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In rural West Virginia, schools help grandparents who are parenting for the second time

February 4, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
In the rural West Virginia county of McDowell County, almost half of all children live apart from their parents. Families have splintered in the face of economic and social troubles, leaving many grandparents to take on the role of parenting. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters visits to see how public schools are supporting these caretakers to improve kids’ lives.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child, but in remote rural parts of the country, that may be easier said than done.

We have the second report from special correspondent for education John Tulenko of Learning Matters, who has been looking at the challenges in one West Virginia community.

JOHN TULENKO: Home for Jamie Mathis is in the steep hills of rural West Virginia.

JAMIE MATHIS: Hi, Sam. It’s about time to get your shoes on and your shirt.

JOHN TULENKO: Ms. Mathis, a grandmother, is raising both her grandsons here.

JAMIE MATHIS: This wasn’t what I had in mind for me when I was this age, not raising grandchildren.

But you’re getting it on your shirt, son. Look.

I have had Devon, who is 11, since he was 2 weeks old, off and on.

I told you.

Sam, I have had him since he was born, off and on.

JOHN TULENKO: This situation, grandparents raising grandchildren, is not unusual where they live. In McDowell County, West Virginia, schools estimate up to 45 percent of children are living apart from their mothers and fathers.

JAMIE MATHIS: I will be there after school.

JOHN TULENKO: Families are splintering, as the community itself unravels. McDowell County is the poorest in West Virginia, the result of a decades-long decline.

This is coal country, with mines that once employed some 20,000 workers and a prosperous county seat they called Little New York. All that’s gone. Unemployment rates here are among the highest in the state, and McDowell County ranks first in poor health, child poverty, and drug overdose. And that, more than anything else, is what accounts for so many children living apart from their parents.

What happened?

JAMIE MATHIS: Drugs and alcohol, confusion, parents not wanting to be parents. I just wanted the boys because I wanted to know that they were safe.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE, Principal, Southside K-8 School: If a child is exposed to a great deal of dysfunction, that manifests itself in behavioral problems, sometimes academic problems, that sort of thing.

JOHN TULENKO: For principals like Flo McGuire, there’s no ignoring the family upheaval that affects many of her students.

FLORISHA MCGUIRE: That’s a big issue. Kids are carrying a lot of weight today, and we want to focus on the academics, but, at the same time, you have to focus on the whole child and you have to focus on the family.

MAN: I know that there’s grants that we’re pursuing.

JOHN TULENKO: Efforts to support families are under way, the result of an initiative called Reconnecting McDowell. It’s bringing state agencies, private companies, the teachers unions and other, groups that once worked alone, together in a new partnership.

BOB BROWN, American Federation of Teachers: We see ourselves as conveners. We need to bring services that families in crisis need inside the schools. We want to turn the schools into the center of the community

JOHN TULENKO: Bob Brown of the American Federation of Teachers is leading the partnership, which plans to provide school-based medical, dental, and mental health services for children and their parents.

BOB BROWN: It’s not just what happens in the school. I can tell you, if you add up the hours that a child spends in school between kindergarten and 12th grade, it’s about 9 percent of their life. We need to be concerned about the other 91 percent of their life. What’s going in the other 91 percent? And that’s what this is about.

JOHN TULENKO: The Reconnecting McDowell partnership includes the schools, which are helping out with a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren.

AMANDA FRAGILE, Title I Director, McDowell County Schools: You probably feel lots of feelings, that you just kind of feel like some days…

JOHN TULENKO: Jamie Mathis is a regular at the sessions.

JAMIE MATHIS: I have somebody that I can go to if I have questions and are willing to be there for a listening ear.

AMANDA FRAGILE: It’s not your fault. You didn’t raise your children to be addicts or irresponsible parents.

JOHN TULENKO: For Amanda Fragile, the school administrator who runs the group, one of the goals is to help grandparents come to terms with their feelings, especially feelings of guilt.

AMANDA FRAGILE: It’s completely a myth that some of our grandparents have that they did something wrong with their children.

We all have 20/20 hindsight. We all could have done some things differently.

Then they get through some resentment, because they planned for retirement.

Frustrated would be a word, I would imagine.

And they go through some loneliness because they feel they’re all alone. And until they get in a group like this, they don’t realize there’s tons of other folks in their area that are going through the same thing.

JOHN TULENKO: But most of those grandparents aren’t coming. There were just four on the day of our visit, though they say attendance is normally around 20.

There are hundreds of grandparents raising children in this area.

BOB BROWN: Yes. There is a stigma associated with coming out, if you will, that you are raising your grandchildren because your children won’t raise them. We just need to get people to feel comfortable coming.

JOHN TULENKO: But just getting to the meetings can be hard. The county roads are another problem.

CINDY ROSE, Save the Children: There’s nothing like these mountains. It’s a very isolated area, and, like I said, we don’t have a lot of resources here.

JOHN TULENKO: So, Cindy Rose makes visits to grandparents and also younger parents. She’s what’s called a home visitor for Save the Children, a nonprofit that’s another partner in Reconnecting McDowell.

CINDY ROSE: My personal feeling is that if education — if you can do this early education, that is the key to getting the poverty.

This is it.

JOHN TULENKO: Ms. Rose makes home visits to about 20 children a week. Her first stop of the day was to a home literally perched on top of a mountain.

CINDY ROSE: Uh-oh. He wants to read it himself.

JOHN TULENKO: Checking in on 2-year-old Jackson and his mother, Estella Crabtree.

ESTELLA CRABTREE: I love being a mother, but in McDowell County, being a mother is a lot different than being a mother somewhere else. It’s very remote. So it’s not like we can take our children to the library and just let them have a heyday.

JOHN TULENKO: Cindy brings books?

ESTELLA CRABTREE: Cindy brings books. Cindy brings lots of books. Cindy brings activities for me.

CINDY ROSE: Look at that nose.

ESTELLA CRABTREE: And, you know, he’s with me all day, so he’s ready, willing, and waiting, you know, for Cindy to come through that door because that’s somebody different.

CINDY ROSE: How did it go?

JOHN TULENKO: Before she’s done, Ms. Rose will talk about the baby’s health and offer to help arrange doctor’s appointments.

Then it’s back to McDowell County’s twisty roads to visit some of her harder cases.

CINDY ROSE: Well, I have a great-grandmother that’s raising a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old. And she doesn’t read. She doesn’t drive. That’s — that’s really my worst, my hardest right there.

JOHN TULENKO: For that great-grandmother, how much can you really do?

CINDY ROSE: A lot. I can give her a lot of ideas to work with the children, show them the pictures, the colors. She can look at the pictures and her and the child make up the story as they go from the pictures. She doesn’t have to sit and read out of a book.

JOHN TULENKO: Ms. Rose and two other home visitors see about 60 families a week, but just like the grandparents group, there are hundreds more spread out across this remote corner of the state that she and others in the Reconnecting McDowell partnership are not likely to reach.

BOB BROWN: There’s no question. This job is much more difficult than I thought when we originally started.

But we take our successes in small doses. We’re not going to turn this around in five years, and maybe not 10 years. But we’re going to chip away at those issues. We’re going to chip away.

JOHN TULENKO: In McDowell County, West Virginia, I’m John Tulenko, reporting for the NewsHour.

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