Making the grade

Aiming higher: Less students are dropping out of Buncombe County high schools thanks to a new Graduation Initiative. Pictured here (from right to left): Initiative Director Donna Lanahan meets with Erwin Principal Jim Brown, whose school saw a 44 percent dip in the dropout rate last year. photo by Jonathan Welch

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Feb. 1, 2011 meeting

  • Commissioners approve new farmland preservation measures
  • Young gets additional term heading URTV board

More Buncombe students are staying the course and taking home a high-school diploma. That’s the good news school officials delivered at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Feb. 1 meeting, crediting the county's Graduation Initiative for the improvement. A partnership between local government agencies and the Eblen Charities, the program integrates a number of innovative efforts aimed at keeping kids in school.

The 355 students who dropped out during the 2009-10 school year represented a 15 percent reduction from the 10-year average, according to Donna Lanahan, the initiative’s director. Buncombe’s high schools graduated 1,510 seniors last year.

"We've got a model that we think … will continue to be effective and will hopefully be sustainable," she told the commissioners. The program engages social workers, school counselors and teachers to provide support to at-risk students. It also involves reaching out to those who have already dropped out to see if there's anything that can be done to get them back on track. Just this year, the initiative developed a Twilight School that allows students to take evening courses at the Buncombe County Schools central office to make up lost credits.

Nonetheless, at 73.1 percent, the county's four-year graduation rate still lags slightly behind the state average (74.2 percent).

"The main reason students give for dropping out is attendance," Lanahan explained. "It may be because of work obligations, or they fall behind academically and get discouraged." And in this tough economy, she noted, "Social factors get in the way; being able to afford electricity and heating."

Lanahan portrayed the effort to keep kids in school as a fight against the vicious cycle of poverty that often ensnares the less fortunate. Over the course of a lifetime, she reported, each dropout costs the community $260,000 in lost wages, taxes and productivity.

"I see this … as an economic-development effort," responded Commissioner K. Ray Bailey, who worked at A-B Tech for 42 years. “It's very positive."

Commissioner Bill Stanley, a retired high-school coach and principal, agreed, adding that he hopes the projected $3.7 billion state budget shortfall won't undercut these efforts. To date, the initiative's biggest source of funding has been grants from North Carolina’s Dropout Prevention and Intervention program, which has contributed $607,200 since 2007.

"I hope we're going to be able to keep those teacher’s assistants that have been doing such a great job," said Stanley. "It's important to reach kids at an early age."

Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin concurred, emphasizing that the school system "has got to [develop] that successful foundation at [the] K though third-grade [levels].

"If that student goes from the third grade to fourth-grade level without balanced literacy behind them — over and over again that pattern repeats itself — we actually see them at 16 and 17 years old making that decision to drop out," he noted, adding, "One of our budget strategies is to do the very best job we can protecting those K-through-third-grade classrooms."

Saving the farm

In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved changes to the county's Farmland Preservation Program recommended by the Agricultural Advisory Board. Since its formation in 1990, the board has worked on a variety of fronts, such as supporting conservation easements and helping market locally grown food. According to board Chair John Ager, those efforts have "preserved thousands of acres of farmland in Buncombe County."

Still, between 2002 and 2007, Buncombe lost 22,847 acres of farmland — more than any other Western North Carolina county, according to a recent study by the Blue Ridge Forever conservation coalition.

Ager said he hopes that adding an "enhanced voluntary agricultural district" to the county's preservation tool kit will help stem that tide. The designation will offer various incentives to property owners who commit to preserving their farmland for at least 10 years, including priority consideration for state grant funds and tax breaks.

Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt applauded the idea. "Preserving land has been a priority for this board for a long time," he noted.

Not everyone in attendance supported the measure, however. "The ultimate goal of this action will be to shift the tax burden to the small homeowner and protect the large landowner,” Candler resident Jerry Rice predicted during public comment.

"If the goal were really to preserve open spaces, encourage farming, protect steep slopes and keep erodible land from being developed, why not provide a tax incentive for all undeveloped land: land that is used for natural vegetation or growing gardens?" he queried.

On board

The commissioners also made several decisions concerning boards and commissions. On unanimous votes, they gave Paul Smith another term on Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission and appointed Sarah Oram to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee.

In addition, the commissioners voted 4-1 to suspend the county's term-limit rule to enable current URTV board President Jerry Young to serve for another three years. Commissioner Holly Jones opposed the move, instead supporting Mychal Bacoate.

The reappointment didn't sit well with another candidate for the position: Jupiter resident Don Yelton, the conservative talk-show host who is second vice chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party.

"These chambers have been full twice with folks full of concerns over the survivability of URTV," he pointed out, questioning the wisdom of maintaining the status quo. "Funding is in short supply over there."

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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