The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, is leading a unique campaign to turn around a failing West Virginia school district by tackling the underlying issues that hold students back — poverty foremost among them.
Eight out of every ten children who go to school in McDowell County are poor. Because of the coal industry’s collapse, most live with parents who are unemployed, or are being raised by grandparents while their parents are in prison. Their educational experience is just as bleak when they spend their days in a 1924 school building with a crumbling roof, unheated gym, and no air conditioning.
With so many obstacles to contend with, it’s no surprise that the county reports abysmal test scores and a dropout rate more than three times the national average. Gayle Manchin, the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin (D) was so appalled by the situation that she reached out to AFT president Randi Weingarten for help:
The AFT, which typically represents teachers in urban settings, wants to improve education deep in the heart of Appalachia by simultaneously tackling the social and economic troubles of McDowell County.
The union has gathered about 40 partners, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cisco Systems, IBM, Save the Children, foundations, utility companies, housing specialists, community colleges, and state and federal governments, which have committed to a five-year plan to try to lift McDowell out of its depths.[…]
[I]t is likely to include improvements that directly affect schools, such as expanded broadband so that digital learning can become a regular component of classroom instruction, better teacher training and a fine-tuned instructional program.
Investments would also be geared to help families outside the classroom, such as better access to health care, drug prevention and treatment programs, better transportation, and more recreation.
Better transportation and opportunities for recreation will be especially welcome, as the Washington Post notes that currently “there are no after-school activities, because if the children miss the school bus, they have no way to reach their modest houses and trailers, which are tucked into mountain crevices.”
The “wraparound services” at the heart of the initiative have been successful in turning around failing schools in other places, but in McDowell they’ll have to be created from scratch. AFT’s approach highlights a longstanding debate between labor leaders and some reformers, who say unions use poverty as an excuse to justify teachers’ inadequate performance.
Teachers unions have been vilified in recent years as a major obstacle to education reform. Critics accuse them of protecting teachers at the expense of students and their needs. To that Weingarten responds, “I’ve gotten so angry in the last couple of years when people who are new to our field decide that they alone, just by exhorting, will help ensure that geography does not become destiny for some kids.”