Seeing Hope for Flagging Economy, West Virginia Revamps Vocational Track

Seeing Hope for Flagging Economy, West Virginia Revamps Vocational Track

Teachers troubleshooting a miniature steam engine during a training program at Marshall University. West Virginia is leading the way in transforming vocational education.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — In a sleek laboratory at Marshall University last month, four high school teachers hunched over a miniature steam-electric boiler, a tabletop replica of the gigantic machinery found in power plants.

They hooked the boiler to a small, whirring generator and tinkered with valves and knobs, looking for the most efficient way to turn coal, natural gas, nuclear or solar energy into electricity.

The teachers, who were attending a summer training program, are helping West Virginia in another kind of transformation. Long one of the poorest states, it is now leading the way in turning vocational education from a Plan B for underachieving students into what policy makers hope will be a fuel source for the state’s economic revival.

Simulated workplaces, overseen by teachers newly trained in important state industries like health, coal and even fracking, are now operating in schools across the state. Students punch a time clock, are assigned professional roles like foreman or safety supervisor, and are even offered several vacation days of their choice in addition to regular school breaks. (Many take time off during deer hunting season.)

Traditional math and English teachers have been reassigned to technical high schools, to make sure students on the vocational track still gain reading, writing and math skills.

And this fall, students enrolled in simulated workplaces will need to participate in one of the program’s boldest elements: random drug testing.

Given the extent of the state’s opioid crisis, employers “wouldn’t take anything we were doing seriously until we passed that hurdle,” said Barry Crist, principal of the Fayette Institute of Technology in Oak Hill.

Tommy Nguyen experimented with building a generator.

West Virginia’s heavy push on vocational education comes as leaders of both parties have talked about making it a priority, a shift from the No Child Left Behind era of education reform, in which college for everyone was often the goal. In 2015, fewer than half of 25- to 34-year-olds nationwide had earned an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to census figures.

“Vocational training is a great thing,” President Trump said a week before Election Day. “We’re going to start it up big league.” In June, he signed an executive order that redirected federal job training funds toward apprenticeships, in which students learn skills at actual work sites.

Democrats, too, are talking about vocational training. The agenda they introduced in July, “A Better Deal,” speaks of increasing support for “technical education that leads to a good job.”

But Mr. Trump’s budget calls for $166 million in cuts, a 15 percent reduction, in Perkins Act grants to the states, the government’s main funding stream for technical education in high school and college. The House passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the Perkins program in June, but the bill has not moved forward in the Senate. Even if it passes, the legislation will represent a tweak to the program, not a substantial new commitment of the type Mr. Trump and Democrats have touted.

When it comes to technical education, the United States is an outlier compared with other developed nations. Only 6 percent of American high school students were enrolled in a vocational course of study, according to a 2013 Department of Education report. In the United Kingdom, 42 percent were on the vocational track; in Germany, it was 59 percent; in the Netherlands, 67 percent; and in Japan, 25 percent.

“We are so focused on academic routes as opposed to other routes that can be high quality,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America and a former official at the Education and Labor Departments. “There’s a desperate need.”

West Virginia has especially big challenges transitioning students to life after high school. According to the Social Science Research Council, 17 percent of the state’s young adults are “disconnected,” neither working nor in school, the second-highest rate among states, behind only New Mexico.

But in few other states have the changes in vocational education — now rebranded as “career and technical education” — been as dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of West Virginia high school seniors completed a technical course of study in 2016, up from 18 percent in 2010.

Julie Greenlee preparing for an experiment to find alternate methods in ethanol production.

Many are now in simulated workplaces where they learn to work with stethoscopes, welding torches and drafting tables as well as more sophisticated technology.

As an eighth grader, Dillon Brasse, who will be a senior this fall, planned to enter the vocational track to learn masonry. But on a tour of the Fayette Institute, he was fascinated by the computer-assisted drafting classroom, where students work with a 3-D printer, a laser engraver, a vinyl cutter and professional computer software like AutoDesk’s Inventor, which is used in product development.

In his classroom, Dillon said, music plays and students are permitted breaks throughout the day, like employees at a real work site. He and his classmates have designed and produced objects like saltshakers and fidget spinners, the faddish hand-held toys.

“It’s a great experience,” Dillon said, because “you’re treated like an adult.”

That treatment now includes drug testing. West Virginia policy makers say such testing prepares students for the work force, where employers are increasingly checking for drug use, though the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes mandatory testing, citing a “lack of solid evidence” for its effectiveness in helping teenagers avoid substances.

Rachel Peal, who graduated this spring from the pre-engineering simulated workplace program at the Fayette Institute, said the protocol kicked up little protest among her peers. They are well aware that opioid users can’t get or hold down jobs, she said.

