Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton was in Asheville April 19, the last stop in a seven-city tour to promote his Joining Our Businesses to Schools Commission. Dalton also touted the success of North Carolina's Learn and Earn early college initiative, which enables students who may not be a good fit with traditional schools to earn both a high-school diploma and an associate's degree in just five years.
"The existing system doesn't work for everybody," Dalton told Xpress. "And the early college program is principally focused on first-generation college students. When they get into the smaller setting, they perform better. The program also shows the relevance of education in these students' lives beyond high school."
More than 100 people — including educators, business leaders and members of the public — came together at UNCA's Highsmith University Union to hear Dalton and a panel of community leaders discuss the future needs of Western North Carolina's work force. The JOBS Commission, a public/private partnership, seeks to facilitate cooperation between high-school curricula and local economies.
The 20-member body is charged with making recommendations to the State Board of Education and the General Assembly on how the state's early college high schools can align themselves more closely with their respective regions' economic development needs. The commission also explores ways to enhance science, technology, engineering and math education in the public schools.
Dalton particularly applauded the early college initiative's almost nonexistent dropout rate, which has made the program a model for schools across the country despite a relative lack of awareness of it here at home. "It's amazing what can happen when people work together and come together for a common purpose," he said, adding, "That's what these meetings are all about."
Joining Dalton were a panel of local business leaders representing different segments of Western North Carolina's economy: Phil Webb, human resources manager at UPM Raflatac, for manufacturing; Dan Ray, former director of the Biltmore Institute, the Hub Project and the American Craft Council, for the creative arts; Troy Tolle, co-founder and chief technology officer of DigitalChalk, a local software company, for small businesses; Mark Burrows, Transylvania County's planning and economic development director, for green industries; and Tim Johnston, president and chief executive of the Sisters of Mercy Services Corp., for the health-care industry.
Ray stressed the importance of crafts and other arts to our region's economy and the need to teach creative-thinking skills in schools. He cited a recent Appalachian State University study showing that Asheville has the third largest concentration of craftspeople in the nation — about 6,000 who make a living at their craft. "That puts us behind only New York City [and] San Francisco and neck-and-neck with Santa Fe, N.M.," he noted.
Drew Benbow, a musician who's an intern at the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation, spoke about how his experience had changed his life. "Early College let me discover job skills I never knew I had," he said.