A Fading Coal County Bets on Schools, but There’s One Big Hitch

Hard hit by the decline of mining, a rural area in West Virginia is trying to attract teachers in a comeback effort. What’s lacking are jobs for the graduates.

Teachers like Lillian Keys, left, and Shania Clack are on the front line of an unusual strategy to restore promise to a corner of West Virginia coal country.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

A Fading Coal County Bets on Schools, but There’s One Big Hitch

Hard hit by the decline of mining, a rural area in West Virginia is trying to attract teachers in a comeback effort. What’s lacking are jobs for the graduates.

Teachers like Lillian Keys, left, and Shania Clack are on the front line of an unusual strategy to restore promise to a corner of West Virginia coal country.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

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WELCH, W.Va. — Lillian Keys came back.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Concord University in Athens, W.Va., the 24-year-old English teacher did something rare among her peers: She returned home to Welch to teach at Mount View High School, from which she graduated in 2014. “People my age and older usually don’t come back to the county,” Ms. Keys told me. “A lot of our kids want to go away.”

McDowell County, where Welch sits, lost a larger share of its people in recent years than any other county in West Virginia — which, in turn, had the biggest population decline of any state. The Census Bureau put the county population at 17,624 in 2019, 20 percent fewer than in 2010, and a sliver of its peak of nearly 100,000 after World War II.

Eleven public elementary and secondary schools remain in the county. But that won’t last. Three elementary schools are being consolidated because of a shrinking student population. Mount View High School shares a campus with a middle school; they have fewer than 700 students between them.

Teaching is, nonetheless, one of the area’s most promising occupations. The board of education is McDowell’s largest employer. There are 210 teachers in the county’s public schools, earning $52,300 a year, on average, plus benefits.

And the county needs more of them. Substitutes regularly fill in at chronically understaffed schools. “For the last three years, I was the only certified English teacher,” Ms. Keys said. “So I have a lot of job stability.”

McDowell is desperate for her to stay.

Ms. Keys is on the front line of an unusual strategy to restore promise to this corner of coal country, laid low by the long, inexorable decline of the mining industry upon which it built its fortune. A fourth- or fifth-generation native of the hollows of Appalachia, living in her grandparents’ former home, she embodies the idea of education as a bridge to a more promising future.

The initiative, spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers and now in its 10th year, proposes schools as the foundation for renewing many pockets of small-town America that, like McDowell County, have lost their economic and social underpinning.


Mount View High School, seen from a former mountaintop removal coal site, shares a campus with a middle school. Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times


They have fewer than 700 students between them.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

The effort was born of a conversation between Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers’ federation, and Gayle Manchin, who was vice president of the State Board of Education.

“At the core of any thriving community is a solid education system,” said Ms. Manchin, who is now federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and is the wife of Senator Joe Manchin III.

The initiative mushroomed into a partnership branded Reconnecting McDowell, encompassing over 100 organizations and offering assistance like social and health services for families and apartments for teachers and other professionals. It is also working to promote, little by little, the area’s economic development.

“This is a template to revitalize aspirations for every town abandoned by their industry,” Ms. Weingarten said. “We want to do five to 10 other projects like this.”

But though Reconnecting McDowell has gained plaudits throughout the county and beyond, it has not quite figured out how all the parts connect to produce a lasting self-sustaining community.

Notably, the teachers’ federation acknowledges the tension between the goal of preparing the young to grasp future opportunities and the fact that there are few of those in town. Bob Brown, the federation’s main person in McDowell County, noted that “there is a very small percentage of high school graduates who stay.” As Ms. Keys sees it: “The options are you get a job as a teacher or you leave.”

McDowell is poor — one of the poorest counties in the country. Over half of its children do not live with their biological parents, who are often addled by opioids, in prison or dead. Among residents 25 or older, only about one in five has a bachelor’s degree.

“There is a culture of rampant unemployment,” Mr. Brown said. The children live mostly with grandparents, but sometimes with aunts, uncles and other extended family. Many lack a role model who gets up in the morning to go to work.

What’s more, over the last decade the county has lost half of its private-sector jobs. Walmart left in 2016.


The town of Welch, W. Va., part of McDowell County.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times


McDowell lost a larger share of its people in recent years than any other county in West Virginia.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

“There is nothing here,” said Hannah Brooke Allen, who graduated this month from Mount View High School and in August will enter Concord University, 50 miles to the east, hoping to become a pediatric physical therapist.

She has been in the care of her grandmother Phillis Renko Osborne since she was 5 months old. And she knows she is probably not coming back.

“I want to move to a place where there are more opportunities,” she said. “Most of my friends want to go away.”

The question is, in this environment, what do you call a victory? If the revitalization of McDowell County relies on hanging on to its young, the future is not so bright. As Ms. Weingarten noted, “You can turn around schooling, but if you can’t turn around the economy, it’s not enough.”