“A lot of kids and their families saw the struggle,” she said. “It’s an epidemic here.”

Ron Foster, president of Foster Supply Inc., an 80-employee construction and fabrication firm, has hired eight graduates of the state’s high school simulated workplace program over the past two years. They can earn as much as $15 per hour doing jobs such as welding and machinery repair.

Compared with previous hires, this group is more punctual and focused on building a career, Mr. Foster said. “If you’re dedicated enough to go through that program, you’re more apt to do a good, quality job,” he said.

But far from being strictly a job training program for teenagers, classes like Advanced Career Energy and Power, the four-course sequence for which teachers were training at Marshall University, require math and physics instruction as rigorous as in the College Board’s Advanced Placement track. Of the four teachers tinkering with the miniature boiler, three came from traditional math and science departments.

Kathy D’Antoni, the state director for career and technical education, said a better-educated work force would attract new jobs to the state.

The hope is to prepare students for higher-skilled work. In the fracking industry, for example, they might qualify for jobs in equipment maintenance or environmental compliance instead of laying pipeline, an entry-level and sometimes dangerous job.

About half of the state’s technical-track graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges. Dillon Brasse, for example, is now planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering or architecture.

“There’s so much technical information that’s needed today,” said Jeri Matheney, communications director for Appalachian Power, which runs coal, natural gas and hydropower plants in West Virginia. “Where we counted on just on-the-job training 50 years ago, that has changed.”

The classes mimic the workplace in another way, one perhaps not intended. According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, 90 percent of West Virginia high school technical students concentrating in science fields were male, while 89 percent of those concentrating in health fields were female.

And economists debate whether better vocational education, at either the high school or college level, can be a large-scale fix for underemployment. After all, if firms aren’t hiring, even a highly skilled worker will struggle to land a job.

The energy sector is especially cyclical, a challenge for the Appalachian region. Nationwide, the number of jobs in coal and gas fell by more than a quarter between 2014 and 2016, and hiring is only now beginning to creep back up.

Still, West Virginia educators and policy makers are believers in the “skills gap” hypothesis.

Kathy D’Antoni, the state director for career and technical education since 2010, said a better-educated work force would attract new types of jobs to the state. And she would like to see more support from Washington targeted toward struggling rural states. West Virginia delivered the largest pro-Trump majority in the November election, a margin of 42 percentage points.

Adjusted for inflation, West Virginia’s funding through the Perkins Act has been flat since the program’s inception in 1984, according to the state. Asked about the president’s proposed cuts to Perkins, Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education, said innovation in career and technical education would continue locally through “public-private partnerships” between schools and industry.

Ms. D’Antoni said she appreciated the attention Mr. Trump had given to vocational education. But, she said, “I want to see the action.”

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West Virginia Defection Complicates Democrats’ Long Climb Back

West Virginia Defection Complicates Democrats’ Long Climb Back

Governors’ ranks are near an all-time low as party sets sights on 2017 and 2018 elections

By Janet Hook, The Wall Street Journal

When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice switched parties to the GOP, the Democratic Party lost more than a state leader. It also lost some mojo in an urgent battle to rebuild the tattered party from the state level up.

Republicans now hold governors’ seats in 34 states—matching a record high for the GOP—while Democrats have 15 governorships. One state is led by an independent.

The West Virginia switch was an unexpected blow for Democrats, who have pinned high hopes on governors races in 2017 and 2018. Many Democrats see those races as a crucial to political recovery in the wake of the devastating 2016 presidential-election loss and the erosion of power at the state level over the past eight years.

Governors will “lay the foundation for how the Democrats will rebuild,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an arm of the party focused on state races. “They provide the leadership in both policy and politics. They are the bench.”

The 2017-18 political map gives Democrats a promising battleground: Of the 38 governors’ seats on the ballot, 27 are held by Republicans, including 14 open seats.

Republicans say the West Virginia governor’s defection is a warning that Democrats shouldn’t be overconfident.

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Should You Visit Virginia For The History Or The Romance?

Should You Visit Virginia For The History Or The Romance?

Deciding to take a vacation is certainly an easy choice to make. Most working-age American adults don’t take all their available vacation time every given year, so chances are you have some time accumulated waiting for you.

Where to go on your vacation is another choice. Something that many couples find is that one person in the relationship wants to go some place romantic, and the other one wants to go to see historic places.

Virginia can handle both sides of this vacation. Virginia said for years, and still does at times, that “Virginia Is For Lovers.” From the sand and surf of Virginia Beach to the soaring vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the state is full of places to spend time with someone you love.

