Making the grade

If present trends continue, more than a quarter of the roughly 2,000 ninth-graders expected to enroll in the Buncombe County Schools this fall won’t graduate from high school.

Higher ed: Asheville AVID students (from left) Tiara Talford, J.D. Conwell and John Mattos work on college applications in the high school computer lab. photos by Cecil Bothwell

But that’s actually the good news: Statewide, the average graduation rate is 68.1 percent. And in the Asheville City Schools, roughly one-third of incoming ninth-graders will drop out, according to a state report released in February. Across the region, eight out of 19 Western North Carolina school districts had graduation rates below the state average.

In an era when a bachelor’s degree is increasingly considered imperative essential for a well-paying career, the lack of a high-school diploma can cripple an individual’s prospects for job security, home ownership or even family stability. Money troubles figure prominently among the causes of divorce or separation of parents, which in turn triggers high poverty rates for single mothers and their children.

But what can be done? Exhorting the young to consider their future may not carry much weight, and in the short term, the lure of freedom from schoolwork can be powerful. What’s more, North Carolina law requires school attendance only through age 16—after that, the classroom door is open for those who want to walk.

The problem isn’t limited to North Carolina. Nationwide, about 18 percent of students fail to graduate, and various programs have been created to combat high dropout rates. Several have been implemented here and are already showing results.

Teaching past the test

Pisgah View dreamer: Jen Matthews coordinates Asheville’s first “I Have a Dream” program.

While the rise of end-of-grade testing—spurred by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—has driven many schools to “teach to the test,” others have taken a longer view.

Among the most successful is AVID (“Advancement Via Individual Determination”). Launched in 1980 in San Diego’s Clairemont High School, the in-school program helps fifth- through 12th-graders aim and prepare for college. Though it’s open to all, the program targets average students, placing them in advanced classes and providing tools to help them succeed. Some 2,300 middle and high schools now have AVID programs, and that number is expected to swell to more than 4,300 by the end of the decade. Nationally, participants have a 99 percent graduation rate.

Asheville’s AVID program teaches students specific note-taking and study methods, and seniors get help with college and scholarship applications. “Three-quarters of my senior students have already been accepted [by four-year colleges]; now they’re working on scholarships,” Jerome Hughes told Xpress back in February. Hughes—a regional finalist in the N.C. Teacher of the Year competition (the winner will be announced May 1)—is one of four AVID teachers at Asheville High. The program, he notes, “creates a safe environment to be smart.” Students often feel it’s uncool to be successful in school, Hughes explains.

Assistant Principal Becca Ireland, former director of the program, agrees. “AVID students are socialized into an ideology that supports working hard, getting good grades and entering the academic world,” she noted in a report last year.

Starting early

If academic support in fifth grade helps at-risk students succeed, what happens if you start even earlier? That’s the goal of The “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

In 1981, successful businessman Gene Lang returned to the New York City elementary school he’d attended 50 years before, planning to tell the graduating sixth-graders, “Work hard and you’ll succeed.” But as he approached the lectern, the school’s principal told Lang that three-quarters of those students would probably never finish high school. Abruptly shifting gears, Lang promised college tuition to every sixth-grader who stayed in school and graduated. Telling the class about having been present when Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Lang urged his listeners to do their own dreaming, promising to do all he could to help them make their dreams come true.

But even assisting those 61 students soon proved to be a daunting task, and Lang wound up creating an organization with paid staffers. Twenty-five years later, more than 13,000 students have graduated from the program and gone on to college, receiving at least partial tuition support.

Inspired by a 60 Minutes segment aired in 2004, Asheville residents Ken and Ida Brown wanted to make it happen here. Project Coordinator Jen Matthews was hired last May, and the first students came aboard in September.

Asheville’s “I Have a Dream” program begins in elementary school: 18 first-, second- and third-graders are enrolled in daily after-school sessions, which run from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. and include a computer lab and help with homework. UNCA students and community volunteers pitch in to help Matthews, the only paid employee. The program is designed to continue through high school and to provide “last dollar” college scholarships after a student has covered a substantial portion of the costs in other ways.

“The thing that catches everyone’s attention is college money, but in reality the big deal is getting these kids through high school. There are a lot of programs available if they do that, and high-school graduation is really our focus,” notes Ken Brown.

The Asheville Housing Authority, a key partner, provides space in the Pisgah View Apartments public-housing complex and handles the payroll and other money matters. “We would like to end up with 40 to 50 students,” says Matthews. “All of the kids live here now, but that isn’t necessary—and in fact, it is the goal of the Housing Authority and most residents for these families to move out into the community.”

Matthews also underscores the Browns’ vital role, saying, “I can’t stress enough how committed Ken and Ida are. It’s a large investment and they are here all the time, helping out. Parents are really impressed that the local founders are here, getting their hands dirty, doing the work.”

Asked about the situation, Ken explained: “It is a very large commitment for an individual to undertake. Sometimes my wife and I get home and ask ourselves if we really know what we’re doing. But the need is overwhelming, and in the process of helping out, we really became attached to the kids.”

Having roots in North Carolina (Ken attended UNC-Chapel Hill), the Browns returned here after they retired. A meeting with Asheville Housing Authority Director and Board of Education member Gene Bell cemented the couple’s interest in the project. “We went in to see Gene two years ago,” Brown recalls, “and we told him, ‘We’ll do our part.’ His enthusiasm and commitment solidified our decision to do it here.” The couple, notes Brown, aims “not just to do one project, but to put them into a number of housing projects and to inspire others to join in.”

Nationally, “I Have a Dream” has also racked up some impressive numbers. Of the original 61 students, 90 percent graduated or obtained GED degrees, and half went on to college. In Chicago districts where the student population has a 60 percent drop-out rate, the program has achieved a 69 percent graduation rate, the foundation reports. Independent studies have found that “I Have a Dream” participants are about three times as likely to attend college as others in their classes.

Raising the bar

Even as educators struggle to boost graduation rates, however, the state Board of Education is making graduation harder. Beginning with the class of 2012, North Carolina high-school students will have to complete college-prep courses even if they have no plans to pursue higher education. All students will be required to take four units of math and two units of a foreign language. Educators hope the new approach will better prepare students to compete in a global economy, but how it will affect graduation rates remains an open question.

Currently, all the state’s high schools follow a four-track system: college, technical college, career (for those headed directly into the work force) and occupational (for students with certain types of disabilities). Many parents and educators have criticized the planned change, arguing that the new requirements will make it harder for some students to finish high school.

The February report marked the first time North Carolina officials have released statewide graduation figures. In conjunction with the report, state officials again urged the General Assembly to require school attendance until age 18.

The report has also shined a spotlight on what appears to be a systemwide failure, with North Carolina lagging 14 points behind the national average. The stakes are high for everyone involved, and while the future remains uncertain, help—whether in the form of bureaucratic fiat, early intervention, the enticement of scholarships or simply making it cool to be smart—appears to be on the way.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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