Berryhill School has long been a standout among Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s high-poverty schools.
It outperformed most of its counterparts when it was an elementary school, and it continues as the high-flier after the district added middle school students to Berryhill and seven other westside elementary schools. When the state started grading schools based on students’ exam performance, all eight got D’s or F’s. Berryhill has risen to a C, with significantly more students reading and doing math on grade level.
Stability – in the school and the community – is the key to Berryhill’s success, school leaders say.
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The school, sandwiched between the airport and the Catawba River, has a rural feel. The majority of students are Hispanic, and many live in trailer parks with parents who work in construction, housekeeping and landscaping.
When longtime Berryhill Principal Paul Pratt was promoted to central offices in 2014, his assistant, Cara Heath, stepped in. Heath says the Berryhill advantage is “the relationships that we have with the kids and families here, and the trust that they put in us to take care of their kids.”
Assistant Principal Leroy Wray, who came to Berryhill from another one of CMS’ preK-8 schools three years ago, says there’s another difference: The parents instill respect for authority. Unlike the other combined schools, Berryhill sees very few suspensions.
“That pushback against authority is the hard piece,” Wray said. “That is the piece that keeps preK-8s in low-income areas from being successful.”
The school is small and poverty levels are high. But Berryhill works at offering classes that some of its counterparts lack, such as high-school Math I for eighth-graders and Spanish and French in every grade.
One big challenge at Berryhill has been crowding: The small building wasn’t adequate for the students who poured in with the merger, so they’re in mobile classrooms now. That will change in August, when a new Renaissance West school opens and takes part of the zone.
CMS is now asking families, faculty, students and volunteers whether their preK-8 schools should return to being an elementary or middle school. Not surprisingly, Berryhill is one of three that has voiced a strong preference for staying as is.
“The atmosphere is so calm and caring,” says eighth-grader Asly Medina, who says she likes sharing a school with her 9-year-old sister.