United Way program broadens Owen Middle School's scope this fall

Paul Clark

This fall, Owen Middle School could be a hub for services that go far beyond educating its students.

United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County is planning to make Owen Middle the fourth middle school in the area to have a community resource coordinator who will connect families of students at risk of failing to services that help the students work toward high school graduation. United Way’s Middle School Success Initiative is already in place at Asheville, Erwin and Enka middle schools. United Way hopes to replicate it at all seven middle schools in Buncombe County.

Amyah Pate gets help with her school work from math teacher Joanne Robert during Homework Diner at Asheville Middle School on April 26.

The “community school” strategy, a national model upon which the initiative is based, addresses more than a student’s performance. It also supports the health and financial well-being of a student’s family. Doing so helps local families and elevates the community in which they live, so the thinking goes, making the whole region stronger.

United Way will explain more about the Middle School Success Initiative at a 5:30-7 p.m. reception Wednesday, May 10 at Pisgah Brewing Co, 150 Eastside Drive, Black Mountain (RSVP at or call 828-239-1043). It will also explain the initiative at Owen Middle School at noon Wednesday May 10 and noon Thursday, May 18.

United Way decided to install its fourth program in Buncombe County at Owen Middle School because of “generational poverty” in the Swannanoa Valley, according to a United Way brochure.

Sixty percent of Owen Middle students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches – the third highest percentage among Buncombe County middle schools, according to United Way’s research of state Department of Public Instruction data. The school’s end-of-grade proficiency for economically disadvantaged students is just below the 50 percent mark – the four lowest middle school in the county.

Other school data supplied by the United Way supports the need for help at the middle school level. There is a 9 percent gap in the graduation rates of students who live in poverty and those who don’t (80 vs. 89 percent). Students who fail a core subject like English or math are 25 percent less like to graduate, as are those who have two or more mild or serious infractions and those who miss 18 days of more of school.

Students who don’t graduate are three times more likely to be poor and six more times likely to be arrested. They die, on average, nine years earlier.

Owen Middle School already serves as a community hub. Bounty & Soul distributes food and conducts cooking classes there every week. The school’s Natural Impact Initiative is landscaping the 40-acre campus into an outdoor learning and recreational space for students and the community.

“We’ve worked diligently to open our doors,” school principal Heidi VonDohlen said. The United Way’s initiative will help it do even more, and it’s sorely needed, she said.

“At a time when demands of public schools increase - teaching, nutrition, counseling, nursing, parenting, etc. - we continue to lose positions,” VonDohlen said via email. “We're known for offering clubs and activities beyond many other middle schools. However, we're reaching our saturation point, though there are many more things we'd like to offer to our students and families.”

“The faculty and staff at the schools are very, very busy,” said Christine Swoap, the parent of a sixth-grade Owen Middle School student and a Warren Wilson College Spanish instructor whose students work with Latino students at the middle school. She said there are many families at Owen who need help finding services, and there are many volunteers hoping to help.

“It’s just a matter of getting all the pieces in place,” and the United Way community schools resource coordinator seems to effective in doing just that, she said.

The programs at Asheville, Enka and Erwin middle schools started this school year, so they are too new to effectively gauge results, said Laura Elliot, United Way’s Middle School Success Initiative director in Asheville. But one of the initiative’s programs - the Homework Diner - is now attracting 100 people each week at Enka Middle, up from 40 who showed up when it began, she said.

Homework Diner, a free weekly gathering in which families share a meal and their children of any age receive help with their schoolwork, are already in place at Erwin, Enka and Asheville middle schools. It is scheduled for Owen Middle School.

Another program for helping identify students who may, with their families, need community services is the United Way’s “early warning and response” system. The computer software collates reams of spreadsheets and databases into an onscreen “dashboard” that shows teachers and others information about a student’s attendance, behavior and core subject achievement. It is color coded to help its busy users notice students who need help.

The Middle School Success Initiative was created in 2013 out of the Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network which brought together Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools and more than two dozen community partners to prepare ninth-graders for high school and high schoolers for graduation.

The United Way is recruiting volunteers now to tutor and otherwise help at Homework Diner. “One-on-one time from caring adults is often the most caring intervention we can bring to the table,” Elliot said.

United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County is currently raising $200,000 to operate the Owen Middle School program for three years, said Ben Moser, the agency’s director of major gifts.