Ronnie Marshall, math teacher at East Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh, explains why it's important to challenge students such as Christian Bell, 13, by placing them in advanced classes.

In Raleigh, one mother battles school officials to keep her 8th-grade son on the road to college

When Salene Miller registered her oldest child for middle school, she knew changes were in store. No recess. Different teachers in every class. Frothy hormones.

But her biggest concern was getting her son, Christian Bell, on the track to college. Miller, a single mom of three who works in a medical practice and a grocery store, is a high school graduate. She wants more for her children.

A preacher and a cousin who teaches pointed out a key gateway to a good college: Christian should start high school math in eighth grade. From kindergarten on, his report cards described Christian, now 13, as a bright student. At the first standardized tests at the end of third grade, he scored above grade level in both math and reading, but he was not placed in gifted classes.

In fourth and fifth grades, his end-of-grade scores were at grade level, not above, but he ended fifth grade with top scores in all his classes.

As he entered middle school, Christian entered North Carolina’s second sorting point, where administrators again choose students to be placed in more rigorous classes. In sixth, seventh and eighth grades, school officials assigned Christian to the standard track, where bright students can miss out on the advanced classes that can lead to more opportunities.

Christian’s story is not uncommon: Every year across North Carolina, thousands of low-income students who have superior math scores are left out of programs that could help them get to college, an investigation by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reveals. They are excluded from advanced classes at a far higher rate than their more affluent classmates who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Christian Bell hopes to stay in advanced math classes next year in high school.

For students who have the aptitude for college, four years of advanced math in high school can elevate them in the admissions process. But those chances can rise and fall on starting early: taking high school math, known as Math 1, in eighth grade.

Among low-income students who test above grade level in sixth grade but don’t take high school math by eighth grade, only one in 14 go on to take four advanced math courses in high school, the N&O/Observer analysis of state data about 2015 graduates shows.

For those who do start high school math by eighth grade, the numbers are better: two in five.

Salene Miller, 36, said she originally assumed that schools knew best. If not for the coaching from the minister and her cousin, her son would have slid off the honors track, and she wouldn’t have even known.

“As a single mother and a minority, I want to trust the school system to do the best thing for my children,” Miller said. “I want them to have my children’s best interest at heart and push them to their potential.”

Disappointed that the schools don’t always do what she thinks is best, she is determined to advocate for her children.

Learning to advocate

When bright students move up to middle school, their ability to stay on an academic fast track depends on the courses they are offered and choose to take.

Some students have college-educated, empowered parents who monitor class schedules and step in if their children aren’t placed in the most rigorous courses.

That’s not Salene Miller’s background.

She grew up on Long Island in a family where no one has graduated from college. She always thought of college as a fairy tale – a pleasant thought but nothing for her or her children. She moved to northeastern North Carolina after high school to help take care of her grandfather in Halifax County. She moved to Raleigh, where she has held a series of service jobs at hospitals, doctors’ offices and grocery stores.

Family life worsened when Christian’s father dropped his regular visits, Miller said. Things began unraveling for him at Bugg Elementary School.

“In second grade I was horrible,” Christian said. “I used to flip tables over and steal things.”

Miller, desperate to keep her child on a good path, took him to the front desk of the Raleigh Police Department headquarters downtown, where a stern desk officer gave the 7-year-old a warning.

“The policeman said if I continued he’d arrest me,” Christian said. “And he said they fed the people inside spinach and water.”

The Rev. Kirby Jones founded the Daniel Center for Math and Science in Raleigh, a program providing science, technology and math education for children from low-income homes.

That intervention helped, and Miller learned other tactics after she enrolled Christian in an after-school program near her home in Southeast Raleigh. At the Daniel Center for STEM, started by the Rev. Kirby Jones, she learned how to advocate for her children.

After years of witnessing bright children grow up to lead an aimless street life or worse, Jones came to believe that rigorous education was the way to break the cycle of poverty and dysfunction. The Daniel Center offers after-school and summer programs that promote STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

“From the moment they step foot in here, we ask them what college they will attend, and we keep asking,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter what school.”

