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Learning goes on in struggling schools

Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

When you walk into Wilhelmenia Wilcox's fifth grade class at Devonshire Elementary, you can tell a lot of learning is going on.

The students clamor to answer questions and read from their work. The room is plastered with maps and pictures and inspirational sayings. Books and classwork line shelves. And in several corners you'll find cardboard replicas Ms. Wilcox built of inventions from African Americans. She uses them as teaching tools in her class.

A few weeks ago when I visited Ms. Wilcox's class – my second visit in two years – I was struck once again by the difference dedicated, highly effective teachers can make. Last week, when state officials released N.C. accountability test results and federal Adequate Yearly Progress assessments Devonshire was not an academic leader. Just 42.9 percent of its students performed on grade level for reading in 2007-2008. And the school did not make AYP, which requires all student groups to be academically proficient – that is, pass state tests.

But Devonshire students did meet state academic growth expectations, and they made “high growth” gains in performance. Ms. Wilcox proudly noted that her students last school year were in the 60th percentile in reading.

Such progress is worth noting because Devonshire students have had to work hard and overcome substantial obstacles to make these gains. The school is overwhelmingly low-income, more than 90 percent. It is also overwhelmingly minority – more than 60 percent black and more than 31 percent Latino. Such characteristics have been daunting stumbling blocks to high academic performance in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and in school systems nationwide.

Ms. Wilcox knows what it means to tackle such obstacles. The majority of her fifth graders this year came to her reading on the second- and third-grade level, she said. “I got the kids who were at the lowest levels. But we've worked hard and look at them now. The kids want to do the work.”

I can't help but smile in remembering those kids – Danisha, Jerry, Dasia, Jahkia, Erica, Jonathan, Euniya, David, Jacquis, Nicki, Jennifer, Dominique, Victor and Maribel. One by one, they stood to read to me stories they had written for class. They were well-written, inventive and some of them quite compelling.

Take Jahkia Beckham's “A Scary Night.”

“It started on a dark night,” she said. “Suddenly, I hear the TV cut on. It wasn't on before. Quickly, I cut off the lights, grabbed a bottle of water and headed upstairs to my bedroom. I flipped the light on. There was a man standing in my room. He had blood rolling down his cheeks. I dropped my water bottle and rubbed my eyes. The next thing I know, the man wasn't there anymore.”

Jahkia had me on the edge of my seat. She could certainly write, and tell, a story.

Other stories warmed my heart. Euniya Foxx's “My Grandma's Day,” for instance, and Dasia Johnson's “The Wet Adventure.” Most came from real-life experiences, such as Jacquis Smith's “First Time My Dad Helped Me Cut Grass.”

Test results too often become the only prism that many of us look through to gauge public schools. Assessments are important. But the kids from Ms. Wilcox's class show that a lot of learning goes on in schools still struggling for success.

Applauding their progress will go a long way toward helping increase gains. I'll do my part for these students by printing their essays online at www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion. Providing needed resources would help too. The students in Ms. Wilcox's class had to write their stories long hand because the classroom has no computer available for them to use. If someone wants to donate one to her, I'm sure she'd appreciate it.

Ms. Wilcox's class has shown the truth of her words: “Kids want to do the work.” We adults must ensure they have all the tools to do it.

Reach Fannie Flono at the Observer, P.O. Box 30308, charlotte, N.C. 28230-0308. E-mail: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.

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