As one of the original 13 colonies, Virginia is also replete with history. Many national monuments and museums sit outside Washington, D.C. in and around Arlington. Richmond, the state capital, was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. There is a historic reproduction of Jamestown, a pre-Revolutionary War colony that was among the first Anglo settlements on the continent. Historic Williamsburg is full of character and charm. Yorktown was the site of the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

Virginia is also a common vacation destination due to its proximity relatively central in the East Coast and Atlantic Seaboard. It’s about as far from Maine as it is Miami, so it’s a convenient middle ground for family reunions of those spread up and down this part of the country, which is still home to roughly a quarter to a third of the national population.

The fact that that Virginia has geographic diversity also helps, as there are sandy beaches and wetlands to one side and tall mountains to the other, with gently rolling hills and farms in between.

Virginia Homeowner Honors Country with Revolutionary War Flag Display

Virginia Homeowner Honors Country with Revolutionary War Flag Display

Revolutionary War-era flags stand in Eric Monday’s front yard in Martinsville, Va. (Courtesty Eric Monday)

Patriotism runs high in one small southern Virginia town where one homeowner’s Fourth of July includes a display of flags from the Revolutionary War period.

There are 13 historic flags flying in Eric Monday’s yard in Martinsville–one for each of the original colonies and the modern-day Old Glory, the Martinsville Bulletin reported Tuesday.

“It’s the anniversary of the independence of our country,” Monday told the paper. “It just makes me happy to see them swaying in the breeze.”

(Courtesy Eric Monday)

Out of all the flags in his yard, Monday’s favorite is the George Rogers Clark flag.

Monday is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution who traces his lineage back to Capt. Leonard Helms who fought under George Rogers Clark in the northwestern frontier, according to the paper.

“It’s a green and red flag,” Monday, the Martinsville City Attorney, told the paper. “It was designed by my ancestor, Leonard Helms, who helped George Rogers Clark conquer the old western frontier. They didn’t have any white or blue material, so he designed it using green and red.”

Monday takes down all the flags after the Fourth but not the American flag which he displays year-round.

(Courtesy Eric Monday)

“To me, the American flag represents all of the great and good things about our country,” he told the paper. “Yes, we’ve had our problems and some regrets, but we are without a doubt the most fantastic country on Earth. I’m proud to fly that flag all the time and I’m proud to be an American.”

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This week in West Virginia History

This week in West Virginia History

CHARLESTON — The following events happened on these dates in West Virginia history. To read more, go to e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia at www.wvencyclopedia.org.

June 28, 1936: Athlete Charles Louis ‘‘Chuck’’ Howley was born in Wheeling, Howley played linebacker for 12 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys. He was named All-Pro six times and named to six Pro Bowls.

June 28, 2010: Robert C. Byrd died at the age of 92. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958, and he served until his death.

June 29, 1845: George Wesley Atkinson was born in Charleston. In 1896, Atkinson was elected governor in an upset victory over Cornelius C. Watts of Charleston which ended 26 years of Democratic rule.

June 29, 1952: Writer Breece D’J Pancake was born in South Charleston and grew up in Milton. Many of Pancake’s stories are set in Milton, fictionalized as ‘‘Rock Camp.’’

June 29, 2012: A violent storm called a derecho raced across West Virginia, leaving downed trees and damaged homes in its wake. About 688,000 homes and businesses lost power for a week during a widespread heat wave.

June 30, 1914: Statewide prohibition became law years before it became law for the whole nation.

June 30, 1929: The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert at Oglebay Park.

June 30, 1944: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was authorized as a national monument, the first in West Virginia.

July 1, 1861: Francis Pierpont, governor of the Reorganized Government of Virginia, called the legislature into session. The general assembly re-established governmental functions, provided for the raising of military units, and elected new U.S. senators and representatives.

July 1, 1937: Watoga State Park was opened to the public. The park in Pocahontas County is the largest of the state parks and among the oldest.

July 1, 1971: Southern West Virginia Community College was formed by joining the Marshall University branch campuses at Logan and Williamson. In 1995, the name changed to Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

July 2, 1829: Potter and businessman Alexander Polk Donaghho was born. He began a pottery operation in Parkersburg, creating hand-thrown, salt-glazed crocks, jars and other pottery that are avidly collected today.

July 3, 1863: At Gettysburg, Union troopers in the 1st West Virginia Cavalry took part in a fruitless cavalry charge against Confederate infantrymen during the waning moments of that great battle.

July 4, 1882: The steamboats Scioto and John Lomas collided on the Ohio River as they were returning from holiday excursions. The Scioto sank almost instantly, and 70 people drowned.

July 4, 1918: Poet Muriel Miller Dressler was born in Kanawha County. Her poem ‘‘Appalachia,’’ published in 1970, was her signature piece.

