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Progress slow, steady in struggling W.Va. county

Associated Press, The Exponent Telegram

Supporters of the Reconnecting McDowell initiative say they expect a $9.7 million investment in new Internet connections to eventually pay dividends in the struggling school system.

Organizers of the public-private partnership to improve life in one of West Virginia's most economically depressed counties acknowledge the investments so far may not be readily visible to most residents.

But they tell the Charleston Daily Mail ( that Shentel Communications put in the infrastructure last fall that could help get 10,000 homes online. It's part of a larger statewide broadband program that Assistant Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Falin said is already noticeable in classrooms.

It's too soon to tell if Internet access will improve academic performance, but Falin said she's confident it will. Students at River View High School in Bradshaw, for example, can now get online and study at home, while also teaching their families about technology.

Reconnecting McDowell launched a plan in December 2011 to improve life in a southern coalfields county plagued by poor academic performance, rampant drug abuse and poverty. The group touted several achievements Monday, including a $1 million investment in literacy centers, and the donation of $30,000 in musical instruments and 4,000 books.

"As fantastic as individual acts of kindness are, that's not the goal here," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "The goal here is to really enable the community to have a hand up, not a hand out."

The Reconnecting McDowell team had hoped to open a new "teachers village," with affordable, apartment-style housing that would help lure educators to the region. But the building it planned to renovate was too dilapidated.

The group is now considering a new stand-alone building, but Weingarten said the economics must make sense for the project to proceed.

Still, Reconnecting McDowell is on track to achieve its goals within five years, she said.

"If you're actually thinking about you're going to create transformation in the first moment," Weingarten said, "you're not being honest."

The group will present a report to the state Board of Education in May.

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