The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has named increased access to high-quality early childhood education among its most important goals in the county’s 2025 strategic plan. Unsurprisingly, board members thus had serious concerns about an Asheville City Schools move that would close seven preschool classrooms at the district’s Asheville Primary School campus.
At a March 16 board meeting, ACS Assistant Superintendent Shane Cassida said that the system plans to close the APS building due to its poor condition and a projected $6 million repair bill for high-priority needs like a new heating and cooling system. The district would then redistribute the APS preschool classrooms across other elementary schools and Asheville Housing Authority developments.
Beyond addressing facility concerns, Superintendent Gene Freeman told Xpress in a March 17 interview, the new classroom locations would better respond to the needs and wishes expressed by Black families, thereby helping ACS attract more preschool students of color. According to the system’s most recent available data, 55% of Black students were below the testing cutoff for kindergarten readiness in 2019, compared with just 22% of white pupils.
At 21%, the enrollment of ACS preschoolers who are Black for the 2020-21 school year exceeds both the system’s overall Black enrollment rate of 18% and Asheville’s Black population of roughly 11%. But that percentage has steadily declined over recent years: In the 2017-18 school year, ACS preschool students were 30% Black. Preschool enrollment of all students of color has dropped from 58% to 27% during the same period.
“When we look at populating our pre-K and building that foundation, we should be looking for those kids that have the greatest needs. By the stats, it’s African American students,” said Freeman, who is white. “Hopefully, and eventually with the county’s help, we’ll have pre-K for everybody one day. But for right now, we’ve got to have programs that build that foundation so that when kids get into the early grades, they have that skill set built.”
Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Al Whitesides, however, challenged that justification. The board’s only Black member and a former member of the Asheville City Board of Education, he called the APS campus in West Asheville “an ideal location,” saying that the vast majority of Asheville’s disadvantaged residents live within a 3-mile radius of the school.
Whitesides proceeded to blast the district’s leaders for how they had communicated their intentions. A draft plan for preschool relocation was sent to APS staff and families at 4:37 p.m. March 16 — less than 30 minutes before the start of the county board meeting and well after the registration deadline for public comment had passed. A special meeting of the school board to hear public comment on the APS closure was also scheduled for the same time as the county’s meeting, making it difficult for those interested in the topic to follow both.
“You spring something this critical on a whole community at the last minute,” Whitesides said. “I have a serious problem with the way the superintendent and the school board have handled this, because it’s not transparent at all. There’s no way I would endorse them closing the primary school at this time.”
Community Action Opportunities, an Asheville-based nonprofit that currently operates three Head Start preschool sites in public housing developments, was also surprised to learn of the school closure plans, according to a document submitted to Buncombe County’s Early Childhood and Development Committee on March 12. CAO noted that the ACS proposal to move classrooms into the Lonnie D. Burton Center, located near the Livingston and Erskine-Walton public housing neighborhoods, would displace its existing services for 54 children. “It is difficult to understand how reducing or supplanting services will reduce the achievement gap rather than contribute to its continuation,” the nonprofit wrote.
Melissa Hedt, the ACS deputy superintendent, told Xpress that CAO’s preschool programs operate for fewer hours than would the district’s classrooms. She added that running its own programs in the Burton Center would allow the school system to “have a better handle on our own students’ kindergarten readiness.”
The district’s overall preschool plan for the 2021-22 school year includes 12 classrooms and 216 slots, up from 11 classrooms and 198 slots prior to COVID-19. One of those new classrooms, accounting for 18 students, is designated as “TBD based on enrollment.” Those numbers, sent to APS parents and staff the morning of March 19, differ from those in a draft plan released March 16, which claimed that 233 preschool slots would be available in the next school year.
District spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin said the preschool projections had been revised after several parents had reached out regarding the draft plan. Pepi Acebo, president of the Montford North Star Academy Parent-Teacher Organization and one of three school board candidates endorsed by the Asheville City Association of Educators, told Xpress on March 18 that the district had excluded two APS Montessori pre-K/kindergarten classrooms from its pre-pandemic capacity numbers; the changed plan explicitly notes that Montessori programs are not included in the capacity projections.
“In an effort to be as transparent as possible and ‘compare apples to apples,’ the district’s Curriculum and Instruction Department, along with the preschool staff, have created a more detailed page, which includes numbers from both 2019-2020 (Pre-COVID) and 2020-2021, as well as projections for next school year,” Thublin explained about the new plan.
The county commissioners did not approve language acknowledging the APS closure plan on March 16; board Chair Brownie Newman noted that he and his colleagues had not seen the document they were being asked to sign prior to their meeting. The board instead tabled the discussion until Tuesday, April 6. Asheville’s school board is then expected to take a formal vote regarding APS later in April.
“My great hope, as we head into a period where the school board will be deliberating, is that there can be the time and space for the conversations that need to happen to ensure that all current classrooms have a safe, healthy place to be,” said Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. “The path we’re on right now is a collision that puts us backwards and actually takes classrooms offline.”
With additional reporting by Virginia Daffron