The Highland Community is one of the most impoverished areas of Gaston County. Though rich in history and pride, many neighborhoods are struggling with crime, hunger and hopelessness. Local schools face challenges of educating children who are without strong or sufficient parental support. Individuals and families face hardships from unemployment, lack of opportunity and sporadic community services. Crime is high due to the stresses and challenges of poverty as well as the lack of opportunities and family cohesiveness.
There is no area in the community where the need is more important than at Rhyne and Woodhill Elementary Schools. Both schools reflect the area’s economic disadvantages with more than 95% of students receiving free or reduced lunch. NC Department of Instruction has classified both as Schools of High Priority with only 50 to 60 percent of students performing at grade level. According to the congressionally legislative initiative, Promise Neighborhoods, educational success of students at an early age is the fundamental ingredient to breaking the cycle of poverty. This initiative, administered by the US Department of Education, cites the importance of community based non-profits as critical to the success of schools in economically distressed urban areas. In 2008, the community lost the services of the Gaston Boys & Girls Club when it closed its doors. Some children have been served by organizations in other areas, but many children as well as the community continue to endure the void of the club’s closing.
Gaston County has also lost significant community-based mentoring initiatives in recent years. Y-pals and Gaston Pays who had provided our community with the most comprehensive and participated programs have fallen victim to the poor economy. Mentoring children, particularly those at-risk, is proven to have a positive impact on their academic achievements. The results of a 2012 control-group study conducted by the University of Nebraska concluded poor performing students with mentors scored significantly higher than their counterparts who had similar abilities. Mentoring programs are time tested and should be available and expanded in Gaston County.
It is also understood that the lack of parental support and the absence of traditional family structure contribute to a child’s poor performance in school as well as the likelihood of them engaging in negative behaviors. A recently commissioned report from the Precept Group (using US Census data) show that 49% of children in the Highland Community live in single-parent households. This is almost double the national average. The report also states only 60% of adults in the area are high school graduates compared to 80% nationally.
Employment is a need that our entire nation faces, and Gaston County has surely felt the impact of tough economic times. Unfortunately, poor areas are often the ones hit the hardest. In our service area unemployment and underemployment is very high and evident by the 30% of households who live below poverty ($15,000). This is way above the national average of 12%. Besides not being able to provide for basic life essentials, un/underemployment is a direct factor of criminal activity. A twenty-year study conducted by Ohio State University concluded that low wages and unemployment make men more likely to turn to crime.
In conclusion, the conditions described above- poor performing schools, large number of people living below poverty, high unemployment and crime, as well as the number of single-parent households are all characteristics that contribute to an area being at-risk and in dire need of programs and services.