Malik Carters reputation preceded him to Ashley Park.
When administrators reviewed files on the seventh-graders who would arrive in August 2011, Maliks discipline problems stood out.
But so did his academic record. Malik was clearly smart. But he was angry.
When he stepped off the bus, he had R.I.P. Bishop Spaugh inked on his arm, a protest of the districts decision to close his old middle school. When Assistant Principal Jeanette Reber asked him to pull up his pants, he glared at her and stalked off.
That first year, Malik was suspended 13 times, for fighting classmates, cursing teachers and similar offenses. Virtually everyone on staff saw the hostile side of Malik.
Sometimes I just lose it. I aint going to lie, says Malik, now 15.
A central tenet of Project LIFT is that schools such as Ashley Park must be staffed by adults who wont give up on their students, no matter how many problems they bring or how many times they mess up.
Administrators and teachers saw Maliks popularity and intelligence. They kept trying to reach him.
One day in seventh grade, after Malik had defied her once again, Reber ordered him to follow her around. They didnt talk much at first. At lunch, he started asking her questions. By afternoon, she was asking his advice.
At the end of the day, Reber says, we had a different relationship.
This year, Malik greets Reber with a hug, introducing himself with a smile as Malik Carter-Reber. Malik has gone with Reber and her daughter, a senior at South Mecklenburg High, to visit Appalachian State University.
As Reber and others earned Maliks respect, a different side of him emerged.
He was chosen president of Ashley Parks Right Moves for Youth club, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police program that works with Project LIFT schools. He joined the Ashley Park Eagles, a basketball team sponsored by Right Moves.
Reber asked Matt Rankin, a 28-year-old social studies teacher, to mentor Malik. When Rankin saw Malik making progress, he asked Malik to work with a first-grader who struggles with tantrums and rage. Malik started making regular visits to the 6-year-old.
One day, when the little boy was spinning out of control, his teacher watched in amazement as he began breathing heavily and counting. She asked what he was doing. This is what Malik taught me, he said.
In November, Rankin took his social studies class to America I AM, an exhibit on African-American history. Afterward they wrote identity poems, building on the statement I am ...
I am always being judged, Malik began. He wrote about trying to let go of the past, about the pain he has caused and the pain he has suffered. He wrote about dreaming of greatness while fearing hell end up in jail.
When he showed it to Reber, she fought to control her emotion. She praised his work, then took the poem home and read it again. That time she cried.
Living in two worlds
Malik started earning a name throughout the Project LIFT zone as an Ashley Park success. But for the adults who care about him, hope is always balanced with fear.
He goes home to a grandmother who loves him.
I brought him home from the hospital, says Patsy Carter, 59, who works at the Doubletree Hotel. Its always been me and him. I know he means a lot to a lot of people. But he means everything to me.
Their apartment complex is a short walk from the upscale restaurants and condos that surround Johnson & Wales University. But it is a center of activity for the West Trade Bloods, who have begun calling themselves the Mecklenburg County Killers, police who work that area say.
Police confirm what Malik has told his teachers: He is not an active member. And they say the killers label is hype, at least so far.
But Malik has been known to defy Ashley Parks ban on wearing red, the Bloods color. When Principal Tonya Kales and Principal Intern Quintin Chiles take him home, Malik talks bluntly about his world outside of school.
When Kales gave him a ride after a February basketball game, Malik told her about a gang member pulling a gun on him. As they approached his complex, he warned her: If people are standing in the street, dont stop.
Chiles sees Maliks demeanor shift as he steps out of his Jeep.
He takes on the persona you have to have, Chiles says. I know hes going to put his book bag down, come back out and run the street.
Even now, Maliks street persona sometimes surfaces at school.
He has learned to trust and respect some of his teachers, but the cast of adults in his life keeps changing. When he got a new language arts teacher in November the fourth since the start of school he defied her and got sent to the office.
In January, another new teacher scolded a group of students being rowdy in the hall, saying they were acting like 5-year-olds. Malik took it personally. If Im like a 5-year-old, what are you? he said angrily. Like a midget?
He was suspended.
At the end of February, Malik and a friend showed up high. It was a disappointment, but not a shock. Kales says at least half of her seventh- and eighth-graders smoke marijuana in their neighborhoods, and Malik has been caught before. He was suspended again.
While he was out, he got into a fistfight. When he returned, he felt like classmates were talking about him behind his back. He threatened to fight another student and got sent home for 10 days.
My heart is broken, Reber said.
Malik returned in mid-March. He knows he lost some of the trust he had earned but says hes serious about getting back on track.
He stayed after school to catch up on assignments.
He took exams to gauge how hell do at years end. He scored at grade level in language arts and above grade level in math. As teachers made their final push toward testing, Malik was moved up to the highest-level classes in all subjects.
Before that, though, Malik went back to the first-grade hall to explain his absence to his young buddy.
I said I did some bad things that he shouldnt do.