Salene Miller thought this was a gimmick until Jones told her about the N.C. State engineering and science students who volunteer at the center. Jones asks each when they first knew they were going to college.

“All said their parents always expected them to go to college,” Miller said. “There was never an epiphany for these kids.”

From that point she has repeatedly hammered her children with the same message, even as she worries about where the money will come from: “I tell them, you’ve got to go to college, there is no other option.”

‘You have been nominated’

Report cards show that Christian’s teachers saw promise from kindergarten forward: “a very bright student”; “amazing academically”; and “above grade level,” while urging him to improve his behavior.

At the first standardized tests at the end of third grade, he scored above grade level in both math and reading, a level reached by only 6 percent of low-income Wake students that year. His scores on a key aptitude test used in Wake, however, fell short of the level required to be placed in gifted classes.

At the end of fourth grade, a letter arrived from the National Young Scholar Program, inviting Christian to a week-long academic summer camp at Peace College.

Miller still recites how the letter started: “Master Christian, you have been nominated....”

Christian would live in a dorm, take classes and be treated like a college student for a week, but it would have cost about $2,000. He didn’t go.

“There was no way we could afford it,” Miller said.

To report this series, The News & Observer acquired seven years of student-level data for the state's 115 school districts and charter schools from the state Department of Public Instruction. Each year, it includes the end-of-grade scores for nearly 700,000 North Carolina elementary and middle-school students and similar data for roughly 455,000 high school students.

This is the same data used by DPI to produce its annual report cards - snapshots about the performance of schools. Our analysis went deeper to compare the experiences of high-scoring students from low-income households with those of their higher-income classmates.

We don't know who the students are. But unique ID numbers allowed us to track the students from year to year and to follow how schools assign those students from class to class.

We found racial disparities among high-scoring students: Among more affluent students, Asians are more likely to be placed in rigorous classes, while black and Hispanic students are less likely. Whites are placed at a rate equal to the state average.

We focused on low-income students, measured by those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Year in and year out, a smaller proportion of low-income third graders who score at the highest level on end-of-grade tests get on the track of advanced courses compared to their more affluent classmates. And more of these students slip through the cracks as the years go by.

We focused on math for several reasons: it is sequential, so students who fall behind find it difficult to catch up; measuring math skills is less subjective than areas such as reading and social sciences; and as a student progresses, math scores help determine enrollment in high school classes such as chemistry, biology and physics.

These end-of-grade tests measure achievement and start in the third grade, when students take their first state reading and math exams. Many school districts use other measures, such as aptitude tests and teacher screenings, to decide admission to gifted programs. Some also consider the end-of-grade scores.

The end-of-grade tests aren't a perfect measure, but they're important enough that North Carolina lawmakers and education officials have long used them to shape public policy and spending decisions. We were not able to obtain the results of aptitude tests.

North Carolina's education system has many independent pieces, and often it's not clear just who's in charge.

The General Assembly allocates the money for local schools and writes education law. The State Board of Education sets policy. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction implements these laws and policies. And each of the state's 115 school districts has an elected board, which hires a superintendent to run the schools.

In fact, the state Board of Education and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction are squaring off in court to determine just who is in control of the state's education department. This action comes after legislators passed a new law giving more hiring clout to new Superintendent Mark Johnson.

When it comes to programs to push and support gifted students, state law lets local school boards set policy on how to choose children for the programs.

The General Assembly gives each district a gifted supplement tied to the district's enrollment. Many districts supplement that money with local contributions.

 

Christian ended fifth grade at Bugg Elementary with grades of “exemplary” in math, science and English. His end-of-grade scores had dropped to “solid,” not “superior.” When he entered Ligon Middle School, a magnet school, he was assigned to the regular math track. Rev. Jones urged her to push the school to assign Christian to an advanced class. She signed a waiver and Ligon placed him in accelerated math.

Christian had some disciplinary problems in sixth grade. “He hung out with some knuckleheads,” Miller said. “He didn’t want to be different.”

Christian was seen as troublesome, so Miller said school officials didn’t assign him to the advanced math class in seventh grade, saying it was too challenging for him.