July 4, 1928: West Virginia dedicated Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Droop Mountain was the site of one of the most important Civil War battles fought on West Virginia soil.

July 4, 1938: Musician Bill Withers Jr. was born into a miner’s family of 13 children in Slab Fork. In 1971, Withers released his first album, Just As I Am, including his first Grammy-winning song, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” In 2015 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia is a project of the West Virginia Humanities Council. For more information, contact the West Virginia Humanities Council, 1310 Kanawha Blvd. E., Charleston, WV 25301; 304-346-8500; or visit e-WV at www.wvencyclopedia.org.

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The Latest: West Virginia Recalls Deadly Flood as Cindy Near

The Latest: West Virginia Recalls Deadly Flood as Cindy Near

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Latest on Tropical Depression Cindy (all times local):

4:15 p.m.

West Virginia residents and authorities have marked the anniversary of last year’s fatal flooding in that state even as they are bracing for a bout of severe weather associated with the remnants of a tropical storm.

A brief ceremony marking last year’s fatal flooding was held at noon Friday at the West Virginia Police Academy in Dunbar, where a bell was rung 23 times for those who died.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin went to White Sulphur Springs for the dedication of a memorial for eight people who died there.

On Friday evening, Gov. Jim Justice planned to attend a candlelight service at Rainelle United Methodist Church in the area hardest-hit by the flooding. Five people in the town of 1,500 died.

Labeled a 1,000-year flood by the National Weather Service, the storm destroyed more than 2,100 homes statewide and damaged another 2,000.

“As time goes on we’re struggling to get through the after effects of what took place in the flood,” John Wyatt, a pastor from Rainelle, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

He’s been rebuilding his home the past year.

___

2:40 p.m.

Heavy rainfall from the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy has caused scattered street flooding across central and southern Indiana.

The National Weather Service issued flood warnings for most of the southern two-thirds of the state, with more than 3 inches of rain falling in places by midday Friday and minor flooding expected along some rivers.

Emergency crews helped some people from stranded vehicles in Muncie, including a nearly submerged SUV at a railroad underpass. Low-lying roads in many areas were being covered with water.

High winds early Friday peeled off part of the roof from New Prairie High School near South Bend. The school district’s superintendent says about 10 classrooms were damaged. No injuries were reported.

___

2:35 p.m.

Remnants of Tropical Depression Cindy and a cold front moving into the Appalachian region from the northwest have knock down trees and caused scattered power outages in Tennessee and West Virginia.

Memphis Light Gas and Water reported that as many as 10,000 customers were without power Friday morning. Crews in Memphis cleared storm drains Thursday to help prevent flooding.

Appalachian Power reports 1,800 without electricity in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, where heavy rain fell Friday morning, and another 800 in Charleston.

Rain mixed with clouds and sunshine across the region.

The National Weather Service predicts more rain Friday afternoon and evening from the two systems colliding.

Flash flood watches remain in effect for All of Kentucky, most of West Virginia and north central and western Tennessee..

___

10:40 a.m.

Flash flood watches are in effect until early Saturday in north central Tennessee, all of Kentucky and most of West Virginia as the remnants of a tropical storm head deeper inland. Others are in effect in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys.

The National Weather Service said Tropical Depression Cindy is continuing to produce heavy rain around the Mississippi Valley. It was centered about 75 miles (115 kilometers) north-northeast of Memphis at midday Friday.

Cindy formed as a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico earlier in the week, made landfall Thursday on the Texas-Louisiana line and was downgraded as it took aim at the nation’s interior and moved inland. A boy killed by debris in storm surf off Alabama was the only fatality reported so far in the storm, which spun off tornadoes and caused street flooding in many coastal areas.

In West Virginia, meteorologist Mike Zwier says about a half inch (12 millimeters) of rain has already fallen around the state recently.

Heavy rain is forecast to begin in West Virginia by late Friday afternoon, with general forecasts of 1-3 inches (25-75 millimeters) and up to 5 inches (125 millimeters) in spots. That’s from cold air from the Great Lakes colliding with Cindy’s remnants, clearing them from the region by Saturday.

___

10:30 a.m.

Louisiana’s Office of State Parks says high water or damage from Tropical Storm Cindy has closed six parks in southern Louisiana.

A news release Friday said there was minimal damage, but crews are assessing repair needs.

Two parks south of Lafayette are closed because of high water over roads the parks. Those are Palmetto Island State Park in Abbeville and Cypremort (SIP-ruh-mort) Point State Park on Vermilion Bay.

In southeast Louisiana, affected parks are Tickfaw State Park in Springfield, Grand Isle State Park, Fairview-Riverside State Park in Madisonville, and day use at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville. Fontainebleau’s cabins, campground and group camps remain open.