Reconnecting McDowell has done well by many students and their families. It sent health clinics, mental health clinics and even dentists into the schools. It runs a mobile farmers’ market out of a truck, offering produce to poor families that can be many miles from the nearest supermarket. It championed a juvenile drug court to offer intensive drug treatment programs that help nonviolent young offenders return quickly to school, rather than go to jail. The program helps with college tuition and funds a mentoring program that takes groups of high school seniors to Charleston, the state capital, and Washington.

Student achievement has improved. The high school graduation rate last year was 82 percent, up from 74 percent in 2011. More students are going on to college. In 2013, after 12 years of state oversight, West Virginia returned the school system to local control.

Still, problems persist. In September 2018, the schools reported that over a quarter of students were chronically absent. In the 2017-18 school year, only 23 percent of children across all grades were proficient in math. In 2018, about 70 classrooms did not have a certified teacher.

One impediment is a housing shortage, despite the population decline. Old structures are often in decay and not fit to occupy. Teachers live in Beckley or Bluefield, an hour’s drive away or more. And many quit as soon as they can get an offer closer to home.


Jason Grubb, who is in charge of Welch’s economic development.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times


One impediment to attracting more teachers is a housing shortage, despite the population decline. Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

This has brought the teachers’ union into the real estate business. The national federation put $2 million into the construction of a four-story mixed-use building in downtown Welch, the county seat, on the site of an abandoned furniture factory. When it is finished this year, it will house 20 apartments — one-bedrooms for $625 a month and two-bedrooms for $825. An entrepreneur from Kentucky is planning a Brazilian-themed cafe, a restaurant and an arts and crafts shop on the ground floor.

“We decided that if we are going to attract and retain quality educators, we needed to provide housing,” Mr. Brown said. “The thought process is if we can reinvigorate the economy of Welch with 25 to 30 young professionals, that will maybe draw a new coffee shop, or a dry cleaner.”

Reconnecting McDowell’s efforts might have a better shot at success than earlier attempts at economic reinvention.

Some 15 years ago, county officials lobbied hard for a federal prison to be built just outside Welch. Today it provides 309 full-time jobs, which pay over $1,500 a week, on average, according to statistics from the Labor Department.

The problem is that they are taken by outsiders. With the region hard hit by opioid abuse, many residents couldn’t pass the drug test, Mr. Brown said. And the housing shortage means prison workers have to commute in and out.

“The prison didn’t work out as we wanted,” said Harold McBride, who has been mayor of Welch since 2019. “Most workers drive in, but they would live here if we had housing.”

Now Welch is putting its hopes in tourism, mostly revolving around trails for all-terrain vehicles that draw crowds every weekend. It hopes to expand this into zip-lining, kayaking and whatever else will attract people willing to spend money.

“Once you have that in place, your hotels come; the stores come,” said Jason Grubb, who is in charge of the city’s economic development.

And the hope is that industrial jobs — or maybe tech workers who, jolted by the shock from Covid-19, want to work remotely from a home in West Virginia’s rural landscape — will follow.

“People want to work where they play,” Mr. Grubb said. Mr. McBride chimed in, “We are building the playground.”


Joshua Barlow, 11, rode all-terrain vehicles with his family in Welch.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times


The Hatfield and McCoy trail system in Welch, which is putting its hopes of revitalization into tourism.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

One challenge is that the county’s past prosperity — when this was one of the nation’s greatest coal-producing regions — is almost impossible to replicate. Even today, the 544 coal mining jobs in McDowell County pay $1,497 a week, on average. By contrast, the 121 workers in accommodation and food services make $348. A society built upon tourism will not be as affluent as the one built on coal.

It is, as Mr. McBride noted, “better than nothing.” The question is whether this is enough to put the county on an upward path.

“I hear it from kids all the time: I want to get out of here,” said Kristin Johnson, a 24-year-old middle school teacher at Mount View who lives in Princeton, W.Va., about an hour’s drive away, and is itching for a teacher job to open there. “Those who do get an education know they can make more money somewhere else.”

Ms. Keys returned, in part, out of loyalty. “When I was in high school, we started losing a lot of teachers,” she said. “People feared there would be nobody there to take those jobs.” But a stable teaching job, as well as free housing at her grandmother’s old house, played into her calculations.

This may not be enough to hold her, though. Even dating locally is complicated. Her boyfriend lives over an hour away, outside Beckley. “There is nobody here that is appealing,” Ms. Keys said.

Consider Emily Hicks, 24, who graduated from Mount View in 2015. She is at the forefront of Reconnecting McDowell’s efforts, an early participant in the mentoring program meant to expand the horizons of local youths.

She didn’t even have to leave home to get her bachelor’s degree at Bluefield State College, commuting from home every other day. Today she teaches fifth grade at Kimball Elementary School. Her father is a surveyor for the coal mines; her mother works for the local landfill. But her boyfriend, Brandon McCoy, is hoping to leave the coal business and has taken a couple of part-time jobs at clinics outside the county after getting an associate degree in radiology.

Her brother, Justin, who graduated from high school in June, is going to college to get a degree in electrical engineering. “I have no idea what I’m going to do after that,” he said. “But there’s not a lot to do here.”

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