Do not pass go

Preventing the massive exodus of college graduates from a small city like Asheville is always a concern. But there’s not enough talk about another migration of local young people — the ones who will disappear unnoticed into the new, slate-colored building going up behind the courthouse downtown. Even as work continues on the jail annex, the failure of the Asheville City Schools to address the needs of at-risk students will ensure a steady supply of tenants for the new building.

An obvious crisis persists: There’s a mindset that needs to be drastically altered, and it’s not just the students who need educating.

“I don’t know if people are scared to raise the issue,” says Tiffany Fritts, whose 11-year-old son attends a city school. “I don’t think enough is being done to help kids that are struggling … that are falling through the cracks.”

Behavioral difficulties and poor test scores led Fritts to send her third-grader to a private testing center. “My son was in the third grade, testing at the fifth-grade level,” says Fritts. “He was bored; they want to label these kids that are academically gifted. Maybe I’m wrong, but I see that if they’re African-American kids, they want to label them as being problem children or ADHD. And once a child has been labeled like that, it’s going to be the same thing over and over.”

The disparity in achievement levels between white students and students of color in our public schools is no big secret. During the 2004-05 school year, 90.2 percent of white students passed the year-end ABCs tests at Asheville High, but only 54 percent of black students and 69.1 percent of Latino students received passing scores.

“The commitment should be to see that all children succeed,” says school-board member Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, who chairs the political science department at UNCA. “The school system is the only vehicle through which everyone has to come, rich or poor.” Children “in the lower income bracket,” she says, are overrepresented in the student body, and their numbers are steadily increasing.

With close to $12,000 allotted per child per year, it’s not the school system that’s short on money. But current public policy only halfheartedly accommodates families living below the poverty threshold. And many parents are unaware of the resources available to assist students who are at high risk of failing.

“They have these outreach programs,” says Fritts, “but how many of these parents even know about them or how to go about getting help if they need it?”

In 2002, seeking to bridge the achievement gap between white students and students of color, the Asheville City Schools partnered with the Knowledge is Power Program, which has had high success rates with fifth- through eighth-grade students in inner-city neighborhoods nationwide. Since 2003, KIPP graduates have been awarded more than $12.5 million in scholarships to colleges and universities across the country.

First-year fifth-graders in the Kipp Asheville Youth Academy outperformed their peers in other city schools on the state test. But after four years and not enough applicants for a new fifth-grade class, the city ended its relationship with KIPP at the beginning of this school year, transforming the school into the Asheville Preparatory Academy.

“Parental demand for KIPP in Asheville was low,” Superintendent Robert Logan wrote in a letter to the parents of students in the program. But could the lack of applicants be due to the administration’s failure to list the Youth Academy in the phone book along with all the other magnet schools? Or the fact that the KIPP program wasn’t effectively promoted?

The city school system believes the Asheville Preparatory Academy embodies many of the positive attributes of KIPP. But according to Fritts, “Asheville lost a good program.”

It’s unfortunate that a program with such high success rates in cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta didn’t work here in Asheville. But were the problems with the curriculum or the administration? And if the latter, what could have been done about it?

How can we expect our kids to strive to succeed if the administration gives up so easily? The school system’s inability to make a proven method work here suggests a disheartening correlation with the great number of local students at risk of flunking out or dropping out of school.

The city school system needs to acknowledge its mistakes, scrutinize its public policies, and consider redistributing its funds to better assist those in need. Instead of expending energy on building new jails, let’s build a new paradigm for public education. Because if we don’t address the issues now, we can be sure of the outcome for a great number of people for generations to come.

We need to support the current programs designed to reach kids whose educational needs aren’t getting met, and we need more programs based on models that have proven to be effective. Faculty and administration should focus on strategically implementing these programs — along with, as Jenkins-Mullen puts it, maybe just “a little bit more effort.”

[Tamiko Murray, a freelance writer and mother, teaches creative writing to at-risk youth and is working to complete her first collection of short stories.]

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