Save Money in this Sunday's paper

Originally published September 13, 2009

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More life lessons for Mr. Merritt's kids

1 teacher. 1 class. 4 years later.

By Pam Kelley
pkelley@charlotteobserver.com

Mr. Merritt's fifth-graders are gone. The kids who jumped rope in gym and thrilled at earning stickers have been replaced by teenagers verging on adulthood.

Some boys now have wisps of mustaches. Hispanic girls are buying gowns for quinceañeras, the coming-of-age parties for their 15th birthdays. For several, driver's ed is just months away.

In fifth grade, Mr. Merritt helped these children achieve higher test scores and bolstered confidence.

Now, they face a bigger challenge: Graduating high school. The kind of nurturing they got from Mr. Merritt has been shown to boost success. Still, the obstacles some face remain daunting.

A third of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students don't graduate in four years. For students who are poor, black and Hispanic, dropout rates are higher.

For some of Mr. Merritt's students, graduation seems in easy reach. They did well in middle school and are planning for college.

The issues many faced when they entered his class – learning disabilities, poverty, family problems – haven't gone away. In middle school, several failed some classes. Some have no computers or Internet access, essential for many assignments.

Five students, four of them boys, were suspended in middle school. Another was charged this summer with felony possession of a stolen vehicle.

Some also deal with instability at home. Since her mom lost her job at Subway this spring, Tai-Asia Rios confided that her biggest worry is having a roof over her head. Another student, Sha'Bria Kelly, has lived in two rental houses since June.

Teachers of resilience

In America, you can grow up poor and still end up a millionaire. Children raised in difficult circumstances often overcome them. But why do some succeed despite obstacles, while others falter?

Psychologists credit resilience, the ability to thrive and prosper in the face of misfortune.

When kids are resilient, it's nearly always because there's at least one adult vested in their lives. That person believes in them and stands by them, says Harvard University psychologist Robert Brooks, co-author of “Raising Resilient Children.”

Often, these adults are teachers.

At Merry Oaks Elementary, Mr. Merritt assured his students on the first day of school they would succeed. For the next nine months, he worked like crazy to make good on that promise.

With 17 students, his class was smaller than others because it included some kids, designated as “exceptional children,” who needed extra help. (For this story, the Observer located 14.)

To get through to students, Mr. Merritt played “math Jeopardy” and taught memorization tricks. He tutored after school and enlisted members of his church to tutor on the Saturday before End-of-Grade tests. When students worked hard and did well, he responded with high-fives and lavish praise.

Mr. Merritt even prayed with his class before tests. CMS doesn't condone prayer in schools. His students, however, all seemed to like it.

During their middle school years, some of Mr. Merritt's students were lucky enough to find teachers who gave them the same kind of nurturing.

Liliana Valencia's daily work assisting media specialist Brenda Caldwell at Albemarle Road Middle was a high point of school. “I loved doing that job,” she says.

At Randolph Middle, Alfonso Salazar credits teaching assistant April Price with helping him catch up when he fell behind. Price even gave him her cell number. “I can see him becoming,” she says, “somebody important.”

Such support is an inoculation – a resilience vaccine that can continue to work, Harvard's Brooks says, even after a child has moved on.

Will that nurturing be enough?

Story transcends numbers

Looking strictly at statistics, the number of Mr. Merritt's students you might predict to graduate high school would be just over 50 percent.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the four-year graduation rate is 66 percent. For Hispanic students, it's 58 percent. For black students, 56 percent. All of Mr. Merritt's students are black or Hispanic. Several also have learning disabilities. The graduation rate for students with disabilities is 39 percent.

In addition, seven of Mr. Merritt's students are attending some of Charlotte's least successful high schools – Garinger, West Mecklenburg and West Charlotte – all designated as “challenge schools” because of consistently low pass rates.

Statistics, of course, don't tell the whole story.

Back in fifth grade, Mr. Merritt used to say that every kid in his class had “the right attitude” – an appreciation for the hard work required to get an education. That's valuable, even if it can't be measured.

He says he does worry about several of his students, especially those with volatile family situations and parents who don't place a high value on education.

Others have a drive to succeed and strong family support. He doesn't doubt they'll graduate.

Jose Perez, for instance, who moved to the United States from El Salvador when he was 6, has seen his parents flourish through hard work. Jose is taking honors classes at Phillip O. Berry Academy. He wants to be a computer engineer.

Mr. Merritt also has high hopes for Tai-Asia. She is attending Midwood, a transitional ninth-grade school for students who need extra help. Tai-Asia has a supportive mom and fierce tenacity. “I could see her being an awesome businesswoman,” he says.

And though some attend struggling high schools, that doesn't mean they won't find special teachers – other Mr. Merritts.

The school system values the nurturing that comes naturally to some teachers, says Barbara Ann Temple, CMS director of teacher development.

In recent years, the school system has even worked to train teachers to build resilience in students. The key, Temple says, is forming relationships.

“I know there are a lot of (Mr. Merritts) out there,” she says. “There are a lot…that go completely unrecognized.”

Lessons that linger

This month, Mr. Merritt's students are finding their way down the halls of Garinger, Independence, East Mecklenburg, Midwood, Phillip O. Berry, West Charlotte, West Mecklenburg.

They've got new worries and interests.

Jermey Steele is learning the mellophone in band. Javoni Farrar is playing JV football.

In June, Brianna Gonzalez, who moved to Mexico, couldn't wait to return to Charlotte. Now she says she has begun to appreciate her native country.

Since Mr. Merritt left Merry Oaks in 2006, he has taught dozens of other students. But when asked to give advice to his Merry Oaks class, he immediately offered specific suggestions that spoke to each kid's strengths and weaknesses.

A piece of every student, he says, stays with you.

A piece of Mr. Merritt has stayed with them, too. They still talk about how he motivated them and kept them focused.

When Jose got Mr. Merritt's phone number recently, he called to say hi.

Raekwon Boykin has stayed in touch. “He always knew what to say,” Raekwon says. When Raekwon got into trouble in June, Mr. Merritt counseled him by phone.

“He used to, like, make teaching fun,” Jennifer Lopez says.

“He was there for you,” Liliana says.

He's spiritual, Tai-Asia says. “He has a different personality that just brightens your day.”

Staff writer Ann Helms contributed.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271

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