing in a school built atop a reclaimed strip mine, the McDowell County School Superintendent spoke about the pride he takes in the schools he leads, and of the admirable work they do against incredible odds. In this cafeteria, wall posters on one side warned pre-teens and teenagers about drug abuse, addiction and the consequences of unsafe sexual activity, while a large sign on the other proclaimed that here, "every student eats every meal, every day" -- suggesting that many students would struggle with hunger otherwise. These walls could talk, and they spoke clearly of the serious challenges McDowell's students face in and out of school.

In a proud voice, he continued, "we are happy to get help, but we don't want a hand-out. We want a hand-up, and we feel everyone here shares that message."

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to shadow American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, members of AFT West Virginia, and representatives of partner organizations like First Book as they met with local and state educational leaders to launch the Reconnecting McDowell initiative, an ambitious and comprehensive effort to improve educational, social and economic opportunities for the people of McDowell County, West Virginia.

In signing on to this initiative, partners from the education, business, nonprofit and government sectors pledged to make a long-term commitment to do what they can do best, in the service of strengthening the community to better support McDowell's students. For instance, First Book's Executive Vice President Chandler Arnold spoke of providing free and low-cost books to kids who need them, recognizing that "need isn't just in big cities... If we can [provide materials that] add to the great teachers and instruction that are already here, we know it makes a difference." And at last Friday's press conference, representatives of companies like Cisco pledged to try to expand Internet access throughout the region.

If you're wondering why that's noteworthy, consider how often politicians, foundation and corporate leaders lecture educators about teaching better, instead of looking into how they can improve what they're supposed to be doing, and how they can be more responsible to our communities.

Indeed, there is a lot about this initiative that marks a strikingly different approach to school improvement, especially where rural communities are concerned. The Reconnecting McDowell project represents an attempt to fundamentally change the reality surrounding children in this area. Partners in this effort have committed to act with care and urgency, in recognition of the fact -- still under-acknowledged by many who claim to care about public education -- that simply demanding higher test scores does not magically create safe roads on which to get to school, or the housing needed to shelter the teachers' students' need. Saying "Accountability!" over and over again never created high-speed Internet connections, or put books in children's hands, or filled their growling tummies so they can focus on learning.

Such a reminder couldn't come at a more appropriate time. As we set off for the hollows of McDowell County two Thursdays ago, news broke that half of our nation's people now qualify as 'poor' or 'low-income'. Given the stubbornly tight link between family incomes and student outcomes, it will take many such coordinated efforts to ensure a high quality education and meaningful economic opportunities for all of America's children.

In other words, as Gayle Manchin (Vice President of the West Virginia Board of Education) noted, "we have to move mountains" in order to make a difference for these kids. With a witty laugh, she added, "But here in McDowell County, people know how to move mountains. We've done it before! We're strong and resilient people; [our forebears] had to be in order to get over those mountains, and we've had to be in order to survive here."

As others had before her, and as she and Randi Weingarten would reiterate, a partnership like this can only work when the community at its core is regarded as capable and strong -- not "downtrodden" and "failing." Meaningful, positive change cannot be imposed upon or dictated to people, as economic and political elites have attempted to do for the past three decades. It requires respect for and trust in the teachers, students and community members who ultimately must do the work of transformation, as well as material and social resources that are missing from their communities through no fault of their own.

Despite the long odds, I'm hopeful that the Reconnecting McDowell project can start to make a positive difference for McDowell's children. I also hope that this kind of effort can inspire more people to stop insisting on approaching education reform as an isolated endeavor. Taking this as a starting point, here's hoping that 2012 will be the year when we stop abandoning schools and people as "failures", and begin reconnecting communities to build long-term educational, social and economic success.

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