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In a mechatronics class, students used wheels, scissors, tape and their imaginations to create "sail cars." Tested with 10 seconds of wind from a box fan on the floor, the exercise teaches the students something about dynamics.
Outside, firefighters in training climbed a ladder to the roof; they were learning how to check for hot spots in a fire.
The fire was imaginary but the babies and toddlers were not. At the early childhood academy, 18 Balfour Education Center students get hands on experience caring for little children.
Big letters on a wall of the gym say the Stiller Foundation, recognizing the actor whose foundation has donated $36,000 that Balfour has used to buy iPads for every student and $16,000 to improve and equip the gym. Fitness instructor Mickey Moreno has known Stiller since he trained the actor for the 1995 movie "Heavy Weights," which was filmed at Camp Pinnacle in Flat Rock.
In Martina Zinn's art class, students draw and paint, but they don't make art for art's sake alone. The school is developing a curriculum to teach them to digitize art that could be used in gaming software.
The old brick school on Asheville Highway is almost 100 years old and has been everything from a high school to an elementary school to the temporary home of Hendersonville Middle School. Now within its walls is a world of training for practical in-demand jobs that traditional high schools do not offer. The school's enrollment includes 150 fulltime students and 54 cross-enrolled teenagers, who attend one of the county's high schools and come for part of the day for auto mechanics, business classes, firefighting and the other Balfour academies.
A success story
Part is a remedial school, part is a school for high school-aged mothers and part is a school for kids who want a head start on certification for a job they want to do fulltime. Over the past three years, it's been something else, too: A success story.
"In the 2010-11 school year, we had 60 dropouts, then in 2011-12 we had 48 dropouts and last year we had 35," said principal Kent Parent. The graduation rate, meanwhile, has climbed from 50 percent two years ago to 68.42 percent in 2012-13.
(See Kent Parent named principal of the year: http://www.hendersonvillelightning.com/news/2037-balfour-s-kent-parent-named-principal-of-the-year.html)
Parent and the faculty have managed the gains against the longest odds in Henderson County. Last year Balfour was the school home for 20 young moms. About one in five students are used to couch-surfing; they're in "permanent-housing transition," as the sociology language puts it. And the rate of poverty as measured by free and reduced lunch eligibility is the highest among any county school — 87 percent.
Last week, Henderson County School Board members took a tour of the campus and observed the students in six academies.
Balfour is increasing its cooperative agreement with Blue Ridge Community College so that courses at Balfour — in auto mechanics, mechatronics, early childhood education, art and business — transfer as credits and prepare students for certifications in several fields.
The 20 students in the firefighter academy can check off everything but a hazardous materials certification. With that, available through BRCC, they can leave Balfour with firefighter II certification, a requirement of most paid fire service jobs.
"I believe we're the second or third biggest enrollment in the state with what we've got now," said instructor Ted Barnett, a former Mountain Home assistant chief. "More than a third of our students are at a volunteer fire department."
The fire academy logged an impressive record its first semester. Of 18 students who completed the emergency services and firefighter course, 87 percent passed the certification test offered by the state fire marshal. Out of a possible 126 certificates, the students earned 109. Nine students earned all seven possible certificates.
During the School Board's tour, Parent took the opportunity to lobby for a garage for a fire truck. The city of Hendersonville has offered to donate one if the school can shelter it.
Mechatronics jobs in demand
With $685,000 in Golden Leaf Foundation grants over the past two years, BRCC has invested in high school level mechatronics training in Henderson and Transylvania counties, preparing students to operate and work on electronic machinery in factories.
Last week Rick Schwartz's mechatronics students were designing and engineering the sail cars.
"If they complete the entire course, they'll leave with a certification in mechatronics maintenance," Parent said. "That makes them employable at Sierra Nevada, Pepsi, wherever automated manufacturing is done. It's in very high demand. Right now we've got 21 students enrolled in the mechatronics program from all four high schools and Balfour."
Other academies offer useful degrees, too.
A student who completes the early childhood coursework would leave Balfour with "lead teacher" certification for a daycare center job.
Laptop and tablet computers are used in almost all jobs now. In his Microsoft IT Academy, Chris Eudy teaches Microsoft Word, Power Point, Excel and Access. Students must pass a Microsoft test to get certified.
"It's not Balfour saying you're good, it's Microsoft saying you're good," Eudy said.
At the repair garage on the campus, auto mechanics instructor Joe Shook teaches his teenage charges everything from oil changes to diagnostics.
Balfour also teaches core classes so students who fail classes at a high school can retake the class and stay on track. "Last year Balfour recovered 48 courses," he said.
Enrollment is up 70 percent.
"Last year we had 85 fulltime Balfour students, and this year we're at 145 students at beginning of year," Parent said. A combination of factors accounts for the growth — "smaller class size, specialized training in an area they're interested in and the credit recovery program," he said. "We're also the only school that is one-to-one iPads where every student in every class has an iPad. We've got 160 iPads and we've only had two stolen."
Parent credits BRCC president Molly Parkhill, Chris English, the dean of applied technology; and Alan Stephenson, vice president for instruction; for working with Balfour and Henderson County schools on the cooperative curriculum. One of the first bills Pat McCrory signed as governor required public schools and community colleges to work together on common coursework and technical certifications.
"We were all very surprised that it was mirroring what we were already doing and that came about because of the relationship we had" with BRCC, Parent said.