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Appalachian Scene: A Passion for Education

by Lynda McDaniel

It's 3:30 P.M., and Wayne White is eating lunch. That's about midday for him, considering the 12-hour days he puts in as executive director of the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education (OACHE). As he sips his coffee, he finishes a story, one of hundreds in his repertoire, about a speaker who once said, "The reward for serving is having the strength to serve." That is what sustains White as he travels from sunrise to sunset across 29 Appalachian Ohio counties, encouraging youths and adults to pursue higher education.

Some might consider this a second career for White, following his retirement in 1992 after 30 years in education as a teacher, an assistant principal, and a superintendent, but it's really a continuation of a life dedicated to children and to equitable education. The year after he retired, he was a volunteer for the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding when he received a call from Clive Veri, then president of Shawnee State University in Portsmouth. Veri offered him the leadership position with OACHE—a newly formed organization aimed at increasing the number of Appalachian Ohioans who go to college. It may have taken a couple of tries to convince him, but anyone who knew White never doubted that he would accept.

"Kids are first with Wayne, no matter what the circumstances," says James Payne, superintendent of the Dawson-Bryant Local School District. "It doesn't make any difference to him if it's one o'clock in the afternoon or morning; he's always helping someone else. Around here, we say that if you don't know Wayne White, you haven't been in the business very long."

White's own education began in a one-room schoolhouse on Greasy Ridge, a community of family and friends in southern Ohio. It was there, high atop the Ohio River Valley, where he was surrounded by rolling hills, a loving family, and dedicated teachers, that White's life's work first began to take shape. Encouraged by his high-school principal to apply for a teaching scholarship at Ohio University, White earned a B.S.Ed., graduating with honors. He later earned an M.Ed. from Morehead State University in Kentucky. After graduating from Ohio University, White was recruited to teach at Waterloo Elementary School, near Greasy Ridge, beginning his 30-year career as a teacher and administrator in Appalachian Ohio.

Greasy Ridge comes up often in White's conversations and motivational speeches. He wants to remind himself and others where he came from and how important it was in his development. "Sometimes people are embarrassed about where they came from," he explains, "and low self-esteem is the main reason most people in these counties don't attend college. People often believe that poverty is the number-one barrier to higher education, but not having the money to go to college is only a problem if one considers college [in the first place]. We had too many parents and children that seemed to have come to an independent decision that college wasn't for them—it was for other people."

Access to Higher Education

OACHE, a consortium of ten public colleges and universities, was established in 1993 in response to the findings of the Appalachian Access and Success project that only about 30 percent of high school students in Appalachian Ohio went on to post-secondary education, about 10 percent below the statewide rate and more than 30 percent below the national rate. OACHE's goal is to raise awareness of and access to higher-education opportunities. It works toward that goal through grants to member institutions and to schools for projects aimed at increasing college-going rates through a variety of activities. Visits to college campuses with trusted teachers and counselors help reduce the intimidation some students feel. Career fairs introduce students to the rapidly changing job market and to technology-based opportunities, and counselors assist with college applications and financial aid forms. Banquets and simple handmade posters of who's going where after high school draw attention to achievement and possibility. White encourages everyone, from teachers in the hallway to merchants in town (who provide funds and services to aid OACHE's programs), to work together.

OACHE accepts project proposals every two years from regional schools and school districts. White gives each district or school free reign to develop creative initiatives that reflect its unique needs for encouraging students toward post-secondary education. To date, 49 schools and school districts have successfully competed for OACHE grants, with 22 K–12 projects and 10 college programs slated for school year 2000–2001.

Shirley Sayre, K–12 counselor for the Southern Local School District, and James Lawrence, superintendent of the district, met White about five years ago. He encouraged them to apply for an OACHE grant, and the district received its first grant in the fall of 1996. Since then, the number of students from that district who attend post-secondary education has jumped from 59 percent to 88 percent. "That clearly shows that without a lot of dollars and with the talents of local people and the community coming together, students can see college as an option," White says.

"We're looking to move children along a path where they realize they can do this. But it takes time," White says. "The first campus visit, they are very respectful and don't ask any questions. By about the third visit, and assuming the other activities are taking place at the schools, you can see a sparkle come into their eyes."

Sayre attributes OACHE's success to White's ceaseless dedication. "He's one of a kind. He never misses a chance to encourage. He'll stop at the gas station and ask the attendant if he's been to college," she adds with a chuckle. "He knows so many people, he can effectively network to get things done. And he's not satisfied with this program only being in Ohio; he's helping to move it into other states."

A Passion for Helping Kids

White's vision has overflowed the banks of the Ohio River and now extends deep into the coal communities of West Virginia. He helped establish the West Virginia Access Center for Higher Education (WVACHE) at Bluefield State College with the support of Bob Evans, the well-known sausage king and restaurateur and an early OACHE promoter. Evans, who at age 82 is still active in a number of civic projects, recalls a recent visit with White to West Virginia.

"The kids just flocked around Wayne. He talks their language," Evans says. "He tells them he's from Greasy Ridge, and they figure if he could do it, they can, too. It may take years, but I don't see any other way of turning things around. You can't make a living with a pick and shovel anymore. Education is the answer."

Homer Hickam and Willie Rose agree. These West Virginia natives, two of the six "Rocket Boys" whose inspirational story was made into the popular movie October Sky, have also lent their support to WVACHE.

Sarita Gattuso, executive director of WVACHE, appreciates White's support, and speaks in glowing terms of her mentor. "Wayne is so patient and full of wisdom from his years of experience," she says. "I've never seen anyone with such a passion to help kids. You meet a lot of people who have a vision, but that's it. With Wayne, he sees the big picture, and he's behind the scenes doing what it takes."

Joy Padgett, director of the Ohio Governor's Office of Appalachia, adds: "Wayne White has been an extraordinary asset to the people of southern Ohio for 40 years. He is living proof that one person can make a big difference in Appalachia."

Momentum continues to build, moving the OACHE model in a national direction. Two similar programs—one focusing on Hale County, Alabama, and one targeting 23 Appalachian counties in eastern Kentucky—have recently received start-up funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission and other organizations. White also hopes to start an outreach program for Native Americans in Oklahoma.

Additional OACHE projects include Project CARE, which links educational institutions with a distance learning system; GEARUP ROAD:MAP 2005, which encourages disadvantaged junior high school students to work toward attending college; and the Ohio Appalachian Educational Opportunity Center, a program that helps adults entering and re-entering college.

But none of this would happen, White says, without the 22 employees of OACHE, dozens of volunteer counselors, hundreds of teachers, and thousands of students and parents who are now working together. As he talks about changing attitudes and increasingly positive statistics, about businesses sharing resources and revenues, his voice rises with excitement. Then he stops, catches his breath, and shakes his head. "Can you see now why I say I have the best job in the world?" he asks. "How could you not just work and work?"

Back in the OACHE headquarters in Portsmouth, somewhere in the stacks of letters of thanks and articles of recognition, there's a reference to the world needing more "Wayne-White types." Though White is nowhere near retirement again, those he works with are trying to learn from his example and follow his lead.

"He's always been there for me, and I really respect his willingness to share," says school superintendent Payne. "I'm trying to carry on the legacy that Wayne White has set forth—being open and available when the kids need me."

White lives with his wife, Neomia, in Coal Grove, Ohio, not far from Greasy Ridge. Two children and three grandchildren live nearby. Whenever White returns to the green rolling hills of Greasy Ridge, he feels a deep connection—to his family, the earth, and everyone on it. Standing high above the valley on a sunny day late in summer, he breathes in the crisp morning air and rejoices in exactly who he is and where he came from. That, in turn, has helped hundreds of people discover who they are.

"Appalachians are proud, rugged, honest, dependable, hard-working . . . the list goes on." White says. "But we have our challenges, and certainly low educational attainment is one of them. OACHE's mission is to address this issue, and with the continued support of parents, businesses, and communities, this uncommon partnership between colleges and partner K–12 schools will lead students along a path out of poverty and to a better quality of life. Then, as successful adults, they can more fully contribute their talents to society."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.