In Asheville and beyond, creative problem solvers are hatching new solutions

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Able Allen, Mountain Xpress

Carl Sandburg called Chicago the “city of the big shoulders”; if he were alive today, he might describe Asheville as “the city of the big thinkers,” acknowledging the passion so many area residents display in seeking out new solutions to the issues we face. On many fronts, creative new approaches are being hatched and put in play.

Big ideas can seem small at first, but even the huge tulip poplars of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest germinated from tiny seeds. These solutions may address problems small or large; they may also be a new way of looking at something that seems to be working reasonably well. Sometimes, the key to a difficult question seems too slippery to grasp; other times, they just bubble up, as easy as falling off a log. Sometimes a big idea appears to be the answer, and sometimes it just helps us ask better questions.

What follows is only a small sampling of the many big ideas and amazing things local people and institutions are dreaming up and trying out. And while we’ve undoubtedly missed some equally important examples, it’s worth noting that the promising ideas presented here are either being implemented now or will be soon.

Today, big ideas are more likely to be small steps with big potential than immediate giant leaps. They’re a better mousetrap, not the steam engine, and the people representing the ideas presented here would all readily admit that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

With that in mind, we invite you to join us in taking a small step toward some big future outcomes.

Helping students succeed

An innovative pilot program spearheaded by United Way of Asheville and Buncombe Countyaims to cut the high school dropout rate by identifying at-risk students and getting them the help they need before it’s too late.

2011 study by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University identified three warning signs that dramatically increase middle schoolers’ risk of dropping out before graduating from high school: missing 10 percent of school days in a single year, incurring two or more behavioral referrals, and failing a core subject such as English or math. Without intervention, the study found, any one of those indicators cuts a student’s chances of graduating on time by 75 percent.

“It is during the middle grades,” Balfantz wrote, “that students either launch toward achievement and attainment or slide off track and are placed on a path of frustration, failure and, ultimately, early exit from the only secure path to adult success: leaving high school prepared for postsecondary education and career training.”

Yet middle school students typically have less access to resources and extracurricular support than elementary or high school students, says Elisabeth Bocklet, marketing and communications director for the local United Way chapter. To change that, she explains, the partners in the Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network, a coalition that includes the Asheville and Buncombe County schools as well as assorted local nonprofits, are asking one another, “How do we work together differently? How do we change how we approach working with students so that we catch them earlier and are able to intervene more strategically?”

The network is breaking new ground with an Early Warning and Response System, the first of its kind in the state. The digital dashboard tracks individual students’ performance in relation to the risk factors and makes that information available to both parents and out-of-school support systems in real time. When a student starts missing school, having behavioral problems or getting lower grades, the dashboard immediately alerts the people best positioned to help. They can also determine what other support those students are getting.

In addition, this unique program tracks the effectiveness of the resulting interventions and facilitates communication among both school and outside professionals and volunteers. Recent changes in the law allow institutions to share more information.

Meanwhile, the network is also placing “resource coordinators” in local schools to help address the external factors that cause students to struggle, such as hunger, health problems and economic issues. These coordinators will help connect students with needed services, including financial education and job training. This semester, the early warning system is being introduced in Asheville, Enka and Erwin middle schools.

But while everyone involved is excited about the program, cautions Bocklet, implementation shouldn’t be rushed. “Any tool can be really exciting when it’s shiny, right out of the box,” she says, “but the link between data and intervention has to be done well.”

Although the costs and benefits of a college education are sometimes debated, the practical value of a high school diploma is seldom questioned. The overwhelming evidence shows that completing high school correlates statistically to a higher quality of life. Students who drop out can expect to get lower-paying jobs and be unemployed more frequently. Dropouts are more likely to commit crimes, abuse substances, become teenage parents and even take their own life. And according to a 2009 study out of Northeastern University, each dropout costs taxpayers an average of $292,000 over their lifetime.

To read about the other fantastic local people and institutions featured in the Mountain Xpress article, click here