Letter: Asheville’s future depends on kids and their career choices

Graphic by Lori Deaton

It’s comforting to tell ourselves that our city is No. 1 on this or that list. But that’s not the whole story; there are other lists that are not so flattering.

We obviously rank high on housing unaffordability — and that has knock-on effects.

For instance, each year Bloomberg News updates a ranking of U.S. cities based on net migration of people with advanced degrees, changes in STEM salaries, net business formation and so on to create two indexes: the Brain Concentration Index — this year Boulder, Colo., is tops — and the Brain Drain Index — this year Beckley, W.Va., is tops, and Asheville is close behind.

With rich, old folk moving here to die, and young, well-educated people moving away, the long-term future of the city looks pretty grim, unless we’re happy with the prospect of becoming some kind of Disney-on-the-French-Broad.

The future is not yet written. Neither is it under our control — it will be determined by our kids and their career choices. If those choices are constrained by their formal test-driven education, our schools and colleges are unlikely to produce the creative, entrepreneurial young people to lead us out of the mire. The policies imposed from Raleigh appear to be designed to prevent that happening at all, so we need to find ways to work around them.

Raw talent is evenly distributed through the school population, but opportunity is not. If we are going to supplement their education in some way, we have to go where the kids are and cover all of them. Every one who is excluded and fails to find their passion is a loss of future economic activity (and tax revenue) for the city.

The Asheville City Schools Foundation’s IRL program is a step in the right direction, but just one step — it only covers the middle school students during the school year, so it currently meets one-eighth of the need. It would make sense to both deepen and broaden its coverage: offering programs at both elementary and high schools, and covering vacations — especially summer vacation — as well, but could it manage a 700 percent expansion?

Parks & Rec and the county libraries already run summer programs. There would be both gaps and duplications between them and an expanded IRL program. The gaps would lead to lost opportunities down the road. The duplications would lead to the waste of donor grants or tax money. The three organizations need to get together — soon — to coordinate programs for next summer and beyond.

I’ll pay for the room and catering if that’s what it takes to get started on the most important problem facing us.

— Geoff Kemmish

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