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He’s eager to learn, needs individual help

School has never been easy for Elijah Shirley.

His childhood was marked by family turmoil. He attended four elementary schools.

His father, Melvin Shirley, says doctors and educators tossed around explanations for why Elijah had such a hard time. But most teachers just wrote him off as a bad student, his dad says.

Shirley, who didn’t finish high school, got a strong partner in advocacy when he married Phebe, a college graduate. And the couple say Elijah finally got the support he needed in fifth grade at Dilworth Elementary, then an arts magnet. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities.

But then it was time for middle school. Elijah started at Spaugh, then moved again when district leaders closed that school.

Now 13, Elijah is settling into Ashley Park, where the eighth-grade teachers know every student. Elijah has built a reputation as a student who’s eager to succeed, even as he struggles to stay focused.

Finding ways to help students with academic weaknesses is essential to the success of Project LIFT. Well under half the students who finished seventh grade at LIFT schools last year – the ones who are now in eighth grade, aiming for 2017 graduation – left with grade-level reading skills. Across CMS, more than two-thirds of last year’s seventh-graders passed reading.

Among the LIFT eighth-graders, one in eight has some type of disability, a slightly higher rate than CMS overall.

Last summer, LIFT donors footed the bill for summer programs designed to build reading skills. Such summer reading camps are growing across the district, but the LIFT money greatly expanded the option for students in those schools.

Principals in LIFT schools nominated students they thought would benefit. Elijah was chosen but declined. He was already enrolled in a summer church camp.

At Ashley Park, students who need the most help have the smallest classes – Elijah’s group has about 15 students – with a special education teacher and assistant helping.

Even that isn’t always enough.

“He needs one-on-one,” said math teacher Stavon Brown. When an adult isn’t at his side, Elijah’s eyes dart from classmate to classmate. He’ll call out a correct answer, then forget the material 20 minutes later.

Math is one of his favorite classes, so he and his parents were dismayed when he brought home his third-quarter progress report. He had an F in math.

“I’m going to try to step it up a level,” Elijah said. “Ask for work. Stay on task.”

Tests loom

Few students are as intensely monitored as those in Project LIFT. For most of the year, Ashley Park’s eighth-graders were given skills tests and assigned to “intervention” classes every two weeks. In April, as the focus on final exams intensified, those tests became weekly events.

This month, Elijah will join students across North Carolina in taking new reading and math exams. It’s part of a shift to a national Common Core curriculum that will require students to master grammar and analysis of densely worded nonfiction texts, tasks that have proven challenging for many Ashley Park students.

Elijah calls the work boring. And he doesn’t like tests: “Most of the time when I look at a test I panic and I get a bad grade.”

LIFT is paying for tests created by Discovery Education to simulate the new exams and analyze students’ weaknesses. Language arts teacher Michelle Haller gave Elijah and his classmates their first trial run in January. Most failed.

They tried again in mid-March. Everyone met in the cafeteria, where teachers and administrators urged them to take the work seriously. They told students the scores will go to high school principals to help decide which classes to put them in.

The 26-page exam included questions about Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, an article about green power in West Virginia and a draft of a student paper on reasons to give up soft drinks. There were also multiple-choice questions about vocabulary, structure, purpose and reliable research sources.

Elijah and other students who didn’t finish during the first 90-minute block went to a quiet room the next day to keep working.

This time scores were much better. The testing software breaks results into four skills. Elijah earned a grade-level score for writing. His scores for language, literature and information were lower, but showed improvement.

Equal opportunity?

Ashley Park, like the LIFT zone as a whole, has a poverty rate of 87 percent, compared with 54 percent in CMS. Some say such high concentrations of poverty stack the odds against student success. Project LIFT is out to prove those critics wrong.

But Melvin and Phebe Shirley are skeptical.

Phebe’s daughter McKenzie is in eighth grade at Northwest School of the Arts, a CMS magnet with lower poverty and a more diverse student body. They say she brings home far more homework and projects.

Two younger brothers are also at Ashley Park, the neighborhood school for their home off Freedom Drive in northwest Charlotte. The Shirleys believe schools in more affluent neighborhoods would do more for their children.

“We want to move so they can be in a better school zone, but right now financially we have to stay here,” Phebe Shirley says. Her job at Piedmont Natural Gas supports the family’s five children, ages 3 to 14, while Melvin Shirley takes courses at Central Piedmont Community College.

Phebe Shirley shudders at the prospect of Elijah going to West Charlotte High. She believes he’d do better at Berry or Harding magnet schools, but it isn’t clear that he can meet the entrance requirements.

Like many teens, Elijah is vague about the future. He knows he needs to graduate from high school and wants to go to college.

“I want to be making lots of money, have my own family,” he says, “handling my own family and supporting them.”

Helms: 704-358-5033
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