Officials say five parks should reopen Monday, with Tickfaw State Park reopening Tuesday.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says two boat launches at Pointe-aux-Chenes (point oh SHEN) Wildlife Management Area near Houma (HOH-much) are closed because of flooding.

___

9 a.m.

Remnants of Tropical Depression Cindy began moving through Tennessee, knocking down trees and causing power outages.

Memphis Light Gas and Water reported that as many as 10,000 customers were without power Friday morning. Media report heavy rain and winds also were causing traffic problems. Crews in Memphis cleared storm drains Thursday to help prevent flooding.

The National Weather Service has predicted rainfall totals of 2 to 4 inches (50 to 100 millimeters) in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, though isolated amounts of up to 6 inches (150 millimeters) are possible.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is staffing its operations center in Nashville on Friday and Saturday to coordinate any requests for assistance.

___

8:15 a.m.

Forecasters are trying to determine how many tornadoes touched down in Alabama as remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy moved north from the Gulf Coast.

The National Weather Service says an EF-2 twister with winds as strong as 120 mph (120 kph) struck just outside Birmingham on Thursday. Several businesses were damaged and at least four people were hurt.

Forecasters also are checking damage at other locations in central and southern Alabama to determine whether tornadoes struck there.

The Storm Prediction Center says severe weather is still possible in an area reaching from the Deep South to western Pennsylvania as remnants of Cindy move northward.

___

2 a.m.

Forecasters expect remnants of Tropical Depression Cindy to drench parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, bringing heavy rainfall, possible flash flooding and higher river and lake levels through the weekend.

The weather Friday was arriving on the anniversary of torrential rains and flooding that left 23 people dead in West Virginia a year ago.

National Weather Service officials in the three states said rainfall totals of 2 to 4 inches (50 to 100 millimeters) were expected, with isolated amounts up to 6 inches (150 millimeters).

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is staffing its operations center in Nashville on Friday and Saturday to coordinate any requests for assistance.

In Memphis, crews worked Thursday to clear storm drains to help prevent street flooding.

Flash flood watches were in effect in much of Kentucky.

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Democrat Ralph Northam Has Early Lead in Virginia Governor’s Race, Poll Finds

Democrat Ralph Northam Has Early Lead in Virginia Governor’s Race, Poll Finds

Republican Ed Gillespie (left) and Democrat Ralph Northam are running to be Virginia’s next governor. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Democrat Ralph Northam has an early eight-point lead over Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race, according to a new survey released on Wednesday.

The poll by Quinnipiac University found 47 percent of Virginia voters backed Northam, the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, while 39 percent backed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

It’s one of the earliest general election polls in what’s expected to be a hard-fought campaign in Virginia, one of just two states with gubernatorial contests in November. The governor’s race is seen as an early test of politics in the era of President Trump, and both national parties have identified it as a priority.

Northam easily beat Tom Perriello in last week’s Democratic primary, while Gillespie narrowly squeaked out a victory over hardline conservative Corey Stewart in the GOP nomination contest.

Historically, the winner of Virginia’s governor’s race comes from the party that lost the presidential contest. Incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is constitutionally barred from seeking a second consecutive term, broke that trend in 2013.

Northam’s lead slipped since April, when he had 11-point advantage over Gillespie in a hypothetical match-up tested by Quinnipiac.

The latest poll found few voters crossing party lines to vote for governor, and independent voters were evenly split between Northam and Gillespie.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has made expanding access to health care and workforce development top priorities, while Gillespie is running on a platform of cutting income taxes and improving the business climate.

The economy and health care ranked as voters’ top priorities, each drawing about 30 percent, while education, taxes and immigration lagged behind. Voters thought Gillespie would do a better job handling the economy and taxes by narrow margins, while Northam was seen as the better candidate on health care and education by double-digit leads.

Support for Northam outpaces his favorability rating, suggesting he’s buoyed by his Democratic affiliation. The lieutenant governor was seen favorably by 36 percent of voters and unfavorably by 24 percent. Gillespie had an equally split 29-29 favorability rating.

Nearly 4 in 10 voters said they were too unfamiliar with both candidates to form an opinion.

The poll also found voter approval of McAuliffe at 47 percent, a 5 point drop since Quinnipiac last surveyed voters in April. At the same time, his disapproval rose by 5 points.

More than half of voters approved of the performance of Virginia’s two Democratic senators: Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Voters believed Kaine deserved to be re-elected next year by a 47 to 38 percent margin.

In addition to the governor’s race, voters are also casting ballots in November for attorney general, lieutenant governor and all 100 House of Delegates seats.

