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Roadmap to success: WVU faculty pilot program to transform education in rural West Virginia

In November 2017, Emily Perdue and Jason McKibben stood on the gym floor of Van High School looking out into a crowd of almost 1,000 people.

It was a Wednesday night and, traditionally, many of those people would be in church.

But when members of the Van, West Virginia, community heard representatives from West Virginia University would be in town to propose a new pilot educational program, churches moved their services to Tuesday.

People arrived by the busloads – and the informational meeting was standing room only.

The WVU team wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming interest and immediate support for the progr Emily Perdueam they proposed; however, they returned to Morgantown knowing they had found the perfect partners.

This fall, Perdue, Extension specialist in 4-H youth agriculture, and McKibben, assistant professor of agricultural and extension education, will launch West Virginia P20, a pilot program that establishes an early college and STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) academy in Boone County’s Van School District.

The goal of the program is to work with rural youth to help them prepare for, attend and ultimately graduate from high school with an associate’s degree and go on to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor's degree. At the same time, they will be developing work-force ready students in the fields of agriculture, forestry and natural resources.

Jason McKibben
Within the program’s framework, students, teachers and the community are empowered to become stronger learners through educational initiatives like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and youth development programs like FFA and 4-H.

Students learn a skill through career and technical education at local community colleges that can become a career. They also learn how to be innovators by conducting research-based STEM projects starting as elementary students.

“It’s amazing what can happen when students are shown that they have the power to learn, teachers have the ability to empower them, and communities expect and demand students to be innovators,” McKibben said. “Schools were once the centers of our communities. They are where we look for our local identity; they help us raise our children, and they are the only place we can make true and lasting change for our communities.”

Roadmap for success

The WV P20 educational system is modeled after the highly successful Roscoe Independent Collegiate School District is Roscoe, Texas.

While pursuing her doctorate degree in agricultural leadership, education and communications at Texas A&M University, Perdue, a West Virginia native and WVU alumna, was introduced to the educational model and, more importantly, came to truly believe in its ability to help students succeed.

The state of Texas has a long history of supporting a STEM-based educational model as well as early college programs, but Roscoe ISD is unique.

“What makes Roscoe’s P20 program different is its incorporation of teacher and student development and support as well as its inclusion of Extension programs like 4-H,” Perdue said.

Perdue was inspired by the program.

In fact, during her oral exams at the end of her graduate program, one of Perdue’s advisors posed an important question:

“If you could work anywhere, do anything you want and have all imaginable resources available to you, what would you do?”

For her, the answer was easy.

“I said I would move back to West Virginia and implement P20,” she said. “At the time, I thought it was a softball question to lighten the atmosphere and stress of oral exams. I had no idea that several years later I would be working for WVU Extension and working to fulfill a dream.”

Challenge of change

Boone County was once one of the state’s top coal-producing counties. Mining jobs were plentiful and the economy was thriving. Over the years, the steady decline of the coal industry has negatively impacted the county’s finances and its school system.

In 2016, the county struggled to pay its teachers, keep some schools open and ended the fiscal year with a $4.5 million deficit.

While the school system has made great progress, announcing a projected $7 – 7.5 million in reserves for fiscal year 2017-18, there is still a lot of work to be done – and the WVU team hopes to provide to provide the county, its teachers and students with a hand up.

Soon after returning to her alma mater in 2015, Perdue began garnering support and researching how to implement a pilot program in West Virginia – and it’s been a challenge.

“It’s taken almost three years to get where we are now,” she said. “In Texas, school districts are independent from each other and the superintendent has some autonomy and control of what happens in his/her district. In West Virginia, however, the school districts are by county which made it more difficult to implement a program like this. It took time to navigate the various components of the school system.”

There was also the added challenge of selecting a school to partner with.

“Selecting a school was difficult and time consuming because there are so many factors that go into it,” Perdue said. “We really wanted to find a school system where the elementary, middle and high schools were in close proximity.”

Five counties, including Boone, made the short list.

