Eighth-graders at Piedmont Middle School groan when they recall the newspaper project. But the Pigman trial lights them up.
The newspaper project is a sixth-grade rite of passage. For three months, language arts teacher Karen Bailey has students scouring the press for articles that relate to their reading, math, social studies and science classes, preferably with an international twist. They must keep a scrapbook and write analyses of each item they find.
That’s when students who have opted into this International Baccalaureate magnet school realize they’re going to work a lot harder than they ever have before.
“It’s horrible,” Principal Dee Gardner says with a grin. “Everybody dreads it.”
By seventh grade, when David Milligan has them read Paul Zindel’s novel “The Pigman,” they’re getting the hang of teamwork and projects. They split into defense and prosecution teams to argue over whether the two teenage protagonists are responsible for the death of an elderly man they befriended. The winning team gets to visit a real murder trial.
“We don’t take it lightly,” says eighth-grader Seungmin Park.
As schools across North Carolina and the nation move toward a curriculum that stresses analysis, research and real-life applications, this school on the north side of uptown Charlotte could serve as a model.
“Piedmont is a great example of where we need to be districtwide,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark.
Piedmont is one of CMS’ highest performing and most popular magnets. More than 90 percent of students passed last year’s state exams – including the African-American students who make up the majority and the low-income students who account for 42 percent of the student body.
Grant Gibson, an African-American eighth-grader, is quick to note that Piedmont defies stereotypes. He says a family friend once asked him if he’s afraid of competing with affluent white students.
“They’ve got to be scared to compete with me,” he replied.
Students need two things to get into Piedmont: grade-level test scores and luck in the lottery. The school tends to draw about twice as many sixth-grade applicants as it can admit.
About one-third of the students are classified as gifted, but Gardner says that many of her students struggle. Success, she and her students say, is more about work ethic than ability.
Seungmin says in elementary school he got As by following teachers’ directions. At Piedmont, he says, “just doing things that the teacher expects, that’s not A work. That’s B or C work.”
Top students are highly competitive with each other and with other schools. They set a tone that doing extra work is cool.
“What we have in common is the mindset,” says eighth-grader Myah Hobgood. She tutors students who need extra help, and she hammers home one message: Don’t gripe. Don’t chatter in class. Just do the work.
Not just academics
While grades and test scores are important, Gardner is just as proud of her school’s roster of sports, academic teams, electives and clubs. The football team has a five-year winning streak, she says, and the Science Olympiad team is one of the state’s powerhouse competitors.
Clubs offered during the school day range from fencing to science for girls, where the group recently learned the formula for making lipstick.
“We believe students need to explore in middle school, so that they enter high school knowing what they are good at and where their interests lie,” Gardner says.
Class projects also challenge students to stretch themselves and incorporate their own interests. This year’s seventh-graders must do a monologue on a historical figure – and deliver part of it in Spanish or French, which all Piedmont students study.
In eighth grade, students must identify a local problem, research it, propose a solution and write an essay. Grant, for instance, chose texting and driving; he wants to see phones that automatically lock up when they’re in a car. Myah, curious about the people she sees holding signs asking for money, looked at homelessness. She concluded that expanding affordable housing is more important than putting people into temporary shelters.
Then language arts teacher Kelly Hanson throws more challenges: Pick an international setting and see how your problem and solution play out there. And turn it into a multimedia presentation.
Gardner says the blend of skills prepares them for high school; she hears that when there’s a group project, “everybody wants a Piedmont kid.”
Tradition and change
Piedmont is a microcosm of Charlotte history. An inscription across the front of the building testifies to its opening as Piedmont Junior High in 1925.
It became an “open school” in the 1970s, a precursor to the magnet program that took off in the 1990s. In a city torn by busing struggles, families could choose to send their children to a diverse school with a teaching style that encouraged individual exploration.
CMS eventually added an IB magnet, with a curriculum regulated by an international governing body. Both programs shared the building until 2009, when the school board abolished the open program.
But Gardner says today’s Piedmont remains a hybrid. And that seemingly odd mashup – open exploration coupled with rigorous standards and an international focus – is exactly where the nation is going with the Common Core curriculum, she says.
Tradition is strong at Piedmont, where some students are following older siblings and even parents. But change is always a part of public education.
The Common Core and the new tests coming with it focus heavily on nonfiction. So last year Piedmont teachers introduced informational text analysis into all subjects, with labels such as “Read like a historian” or “Read like a mathematician.”
When CMS rolled out a “bring your own technology” program this year, Piedmont was one of the first schools that invited students to bring digital devices.
One more big change looms. Gardner, who came to Piedmont 25 years ago as a foreign-language teacher, is retiring Friday, after eight years as principal. She’s 68, with a total of 46 years as an educator. Still, she says, it’s hard to leave.
“I feel like I’m walking out on the kids,” she said last week.
Her successor will be named soon. Gardner has been grooming an assistant principal to keep the traditions intact. But the school has gained such prominence that CMS did a national search.
Whatever change is coming, the Piedmont tradition will shape it.