The survey found voters disapprove of the way the GOP-controlled state legislature is doing its job by a margin of 42 to 38 percent, with 20 percent expressing no opinion. Voters want Democrats to retake control of the House of Delegates by a 48 to 41 percent margin. Republicans currently hold a staggering 66-34 majority, although Democrats have identified a longshot path to retake the chamber by sweeping all 17 districts won by Hillary Clinton in November.

Interviewers surveyed 1,145 Virginia voters between June 15 to 20 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

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Memorial, Parks Honor Victims of 2016 West Virginia Floods

Memorial, Parks Honor Victims of 2016 West Virginia Floods

Rain falling like it would never end has changed the meaning of summer in this tiny corner of Appalachia.

When the downpour finally stopped in White Sulphur Springs on June 23, 2016, five lives had been lost along one road alone — Mill Hill Drive. And 23 people were dead statewide in West Virginia’s worst flooding since 1985.

As the floodwaters receded, a muddy landscape of ruined homes and businesses, wiped-out roads and bridges and devastated lives emerged in hard-hit Greenbrier County. Then there followed an army of volunteers, donors and government workers, rallying to help.

On the anniversary of those rains, a memorial wall, museum and a series of parks linked by sidewalks around Mill Hill Drive will be dedicated Friday on behalf of victims and the community. It’s a place where nearly a dozen businesses have re-opened, and few here are untouched by tragedy.

“It’s a time of celebration and rebirth,” said City Council member Audrey Van Buren, who lost her mother-in-law and sister-in-law in the disaster. “It’s about everyone in our town, and how the volunteers have flocked into town to help us to rebuild. It hasn’t been hundreds. It’s been thousands of people since day one who have poured into the city. We’ve been so blessed.”

Teenager Cameron Zobrist pitched a memorial wall as an Eagle Scout project. It was built with donated material and labor. Now on Mill Hill Drive, a sidewalk leads to a rose garden on the property of Debra Nicely, who lost her husband, daughter and grandson. The bodies of Hershel Nicely, 68; Nataysha Hughes, 33; and Dakota Stone, 16, were found nearby.

Further along Mill Hill Drive, a playground honoring 14-year-old victim Mykala Phillips sits beside a garden memorializing Belinda Scott, 54. Scott’s home exploded after a gas leak and she clung to a tree for hours above the floodwaters, dying three days later. The tree is now surrounded by flowers and ornaments depicting her love for butterflies and bees.

“Her name was Belinda,” Van Buren said. “But everybody called her Bee.”

James and Becky Carter Phillips moved their two sons into a new home not far from the one where Mykala was last seen. Their daughter’s body was found weeks later.

With memories still too vivid, James Phillips isn’t interested in revisiting his old neighborhood. His wife likes the idea of the museum and memorial, especially since she wouldn’t have to repeat the story of the flood to curious guests at the Greenbrier, where she works. The luxury resort also saw damage to its golf course, since repaired.

“I get asked so many questions all the time,” she said. “I could direct them right there and they can just look.”

Not long after the floods, ground was broken on Hope Village, a 42-home community for residents whose homes were destroyed.

Belinda Scott’s husband, Ronnie Scott, plans to move in with his dog, Dancer, adopted after the disaster. Debra Nicely was there for the groundbreaking. One of the streets is named Nicely Way.

In February, Nicely shared on Facebook an unknown author’s post about coping with grief by pretending life is fine. Last month, another post hinted at a return to normalcy after she assembled a backyard grill by herself, writing “GO ME!!!”

Elsewhere in Greenbrier County, the town of Rainelle, population 1,500, lost five residents and dozens of homes. And in nearby Kanawha County, where six people died, movement has been slow to patch destruction in two communities including Elkview, where a washed-out bridge made a mall inaccessible. Now the bridge is being replaced and two anchor stores are returning to the mall.

So many low-income homes in Rainelle were abandoned that some worried the community could lose its tax base. But now a Tennessee-based Christian ministry is building at least 50 homes and fixing others.

“The difference the volunteers are making in the lives of the homeowners is a powerful thing,” said Krista Williams of Rainelle, an AmeriCorps VISTA program volunteer, “and it’s creating a movement in this community like we’ve never seen.”

The state’s conservation agency is removing sediment from Rainelle’s flood-control channels. The nearby city of Lewisburg sent a street sweeper to clean Rainelle’s streets, once piled high with debris.

Spunky 70-year-old Mayor Andy Pendleton has dubbed Rainelle “Noah’s Ark” because of the rebuilding, but doesn’t want it to stop just yet.

“There’s so much more to do,” said Pendleton, who walked tearfully through the town’s devastated streets a year ago. “People need jobs. We need to make it ‘Why would people come to Rainelle to visit?’ I want a purpose for Rainelle.”

