Is Asheville Boom Leaving Teachers Behind?

Feb 3, 2017

NPR will be in Asheville on Tuesday February 7th for the latest 'Going There' event.  Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin will lead a night of performances and discussion on the topic 'What Happens When Your Hometown Gets Hot?' at the Diana Wortham Theater.  Tickets for the event have sold out but there will be a live stream that night to watch.  You can also join the conversation on Twitter by following @NPRMichel and @WCQS using the hashtag #HotHometown.  In the week before the event, the WCQS news team will feature stories on issues facing Asheville because of its increasing popularity.

You don’t need to go far back to get a pretty clear picture of what’s been happening in Asheville for decades.  Just recently, Lonely Planet named Asheville its top US destination in 2017.  Not long after that, Realtor.com ranked Asheville #2 for US cities gentrifying fastest.  You can go back further and find numerous instances where Asheville ranks high up on a list, whether it’s a destination for foodies, for artists, beer, or scenic beauty.  And then you can see the real consequences it has on the town’s identity and culture.  Because of their prevalence, these rankings can usually be taken with a grain of salt.  But one did stand out.  A relatively new company Zippia.com put out a list of best and worst places to be a teacher in the United State.  Asheville was ranked dead last.  How could a place as desirable to be also be so bad for starting teachers?  Nick Johnson is a spokesman for the company.  He said they looked at three criteria.

“Asheville really took in on the nose across all three.  You know, North Carolina doesn’t pay their teachers very high.  The number of opportunities for teachers in Asheville are very limited.  And the salary level for entry level teaching jobs is very low.”

The issue of teacher pay is a familiar one to North Carolinians.  Lawmakers raised salaries last year for starting teachers but average pay still lags far behind the national average.  Norm Bossert, the principal of Black Mountain Elementary School, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in November, says more needs to be done.

“Teachers in other states finish their careers making ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty-thousand dollars more than our teachers here in North Carolina.  If I’m a single person and I just graduated from UNCA, and I don’t have anything to hold me here, why would I want to work here when I could drive across the border into Virginia and make thousands and thousands of dollars more than I am here?”

So… low teacher pay across the state, now add in the skyrocketing cost of living for Asheville, and you get a toxic brew for a profession that’s chronically underpaid. 

Over at Asheville High School, the bell rings and students pour into the hallways.  17 of them gather in room 307 for Katie Williams’ 9th grade world history class.  This particular class went waaaay back in history all the way to the woolly mammoths. 

Williams has help in this class with Georgette Blackford, a student teacher, who’s spent several weeks at Asheville High, learning the ropes.  And it’s not an easy gig. 

“So far, right now, it’s taking up my whole life.  You know, I’m in school all day.  I come in every day between 7 and 8, and then I’m here almost every day until 5.  And then I take work home and then I still have classes and things to attend.”

Blackford wasn’t complaining.  She spent more time talking about the needs of her students.  But the pressures do weigh on her.  After going through the student teacher process, there’s no guarantee of a job for her in the end.

“You know, I am really concerned about my ability to get a job teaching social studies.”

And if she gets the job, then there are the bigger problems facing schools.  Williams, a 12 year veteran at Asheville High, knows them well.

“For many, many years, we’ve been given the line ‘learn how to do more with less.’ 

Williams says her textbooks are from 2008, and they aren’t due for a new edition any time soon.  The list of inadequacies went on…

“Our art department doesn’t have the funding they need to buy art supplies.”

And on.

“We are in desperate need of a reading teacher, someone who can take up our low-level reading students, and it’s not in the budget.  So in order to hire a teacher, we have to fire a teacher.”

With small budgets facing many school districts, this is a problem that’s happening all over, not just in Asheville.  What’s unique to Asheville is the influx of people and the rising housing prices that follow.  City school officials recognize the problem.  They’ve partnered with Buncombe County Schools and a charity called Eblen to provide more affordable apartments just for teachers.  Construction is already underway.  That’s an approach being tried in parts of the country dealing with similar problems.  And the stakes are high.  Williams says at Asheville high the internal conversations can be pretty frank.

“Every year we will come together and say ‘These are the kids we have already lost.’  At the 9th grade, we can already, not write them off, but we already know that their struggles will be almost insurmountable.”

That’s a tough pill for any teacher, who likely got into the job to help make a difference.  Norm Bossert, the school principal at Black Mountain Elementary sums up the job pretty well. 

“Teachers love kids.  They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t.   And they love the fact that they know that what they’re doing will hopefully make this state a better state and our country a better country.  We have a lot of real patriots working in the building.”

Back in Williams’ history class, a student asks a question.

“They’re extinct now, right?”  “They are extinct.”  “Sadly... so sad.”

Luckily, not teachers.  The woolly mammoth.

***Bonus***

Link to interview with Black Mountain Elementary School principal Norm Bossert:  In Race for Apodaca's Seat, Educator Norm Bossert Hopes to Defy the Odds