Bad news, good news: The Gospel According to Jerry

Jerry Sternberg


Less than 65 years before I was born, teaching a slave to read was punishable by flogging, jail or death in most Southern states. Even after emancipation, little was done to encourage the children of the former slaves to go to school. And despite various more recent efforts to address the achievement gap, the legacy of structural racism continues to be seen in our local schools today.

In the midst of this discouraging picture, however, there is some good news: The African American community, in cooperation with UNC Asheville, has established a charter school, the P.E.A.K. Academy, which is specifically designed and staffed to give poor Black and other minority children a fair shot at a quality education.

Before I say more about this exciting project, however, I think a quick review of local and regional history can help us understand how we got into the current mess and why it’s been so hard to fix it.

Rooted in slavery

Although Asheville is generally considered a progressive city today, that wasn’t the case during most of its history. The Civil War ended slavery, but for local Black families, life remained extremely challenging.

Across the South, most Blacks lived in rural areas. The parents worked on farms, and any able-bodied youngsters had to work to help their families survive. Even when schools were available, it was often hard for uneducated parents who were struggling to make ends meet to see the value of education for their children in a racist society dominated by white people.

Reconstruction ended around 1877, and once the federal troops were gone, all sorts of unofficial means were used to keep Black people poor and uneducated.

In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that having separate facilities for Blacks and whites was constitutional as long as they were equal in quality. This disgraceful decision validated segregation, and, of course, the political power structure totally ignored the “equal” part, particularly when it came to public education.

For the next five decades, Jim Crow abominations continued, and Black children’s education fell woefully behind the opportunities afforded white children, especially in the South.

Asheville did, at least, have a couple of quality institutions serving Black students. We were fortunate to have the Allen School on College Street. Originally known as the Allen Industrial Training School, this private institution opened in 1887 and initially offered classes for both children and adults. It evolved into a girls boarding school that maintained high academic standards until its closure in 1974.

We also had Stephens-Lee High School, which gave its students an excellent education, thanks to the dedication of its outstanding teachers and the dogged determination of the parents. Even when both schools were operating, however, they were woefully insufficient to meet the Black community’s needs.

This travesty was recognized by people such as philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who was president and later chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became an influential educator and leader of the Black community, urged Rosenwald to support building schools to serve Black students. Between 1912 and the 1940s, Rosenwald’s program designed and funded thousands of schools throughout the U.S. to provide meaningful education for Black children. North Carolina led all other states with more than 800 such facilities, including one in Madison County’s Long Ridge community.

Weaponizing education

Meanwhile, this was certainly not a burning issue for the white political leadership. As a matter of fact, they saw educated Blacks both as competition for the largely uneducated rural white population and as potential troublemakers who would be able to stir up the Black population with radical ideas about things like rights, liberty and equality.

As a result, education for Black children, particularly in the South, remained totally subpar for many years until, in 1954, another Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, officially mandated integration.

Undeterred, however, the Southern political power structure did everything it could to discourage compliance, which would force their children to attend school with Black kids. The lethal combination of political opposition and tacitly sanctioned violence did much to destroy the intent of equal education, and to this day, the playing field is anything but level.

Integration was slow to reach Asheville — and ironically, when it finally did, it was what led to Stephens-Lee’s closure in 1965. Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs; some were reassigned, sometimes to nonteaching positions, to avoid having them teach white children. When they quit or retired, their replacements tended to be white.

Fast-forward to today, when we see poor children, especially poor Black children, immersed in a toxic cesspool, frantically swimming against the tide of poverty, racism, hunger, drug abuse, homelessness, parental failure and physical abuse.

By the time they reach the fourth grade, many of these students haven’t been able to pass the end-of-grade reading and math tests and so are no longer engaged with education. The result, of course, is that too many middle and high school students drop out, and significant numbers perform below grade level.

Statistics show that a high percentage of young people who can’t read end up in our prison system. There’s an urban myth that the prison system keeps track of the number of children who don’t pass their fourth grade end-of-year tests as a way to project the number of prison beds that will be needed later.

A new beginning

It’s not as if the community doesn’t know about all this, doesn’t care or hasn’t made various efforts to address the problem. Assorted funders, civic organizations and dedicated volunteers have tried various approaches to unbreaking this egg. But the roots of the problem run very deep, and despite some improvement, those efforts have fallen far short of what’s needed.

Enter the P.E.A.K. Academy, which aims to tackle this issue one child at a time. Understanding the challenges its mostly minority children face on a daily basis, the school recognizes the need to create an environment that is geared to their specific needs. In addition to offering a quality education, the academy provides meals, transportation, uniforms and, most importantly, love and understanding from a staff of unbelievably dedicated teachers bolstered by support from the local community. Together, these measures are designed to give students a foundation that will enable them to reach their full potential both as students and, later, leaders.

Admission is by a lottery system. Launched in 2021, the school, which is off Haywood Road, started out offering kindergarten through second grade. Third grade was added this past fall, and the school hopes to continue adding one grade per year until it’s serving kids in grades K-8.

To see the true story of the P.E.A.K. Academy, visit It will fill your heart with hope, both for these children’s future and for the possibility of this community’s finally beginning to address our long-standing achievement gap.

For more information, visit Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at


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One thought on “Bad news, good news: The Gospel According to Jerry

  1. Phillip Williams

    It is interesting to note that the man who commissioned, mostly paid for, and gifted the now “deconstructed” Vance Monument and the square it stood on, to the City, made a goodly number of other contributions to his adopted home. Mr. George Willis Pack, prior to coming to Asheville, was a native New Yorker who had moved to Michigan. Prior to 1865, he was an ardent abolitionist, and in 1860, he served as one of Abraham Lincoln’s electors for the State of Michigan.

    After moving to Asheville in the 1880’s, he proceeded to enrich his adopted home in various ways – establishing a significant public library, donating both Aston and Montford Parks, improving the city infrastructure generally – and helping to establish the Beaumont School as the first school for black children in Asheville – he paid the salaries of the faculty for several years.

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