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Maryland baseball coach John Szefc is leaving for Virginia Tech

Maryland baseball coach John Szefc is leaving for Virginia Tech

Maryland’s John Szefc. (Bob Leverone/AP)

Maryland baseball coach John Szefc, who led the Terrapins back to national relevance after decades of dormancy, is leaving College Park to become the head coach at Virginia Tech.

Szefc, 49, was hired by the Hokies on Friday morning and will be relied upon to revive a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2013. Szefc will replace Pat Mason, who was fired last month after compiling a 90-126-1 record during his four seasons in Blacksburg.

“I’m thrilled, humbled and honored to begin this new challenge at Virginia Tech,” Szefc said in a statement. “As an opposing coach, I always enjoyed our visits to Virginia Tech and appreciated the beauty of the campus and the Blacksburg community. Our family is beyond excited to call Blacksburg our new home.”

Maryland will immediately begin a national search for Szefc’s replacement.

Maryland endured 31 consecutive losing seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference before Szefc arrived in 2012 to replace Erik Bakich, who left to take the head coaching job at Michigan that spring. Szefc built an immediate winner. During his second season in 2014, Maryland won 40 games and made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament super regional. Maryland returned to the NCAA tournament in 2015, the program’s first back-to-back appearances since 1970-71, and finished with a school-record 42 wins and another trip to the super regional.

In all, Szefc won 180 games during his five seasons and led the Terrapins to three NCAA tournament appearances over the last four years, including this past season, when it finished 38-23. He reached 150 wins at Maryland faster than any other coach.

“John did a tremendous job taking Maryland baseball to new heights,” Director of Athletics Kevin Anderson said in a statement. “The foundation John laid helped put Maryland on the college baseball map. He created a winning culture that we could all be proud of.”

Szefc, who had received a raise to $251,000 annually after the 2015 season, will guide a Hokies program that will have an $18 million upgrade to its stadium facilities next season. Virginia Tech went 23-34 this season and has made the NCAA tournament just twice in the past seven seasons.

“The opportunity to return to the ACC and have our team play in an amazing baseball facility simply added to the appeal of coaching the Hokies,” Szefc said. “I understand and embrace the expectations that come with this leadership position.”

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Pete Hughes on the Problems and Potential of Virginia Tech Job

Pete Hughes on the Problems and Potential of Virginia Tech Job

It was just four years ago that the Virginia Tech baseball team was not only good enough to make the NCAA tournament but was deemed worthy enough to host an NCAA regional as well.

But the coach that steered the 2013 Hokies to those heights, Pete Hughes, left for Oklahoma after that season. Virginia Tech never had a winning season under his replacement, Patrick Mason, who was fired two weeks ago.

How can Virginia Tech, which is looking for Mason’s successor, regain the success it enjoyed in the Hughes era?

Hughes, who guided Tech to five winning seasons and two NCAA bids in his seven years at the school, said the expansion of English Field will help the next coach. The ballpark is undergoing an $18 million makeover that is expected to be completed in time for next season.

“[Improving] that stadium, you go from the bottom third in the ACC to right in the mix,” Hughes, who steered the Sooners to the Louisville Regional of this year’s NCAA tournament, said last weekend at a Louisville hotel. “Investment will bring recruits. With recruits will come wins, and then you have sustainability.”

It remains to be seen whether athletic director Whit Babcock will replace Mason with a proven head coach or hire an assistant from a successful program. By hiring an assistant, a school does not have to pay the buyout that is in an existing head coach’s contract.

“Some ADs are like, ‘Hey, let’s go get a high-end assistant. He knows the recruiting network. It’s going to be cheaper,’” Hughes said. “But … it’s a lot different being a head coach then an assistant, especially when you’re rebuilding a program. And I think you have to rebuild that place.

“You better know how to work with limited financial aid. You better know how to develop guys in cold weather. You better be able to project and develop.”

Recruiting obstacles

Hughes was the head coach at Boston College when the late Jim Weaver hired him to succeed the retiring Chuck Hartman at Virginia Tech after the 2006 season. The Hokies had won just four ACC games in Hartman’s final season.

Hughes was 222-174 in his seven years with the Hokies. But he said it was not easy to lure recruits.

“We never beat North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt or UVa on one guy in recruiting,” he said. “We usually identified [the recruit] first and offered more [scholarship money] and still got beat by those people. … The recruiting battles hurt me a lot worse than the ones that we lost on the field at Virginia Tech because you invest so much time with these kids and … they’re going to go to Carolina at a Christmas camp and take a quarter of the scholarship we’ve offered.

