By Dr. Marciene Mattleman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The American Federation of Teachers, usually focused on urban education, is leading a five-year effort to improve education in McDowell County, West Virginia. It has enlisted 40 partners including Blue Cross Blue Shield, IBM, and the state and federal government.

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Eighty percent of the students meet the state’s definition of poor; most live with jobless adults since the collapse of the coal industry. Many are being raised by grandparents because their parents are in prison or struggling with addiction; some rarely see a doctor.

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The Anawalt School described in The Washington Post about the McDowell Initiative cites problems of the 1924 school building, the absence of recreation centers and no after school activities.

Reformers believe that schools use poverty as an excuse, that effective educators can overcome such circumstances. The question being asked is – what causes failing schools in impoverished communities – educators or environment?

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The Union maintains that economic and social issues must be addressed as well.