“The P20 and early college model is new for West Virginia and change is really scary,” Perdue said. “For whichever county was selected, it was extremely important for the community to buy into and take ownership of the program. It couldn’t be viewed as WVU coming in and trying to take over the schools.”

On the heels of the overwhelming support WVU received from the community during its informational meeting, Perdue knew the Van School District would be a perfect partner.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “It just felt like we had found our home.”

The community relationships and support for the program are invaluable because, at its core, WV P-20 is a community development and empowerment program.

“That’s why we gave it the tagline ‘A model for student, teacher, and community success,” Perdue said.

Connecting the dots

According to McKibben and Perdue, the WV P20 system has seven key components that provide a meaningful connection between hands-on experiential learning with situated learning and career opportunities in and outside the classroom:
  • AVID Student Success and Readiness
Established more than 35 years ago, AVID is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the achievement gap by preparing all students for college and other postsecondary opportunities.

“To put it simply, AVID trains educators to use proven practices in order to prepare students for success in high school, college and a career – especially students traditionally underrepresented in higher education,” McKibben explained.

Those proven practices include teaching skills and behaviors for academic success, promoting strong student-teacher relationships, creating positive peer groups for students, and fostering a sense of hope for personal achievement through hard work and determination.
  • In-school 4-H
According to Perdue, every student in the Van School district will be enrolled in a full 4-H program and, beginning in third grade, will conduct 4-H based research projects each year through their senior year of high school.

“Operating for more than 100 years, 4-H is an application-based youth development program dedicated to positive development of rural youth,” she said. “Designed to connect rural youth to each other, the program helps build a sense of community that is imperative to keeping rural economies stable.”
  • Conducting Research with WVU and Extension Faculty
In addition to a yearly 4-H-based research project, students will participate in an interdisciplinary research project in partnership with faculty at WVU, WVU Extension and other regional institutions.

“These projects will be ‘real’ in nature and involve current research being conducted by university and Extension faculty that’s important to the local community, ecosystem and economy,” Perdue said.

“Students will have the opportunity to help answer the ‘big questions’ that drive discovery and innovation.”

Under the research umbrella, students will complete a large, academically rigorous capstone project during their senior year and, hopefully, continue to conduct research in college.

“The research experience has been shown to enhance undergraduate instruction,” McKibben said.

“The expectation is students, once indoctrinated into the reality of research, will continue that into their undergraduate program.”
  • Dual Credit
Through dual enrollment classes, every high school student will take courses that translate into college credit.

Local educators will be credentialed through Southern Community Technical College or the WVU system to offer college course credit and, if qualified teachers are not available, distance education technology will be employed.

The end result?

“The collaboration between institutions of higher education and the Van School District allow students to complete an associate’s degree while still in high school,” Perdue said.
It’s an effort to lower one of the hurdles to pursuing a college degree.

“Let’s face it, the real cost of education isn’t tuition. It’s living expenses,” McKibben added. “That is the real barrier to higher education for most rural kids. Most rural kids don’t live within driving distance of a university, so they have to get an apartment or live in the dorms. If we can get kids 60 hours – half of their undergraduate classes out of the way – they can hit the ground hard when they get to a four-year school. And, if they push just a little, something the AVID and the P20 system teaches them to do, they can finish out in just a few semesters. That cuts the ‘real’ cost of college in half."

To round out the system, every student will participate in career and technical education that leads to an industry recognized certification, and participate in on-the-job training to develop skills needed for success in today’s job market.

“Part of the idea of empowerment is to help teachers help themselves and each other be the best educators they can,” McKibben said. “They have the training and experience to push our kids farther than they think possible. P20 tries to help teachers hone those skills.”

As the pilot program gets off the ground, both faculty members are enjoying watching it gain momentum.

With hard work, determination and a little bit of luck, success of the WV P20 system in Boone County has a chance to put West Virginia on the cutting edge of rural education in America.

“Without our young people, we have no community. They are inventors of our future,” McKibben said. “It’s going to be up to them to set our state up; our job is to make sure we give them the tools to make it somewhere to be proud of.”