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Article of Interest - Drop Outs

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Preventing Dropouts Helps Nation’s Economy
Amy Miller, Asheville Citizen-Times, August 8, 2005
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Four words 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 one occasion.

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 attention.

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 Gates Foundation.

More attention
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 extra attention.”

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 community.

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,” Dalman said.

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 ahead.

“It turned his life around,” said Mamie Baker, Josh Baker’s grandmother.

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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