Miller looked for help from her cousin, Kaneka Turner, a teacher and math coach in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Turner diagnosed behavioral problems typical for a sixth-grade boy. She urged her cousin to hire a tutor or do anything necessary to keep Christian on the more challenging track in seventh grade.

The value of Math 1

The N&O/Observer data analysis supports Turner.

Taking high school math in middle school gives a big boost to scores on the ACT, tests taken by every North Carolina 11th grader and vital to college admission. Students who take Math 1 before high school score an average of five points higher on the math portion of the ACT than those with the same incomes who don’t, analysis of data from the state Department of Public Instruction shows. The top score is 36.

In fact, the low-income students who take Math 1 in eighth grade, with family incomes below $24,000, outscore the highest-income students who don’t, those with family incomes above $150,000.

Braska Williams, the coordinator of the N.C. Math Science Education Network at N.C. State University, said math is the gatekeeper to college.

“If you want to go to college, you need to take Math 1 in eighth grade,” Williams said. “Math is sequential. If you fall behind, you are behind.”

Not everyone agrees. Jennifer Curtis, math section chief at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, cautioned against pushing students into Math 1 too soon, especially since the state introduced the more rigorous Common Core standards.

“Some districts are really trying to limit how many students go into these courses in middle school,” Curtis said.

But Turner, the math coach, was adamant that her relative needed to take Math 1 early.

“Once he gets off the track, it’s almost impossible to get back on,” she said. “Kids know when they are not being challenged. They know when they’re moved out of that environment. The way they see themselves shifts, and they don’t make it back up until they’re adults.”

Turner speaks from personal experience. Her family moved from New York to Raleigh when she was in the 11th grade. She struggled in her math class while trying to make friends in a new city. She asked for an easier math class, her counselor didn’t object and her mother didn’t push her. She resolved not to do anything math-oriented in college.

She embraced math only as an adult and is now a math coach in Charlotte. She wishes someone would have pushed her in high school.

“The expectation is everything,” she said. “Imagine the kids whose parents didn’t know, and didn’t pay attention to it. Those kids never got the opportunity.”

As a teacher, Turner gave her cousin a critical piece of advice about advocating for Christian: “The parent voice always wins. You just keep pressing.”

Continuing to push

Salene Miller met with all of Christian’s teachers individually, then together in a group, and then with his counselor. Again, she signed a waiver to keep him on the accelerated path in seventh grade at Ligon Middle School. Christian’s report card shows he got A’s that year.

In eighth grade, the family moved from Southeast Raleigh to be closer to Miller’s job. East Millbrook Middle School assigned Christian to regular eighth grade math. He had already covered the contents of that class in sixth and seventh grade. Again, Miller went to the school and requested he be put a more difficult class, this time in Math 1. The school complied and did not require a waiver.

Wake officials said Christian’s school performance fell short of the standards for advanced middle-school math classes in 6th and 7th grade, making it necessary for Salene Miller to sign waivers.

At East Millbrook, Ronnie Marshall teaches Christian in a Math 1 class of eighth graders. Marshall said Math 1 was probably his most influential class when he attended Greensboro’s Grimsley High School. After struggling in eighth grade, he retook the class in ninth grade, and his teacher, Nadine Stone, made quite an impression.

“She made everything clear to me,” said Marshall, now in his fourth year of teaching. “That’s when I decided to become a math teacher.”

In class, Christian appears focused, raising his hand frequently to ask questions. Sometimes he offers alternative solutions for algebra problems. He appears to like answering questions, or helping other students in small groups.

Christian admits that he hasn’t been always been the best student.

“In sixth grade, I wouldn’t try my hardest,” he said. “When teachers are a lot more strict, it’s better for me.”

One of Christian’s favorite classes is band. A trumpet player, he looks forward to being in the marching band in high school, and hopes one day to own his own instrument.

And he hopes to go to college, the first in his family.

Christian is a phenomenal student, Marshall said. “He likes to ask questions, and doesn’t like to move on until he understands the material.”

As for high school next year? Marshall sees Christian in Honors Math 2.

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff