Dropouts Helps Nation’s Economy
Amy Miller, Asheville Citizen-Times, August 8, 2005
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changed Josh Baker’s life: You can play football.
Academics had never come easy for the rising Roberson High
senior. In middle school, he slept in class. He talked back to
teachers, finding himself in the principal’s office on more than
Then a football coach at Valley Springs Middle pulled him aside.
Baker had the talent to play high school, maybe even college,
football, the coach said. But his grades were bad, and his
attitude was worse.
It was exactly what Baker needed to hear, he said. He enrolled
at an alternative school for students with academic or
behavioral problems, and started paying attention in class.
“If it weren’t for football, I don’t think I’d be here now,”
Baker said. “I’m pretty sure I would have dropped out by now.”
But sports are not the only dropout prevention tools at
educators’ disposal these days. This fall, both Buncombe and
Asheville City schools are joining a nationwide high school
reform effort hoping to reverse a sobering trend: Too many
students don’t graduate from high school, striking a blow to the
country’s economic future.
“The global economy is changing,” said Robert Logan,
superintendent of Asheville City Schools. “Our students have to
be prepared for jobs in a global, information age. Other
countries all around us, India, China, Mexico, are gearing up to
take a greater slice of the American pie.”
Up to one-third of the 4 million students who began ninth grade
in the 2001-02 school year probably didn’t graduate this year,
according to estimates by the National Center for Education
Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. In 2004,
12 of Western North Carolina’s 19 school districts saw high
school dropout rates increase.
Educators agree that in today’s competitive global economy,
finding creative ways to keep more students like Josh Baker
engaged and motivated requires more than a gridiron. By making a
high school education more rigorous and relevant to today’s
global market, educators believe they can help change that.
So Asheville High is starting the School of Inquiry and Life
Sciences, a small school within a school designed to give
students more focused academic instruction and one-on-one
In Buncombe County, about 60 students will enroll at Early
College this fall on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical
Community College. Five years from now, they’ll graduate with a
high school diploma and an associate degree.
Both programs are part of the state’s New Schools Project high
school reform initiative, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda
Josh Baker said he chose to live with his grandmother and
grandfather because they live in Buncombe County. If he had
lived with his mother, he would have to attend Asheville High,
something he didn’t want to do. Too many friends, Baker said,
got lost in the crowd at Asheville High.
“The way I was, I didn’t want to get even worse,” Baker said. “I
knew I’d get lost too.”
Getting lost also worried 14-year-old Caroline Pittman. It’s one
reason she signed up for the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences
at Asheville High, or SILSA, which starts this fall. About 50
freshmen and 35 upperclassmen will take classes in the program.
Pittman wants to be a surgeon and likes that all her classes,
from English to U.S. history, will center on the life sciences.
But the program will also give her a chance to get to know her
teachers and classmates better, she said.
“I think that teachers will have more time to come and help you
if you need it, instead of having to compete with like 30 or 40
other kids,” Pittman said. “Sometimes you can really use that
Teachers have been making home visits and class schedules have
been created. But educators are still working out the small
details, said Greg Townsend, SILSA’s principal.
“I’m most nervous about the scale of what we are doing,”
Townsend said. “Educators don’t go into education to take risks.
Right now, we are sweating the small details.”
Last fall, educators had proposed converting the entire school
into several learning communities, and sent a letter home to
parents outlining the plan. But the school backed away from the
idea after parents and students worried that the school system
was moving too quickly and without enough input from the
Parents and educators have since formed a task force to consider
the idea, but also to research and discuss many issues and
problems facing Asheville High, from the achievement gap to
attendance to dropouts.
Converting the school into smaller learning communities is one
idea on the table, but there are many issues being discussed,
said Peggy Dalman, a task force member whose two daughters will
eventually enroll at Asheville High.
Dalman is part of a group looking at disparities among students,
and researching why African-American students score lower on
standardized tests than white students.
“Our goal is to make Asheville High work for every student,”
A different type of high school
Baker said his attitude changed dramatically in the eighth-grade
when he enrolled at Buncombe Community School-West, a K-8 school
for students with behavioral or discipline problems. He said he
got the attention there that he needed to stay focused and move
“It turned his life around,” said Mamie Baker, Josh Baker’s
But last fall, the Buncombe County Board of Education decided to
overhaul the district’s alternative education programs and voted
to close the alternative school. Educators said they wanted to
divert resources to other alternative education programs,
including expansion of the county’s Middle College program.
So for the first time this fall, freshmen and sophomores will
enroll at a program now called Early College on the campus of
Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. The reason for
the change was simple: Most students drop out in ninth grade,
according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Thirty-three percent of the 21,000 North Carolina students who
dropped out in 2003-04 did so in the ninth grade, according to
the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Students will take college-level courses and graduate with an
associate’s degree in five years. The program is part of Gov.
Mike Easley’s Learn and Earn high school reform initiative.
The program isn’t a perfect fit for every student. It’s designed
for students who struggle in a high school atmosphere, but can
perform well otherwise. There are small classes with about 15
students, but no lunch is served.
There are no proms, no clubs and no sports. But the program will
allow a student to focus on a career goal, such as criminal
justice, earlier in life. And that will help give students the
direction and motivation they need to graduate.
“It’s one more option to help address graduating as many kids as
possible,” said Meg Turner, the school’s principal. “It’s a
choice, and right now kids have limited choices about what they
can do in high school. And this program is this innovative. It’s
exciting. And it’s different.”
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