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What I learned in Mr. Merritt’s class

By Pam Kelley By in my opinion
Pam Kelley
Pam Kelley is the Reading Life editor for The Charlotte Observer.

What does it take to leave no child behind?

When I walked into Jeremiah Merritt’s classroom at Merry Oaks International Academy in August 2005, I was trying to explore that question. “No child left behind” was the education mantra of the moment. The federal No Child Left Behind Act required rigorous testing designed to ensure that kids didn’t fall through the cracks.

It was a noble goal. But how did it work in the classroom every day? Merry Oaks was the perfect place to investigate. It sat in a quiet neighborhood off Central Avenue east of uptown Charlotte, and despite its storybook name, it confronted multiple challenges. Eighty-four percent of its students were poor. For nearly half, English wasn’t the main language spoken at home.

I spent that school year writing about Merritt and his 17 fifth-graders, kids 10 and 11, still young enough to hug their teachers and covet the smiley-face stickers Merritt gave out for good work.

Though several were at or above grade level, 10 hadn’t passed the previous year’s End-of-Grade tests. Five were Spanish speakers still learning English. Several were “educationally challenged,” a label that covered learning disabilities, plus emotional and behavioral issues.

Over months, I watched how Merritt and other staff attended to both academic and social needs, providing rides to parents without cars, consoling children dealing with family hardships, making sure everyone had winter coats and school supplies.

I wrote about the students again in 2009, when they were teenagers starting high school. By then, some boys had wisps of mustaches. The Hispanic girls were buying gowns for quinceneras, the coming-of-age parties for their 15th birthdays. For several, driver’s ed was months away.

This spring, they all should have graduated. I’ve tried to track them down and find out if they did. I found 10.

Eight have high school diplomas. They’re now young men and women, some hardly resembling those kids I met in 2005.

One is headed to the Marines. Several are considering the military. Most say they want to continue their education, in college or vocational school. The ninth dropped out but got her GED and plans to enroll in community college. The tenth is a year behind after failing classes but is determined to get his diploma.

I suspect that if I had found all 17, the graduation rate wouldn’t be as high. The students I couldn’t find have left the Charlotte school system. Two may have moved out of the country. Two have been arrested.

Merritt is now a minister in Darlington, S.C. When I talked with him about his students, he said he sometimes wonders if he could have done more.

“You could see certain tendencies, certain paths that some of them were swaying toward,” he told me. “You wish you could just be there for them to sway them away from the negative directions. A part of me feels a little guilt. What should I have done? What could I have done? I don’t know.”

A lot of things these students needed required money. Some don’t have computers and Internet access in their homes. It’s hard to get by in high school, let alone excel, without a computer.

Many could have benefited from tutoring outside of school. A couple need savvy college counseling. But it can cost thousands of dollars for those kinds of services.

Several who’ve graduated were lucky enough to find mentors. Kathryn Swett Shupe helped get Tai-Asia Rios through high school. Lily Valencia’s bosses at Sassy Salon are guiding her search for the right beauty school. Salon co-owner Nancy Marin told me she wants to make sure Lily doesn’t get loaded down with student loan debt.

I keep thinking about what Merritt told me – that he feels a little guilt about the kids who haven’t succeeded. Then I remember all that he did for his students. He held after-school tutoring sessions and organized volunteers to teach on a Saturday morning before the End-of-Grade tests. Occasionally, he and his wife, Tifani, also a Merry Oaks teacher then, would host a couple of boys at their house on the weekend. When one child showed up for fifth-grade graduation in his school uniform instead of a dress shirt and pants, they scrambled to buy new clothing, ironed it and put it on him.

What more could Mr. Merritt have done? I just don’t know.

Kelley: 704-358-5271;
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