West Virginia schools face steep grade

October 21, 2007|By LYN WIDMYER

October brings to mind the Baikonur cosmodrome, Coalwood, W.Va., and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Fifty years ago this month, Russia launched Sputnik from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Americans were stunned. The Space Age was supposed to be initiated by the United States, not the Russians. A 184-pound satellite the size of a Halloween pumpkin had splattered American dreams of inaugurating the Space Age.

Homer Hickam listened to the radio reports about the launch in his hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia.

Hickam was 14 years old. His father, the coal mining superintendent, expected his son to be a miner. Hickam was not sure what the future held for him until Sputnik. He writes in his memoir, "Rocket Boys:" "I guess it's fair to say there were two distinct phases to my life in West Virginia: everything that happened before Oct. 5, 1957 and everything that happened afterward."


After watching Sputnik arc across the Appalachian sky, Hickam decided to build a rocket. Joined by three friends, Hickam and the Rocket Boys used trial and error to construct a rocket that eventually climbed 15,000 feet.

Everyone in the coal-mining community provided support (except the coal-mining foreman, who happened to be Hickam's father). Homer Hickam won a gold and silver award at the National Science Fair for high school students in 1960 and ended up fulfilling his life's dream of working as an aerospace engineer at NASA.

In the epilogue to "Rocket Boys," Hickam writes: "All of us rocket boys would go to college, something not likely in pre-Sputnik West Virginia."

Unfortunately, it is not likely in post-Sputnik West Virginia either.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issues a national report card for higher education called "Measuring Up."

According to the 2006 report card for West Virginia, only 18 percent of residents aged 25 to 65 have a bachelor's degree and "this substantially weakens the state economy."

Along with Louisiana, West Virginia earned a grade of D+, the lowest grade awarded, for having such a poor performance in relation to other states. The good news is at least the percentage is increasing, up from 14 percent in 1992.

Our neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia both earned an A in terms of having well-educated residents. I don't condone cheating in school, but maybe West Virginia should start copying off Maryland and Virginia.

Other grades for West Virginia are equally discouraging: C- for preparing students to succeed in college; C- in the proportion of students enrolling in higher education and F for affordability of higher education.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a wake-up call that science and engineering programs in the United States needed improvement. The Measuring Up report for 2006 should be a wake-up call for West Virginia.

More high school students should be attending college.

The current state slogan for West Virginia is "Open for Business." Unless West Virginia proves it is open for higher education, the only businesses the state will attract are ones seeking an answer to that age old question: "Do you want fries with that?"

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is:

The Herald-Mail Articles