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A test for teachers: The success of high achievers

On a Monday morning, while many eighth-graders were getting extra help with reading or math, Ursula Robinson and three teammates were building a spaghetti-and-marshmallow tower.

They tried it a week before, with only five minutes to plan. Their cubic base collapsed before it was time to measure the height.

After that, teacher Matt Rankin showed his AVID class a video on similar construction projects. The students, working in teams, did research and drew up plans before trying again.

For schools such as Ashley Park and other Project LIFT schools, where many students fall below grade level, one challenge is making sure stronger students aren’t neglected. Many families, including Ursula’s parents, believe they can boost their children’s odds of success by getting them into schools with larger numbers of high achievers. But the flight of top students stacks the odds against efforts to improve West Charlotte High and other LIFT schools.

When CMS decided to move middle school students to Ashley Park, it created a small group of classmates who get individual attention. The school does ability grouping, so Ursula and other high-performing students can move at a faster pace.

But the small setting also reduces the elective classes and clubs found in larger middle schools. AVID, a national program designed to prepare students for college, is one answer.

AVID isn’t unique to Project LIFT; various schools in CMS have used it for years. But West Charlotte and its feeders are adopting AVID to help students get ready for life after graduation.

Extra opportunities

For the first hour of each day, Ashley Park eighth-graders who are on track to pass their exams go to Rankin’s class for AVID.

Many students come and go, depending on how their last skills test went, but Ursula is a regular. The petite 14-year-old, who jazzes up her blue-and-khaki uniform with pink accessories and sparkly jewelry, brings a quiet focus to her work.

When the AVID students tutored third-graders, Ursula sat down with 9-year-old Jocelin Espinoza and helped her whip through math worksheets.

When Rankin showed the class a video of two teens performing a poem about childhood, Ursula and four friends wrote one about watching “Dora the Explorer” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” dancing the electric slide and buying Blow Pops for a quarter.

The tower challenge was designed to develop problem-solving and teamwork.

Ursula and her teammates decided to stick with a square base. They tripled up strands of uncooked spaghetti for strength, and decided not to rely on the fragile pasta for vertical support. Instead, they built a series of squares and stacked them, using marshmallows as corner supports.

Ursula worked steadily, suggesting adjustments when the frame started to tilt. “C’mon, y’all – do this,” she urged.

Just before the time ran out, the whole thing sagged toward the floor. Ursula looked at the collapsed mess, broke into giggles and helped clean up.

Before they left, Rankin had everyone write up lessons learned.

Exploring options

When Ursula started sixth grade, her parents tried to get her out of the westside schools that serve their home off Tuckaseegee Road.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act required CMS to offer alternatives to low-performing, high-poverty schools such as Spaugh Middle, where she would have gone. She got into Bradley, a racially and economically diverse middle school 14 miles away in Huntersville.

Ursula got on the bus at 5 a.m. and got home after 6. For the first time she was in a school where most of her classmates were also working on grade level. She got her first C, then worked to bring it up.

“It was almost like she was in college,” said Fabian Robinson, a former postal worker who works as a CMS bus monitor.

But when Spaugh closed and the No Child Left Behind rules changed, Ursula lost transportation. With both parents working – Lauren Robinson is a dietary supervisor at a nursing home – they couldn’t get her to and from Huntersville. She rejoined former classmates at the new Ashley Park middle school, less than two miles from home.

Now the family focus is on high school.

Ursula, who loves animals and cooking, talks about studying veterinary science or culinary arts. She thinks West Charlotte would be good for that.

Her parents were wary. They had a bad impression of West Charlotte High. Her dad insisted she apply for Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, a nearby magnet with admission requirements. He hoped it might steer her toward a lucrative biotech career. But she didn’t get a seat in the lottery.

One of Project LIFT’s challenges is convincing families of good students that West Charlotte can be a good option. It has an International Baccalaureate magnet, but the reputation as a low-performing school makes it hard to attract students. The magnet lottery for rising ninth-graders drew 136 applicants for West Charlotte, the lowest of the district’s four IB high schools. East Meck, with a more diverse student body and a better reputation, got 366 freshman applications.

This summer, West Charlotte will offer its strongest rising ninth-graders the chance to take freshman English or algebra before school starts, freeing a place in their schedules to take an Advanced Placement course right off the bat.

When Project LIFT held a Black History Month quiz bowl at West Charlotte, the faculty was poised to win over parents. The Robinsons went to watch Ursula compete. Monica Martin, who heads the IB program, told them she knows Ursula from Ashley Park and wants her at West Charlotte. She gave the Robinsons her card and promised to take Ursula under her wing.

“They’re going to focus on those who want to learn,” Lauren Robinson says proudly.

“Getting an academic scholarship would be a dream come true,” Fabian Robinson adds.

They’re starting to warm to the idea of their daughter graduating with West Charlotte’s Class of 2017.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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