“Where we were in the landscape is what wore me out because you get … the feel of Virginia Tech for a weekend, these kids are [saying], ‘I love this place.’ And once they got out and saw some of the [rivals’] facilities and the resources, then we would end up losing them.”

Hughes had to adopt a different recruiting approach at Virginia Tech.

“We were on an airplane every weekend — New England, California,” Hughes said. “You’ve got to leave the region or you have to take the guys that are projectable guys that those [rivals] weren’t going on because they weren’t ready-made.”

Hughes pointed to current Oakland A’s infielder Chad Pinder as one of those “projectable” recruits he found in the commonwealth. Pinder committed to Tech after his sophomore year at Poqouson High School, accepting the first scholarship offer to come his way. As a junior in 2013, he helped the Hokies make the NCAAs.

“We were the ‘Project, develop, get really good in three years [program],’” Hughes said of Tech. “It was wired to be good every three years.”

Tech had losing records in Hughes’ first two seasons. Then-football coach Frank Beamer left Hughes encouraging voicemails in the 2008 season.

“He rattles off this … really bad, losing record and he said, ‘You know what those numbers are? That was my record my first four years here, and it was terrible. So stay with the process,’” Hughes said.

In the wake of the 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus, the New York Yankees played the Hokies in a 2008 exhibition game at English Field. In preparation for the Yankees’ visit, Virginia Tech spent about $420,000 to build permanent, amphitheater-style terrace seats into the hill on the left-field line.

“The terraces don’t get built if the Yankees don’t come to town,” Hughes said. “Those terraces were so unique in college baseball. They’re all over the place now.”

After steering Tech to a winning season in 2009, Hughes interviewed for the University of Washington job.

“Jim and Traci Weaver watched our kids a good portion of the time I was interviewing at Washington,” Hughes said. “That’s why I wasn’t in a rush to leave that guy. And I knew those [Tech] guys were going to be really good in 2010.”

In the fall of 2009, the Hokies began using a $1.4 million indoor hitting facility. In 2010, the Hokies made the NCAAs for the first time in 10 years.

Before the 2012 season, Tech spent $1 million to install artificial turf at English Field.

“That turf was huge because if [there] wasn’t snow on the ground, we’re [practicing] outside,” Hughes said. “And that [hitting] building was unbelievable. It gave us a place for 24 hours for our guys to get better.”

In 2013, the Hokies hosted an NCAA regional for the first time in their history.

Hughes then exited Tech for Oklahoma and “a lot more resources.”

“That’s why I left,” Hughes said. “I loved that guy that I worked for. I raised my family in that community. But I was so motivated professionally — and I still am — to win a national championship that it was worth the move.”

Weaver promoted Mason from assistant to head coach to replace Hughes.

Reason for optimism

The next coach must have certain qualities to be a good fit at Tech, said Hughes.

“You better care just as much about that lacrosse team winning or women’s soccer winning,” Hughes said. “That’s what Virginia Tech is all about — it’s across-the-board department guy, university guy, family guy, and then you worry about your program. … If you don’t have those values in line, you’ll stick out and … you won’t last long.”

Last year, Tech announced plans to renovate English Field. The project will add 1,200 permanent seats; premium seat; a picnic area; a team clubhouse; a new video board; a new press box; more bathrooms; and a new entrance.

The renovation — as well as the charm of Blacksburg — will help Tech land a good coach, said Hughes.

“That’s a Norman Rockwell place to raise a family,” Hughes said. “But the building is the key. … You’re getting a better candidate because of that — they see investment and they want to win at the highest level in one of the highest leagues.

“I always said when I would drive into Blacksburg, ‘This place could be Clemson in baseball.’ It’s set up the same way — rural, college town. Build a nice facility … and you’re off and running.”

The expansion will aid Tech in recruiting, said Hughes.

“No one wants to go to a school where they don’t care as much as you do about your sport, so when you see facilities getting built, that’s the message it sends in recruiting,” Hughes said.

Hughes said that in college baseball these days, coaches recruit two years ahead. So the new Tech coach will inherit two Mason recruiting classes.

“Will they be good? At Virginia Tech, with that staff that’s leaving there, yeah,” he said. “Are they the best guys around? No, because of who they are in the landscape.”

But the ballpark makeover will eventually change Tech in that landscape, said Hughes — and raise the stakes for the next coach.

“Once you invest where they’re investing facilities-wise, every year, man, you’ve got to go that [NCAA] tournament — only because it’s going to change them in the recruiting market,” Hughes said. “Guys you’re recruiting, they [can now] … leave Virginia Tech and go to UVa and say, ‘We can compare UVa and Virginia Tech in facilities’ — or South Carolina or Vanderbilt or North Carolina.

“Once it’s apples and apples in the recruiting market, then the expectation levels need to change.”

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