Big ideas for a small school system

As one of the smallest systems in our region, the Asheville City Schools enjoy certain advantages. One is that even small-scale projects can make a big difference for this diverse student body, which is really representative of our entire community. Here are some of the exciting initiatives already under way.

Reforming schools from within

A key component of healthy school systems is the ability to train and retain excellent teachers. Like other districts nationwide, the Asheville City Schools often lose good teachers who are five to 15 years into their careers. In an effort to help keep teachers inspired, allow them to be leaders within the district and research new methods for addressing present challenges, the Asheville City Schools Foundation developed the Foundation Fellows program.

Funded by a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the program aims to inspire and train excellent teachers while replacing lost professional-development funds. This year, 17 teachers have been awarded grants for projects taking a hard look at everything from elementary science instruction to re-visioning global education.

Last year’s fellows developed ideas that helped their schools save money, enhanced students’ social discourse and developed local-history lessons based on interviews, letters and other primary-source documents. Change that begins in the classroom can also seem more relevant, increasing faculty buy-in.
To learn more about the Foundation Fellows, go to

Sustainable schools

A $500,000 federal Reading, Riding and Retrofit grant to Asheville and Buncombe County schools (both public and charter) will fund money-saving improvements while greening our schools.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, “The project will institutionalize sustainable policies to ensure that schools use more recycled and renewable products, that new appliances meet energy-efficiency guidelines and that lunch programs include a greater share of locally grown foods.”

This area is one of 20 “showcase communities” nationwide. Interested individuals can join Green Teams that will propose no- or low-cost initiatives for promoting sustainability both in the classroom and across the campus. To support these projects, the RRR collaborative is providing grants through the Asheville City Schools Foundation.
For more information, check the sustainability section at

Healthy bodies

Childhood-nutrition workers face a daunting task: Producing complete, nutritious meals costing less than $1 per student per day. Increasingly, parents who can afford to are packing lunches for their children, thus reducing the revenues that help fund the lunch program. As a result, these meals just aren’t as nourishing as they need to be, especially for children lacking healthy food options at home.

But food advocates including chefs Ann Cooper and Jamie Oliver are revolutionizing school lunches across the country; locally the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project has been actively involved in the farm-to-school movement for years. Additionally, ASAP’s Chefs to Schools program is recruiting volunteer chefs to help integrate healthy food ideas into existing curricula.

The Asheville City Schools Foundation is also supporting a partnership between Slow Food Asheville and the Asheville Middle School to teach young teens how to cook and eat healthy foods while learning about the relationship between food and community.

Over the next few years, these innovative projects may dramatically change both our school lunches and the way schools talk about and engage with food.
To learn more about these programs, visit

Community engagement

Not so long ago, our schools were a place for learning, and the rest happened — or didn’t — at home. Over time, however, schools have taken on more and more of the responsibility for our children’s welfare.

Today’s public schools are expected to: keep all children safe at all times; teach them to read, write and calculate; ensure that they’re prepared to enter the work force; feed them twice a day; help them learn to be caring global citizens; teach them about their bodies and staying healthy; identify any emerging or existing physical, emotional, psychological or learning difficulties — and all this while satisfying fluctuating federal standards.

Happily, Asheville is a community that cares about its children. Our schools are packed with parent leaders and passionate community members who work with school districts or serve on boards to help shape our schools and give kids the best possible experience.

The Asheville City Schools Foundation is seeking nominations of individuals, community groups, nonprofits and businesses that are going above and beyond to help keep our schools vital. We invite you to share your story or tell us about an exceptional leader who’s helping to transform our schools.Nomination forms can be downloaded at

There’s a lot of good happening in our schools, but we’ve still got quite a ways to go. To get there, every one of us needs to be engaged. To see examples of what can result when we choose, champion and support public education, take the Tour of Excellence (see box).

Thanks to these innovative programs, we’re on the cusp of becoming a community with public schools that reflect values which are fostering a healthier and better future for us all.

— Leah Ferguson is co-director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation and the mother of Oliver, a kindergarten student at Vance Elementary.


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6 thoughts on “Big ideas for a small school system

  1. Betsey Russell

    You said it! Asheville City Schools consistently rank among the highest in North Carolina, and a lot of that has to do with our small size and broad focus on everything it takes to produce high school graduates — no matter what their backgrounds or incomes. It’s also unusual – and a blessing -for school district this size to have the support (and the friendly critique) of an independent foundation. Although public schools may not be the right choice for every child, everybody benefits from strong public schools in a community. I’m happy to see so many people engaged in supporting ours.

  2. Kate Pett

    Nice! Thanks for sharing this! And thanks to Mountain X for covering our schools!

  3. UnaffiliatedVoter

    ‘Transforming’ has certainly become a popular term from the Regime, huh?

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