At the start of this school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools steered struggling incoming freshmen away from its most troubled high schools and into a new program at Midwood High.
With low student-teacher ratios and intensive catch-up work, Midwood was to get them on or near grade level in one year. They'd then advance to regular high school ready to succeed and less likely to drop out.
As Midwood wraps its first year, Superintendent Peter Gorman and other CMS officials say the concept worked well. Principal Sheila Ijames says about 170 out of the 239 students who enrolled made enough progress to move on to regular high schools next term.
How they perform there will help determine whether Midwood works.
In the meantime, results were less satisfactory with about 20 students, who must return to Midwood this summer or in the fall. And about 45 students dropped out before finishing the year.
That dropout rate – nearly 19percent – is more than double county and state rates for high schools.
But Ijames (pronounced EYE-ams) says some of Midwood's students arrived with reading and math skills comparable to those of third- and fourth-graders.
Without Midwood, Ijames contends, all 239 of her kids would have been at high risk of dropping out.
“It was good,” she said of the school's first year. “But our destination is excellence.”
Step by step
At Midwood, improvement is often measured in small steps. One of the school's biggest challenges is simply getting kids to come to school.
Ijames said most of the students who didn't make it out of Midwood failed to attend classes regularly enough. More than 90 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunches. One boy told Ijames he lived with his brother, a drug dealer, she said.
“It's not that they can't do (the work),” she said. “It's that the streets look better to them.”
When kids didn't show, the school regularly sent social workers, dropout-prevention counselors and campus police officers out after them. Ijames said school can be a tough sell when you're talking to 16- and 17-year-olds embarrassed to find themselves in ninth grade with 14-year-olds.
Those who do attend have classes far smaller than any comprehensive high school can offer. Math teacher Jessica Savage and English teacher Reginald LaRoche said their classes averaged about 10 students.
The size allows more one-on-one teaching, but also a deeper personal bond. Savage tutored after school; LaRoche took boys aside for “guy talks” on decision-making and responsibility.
“You can go straight to a West Charlotte or a West Meck, but you're going to be sitting in a class with 30 kids,” LaRoche said. “We'll get you prepared so when you're sitting in a class with 30 kids, you're not afraid.”
Gorman made establishing a program's like Midwood's (previously called “eight-plus”) one of the key planks of his districtwide reform plan. He said he was pleased with the school's first year, but cautioned against over-celebrating the expected achievement “bounce” other high schools could enjoy as Midwood tackles the toughest academic cases.
Ijames said discipline has been a challenge at times. She sought help from Area Superintendent Curtis Carroll in dealing with about 15 hard-to-handle students.
CMS incident reports show a February incident in which seven students were taken to the hospital after allegedly taking prescription drugs. Three showed signs of dizziness and one passed out.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police records show officers responded to the school 24 times in the past three months, and handled offenses involving at least 10 fights, assaults or disturbances.
Almost 90 percent of Midwood teachers who completed CMS's annual teacher survey this term said they feel safe working at the school. All surveyed said they felt Ijames was doing her best to ensure the safety of the staff and students.
However, only about a third said students behave in an orderly manner in halls, the cafeteria and other open areas.
Ijames says Midwood is not a dumping ground for bad kids. She thinks of it as a “prep school” for high school. Pennants for Johnson C. Smith and other universities cover one hallway bulletin board. Students toured colleges and listened to monthly motivational speakers, such as Charlotte Bobcats owner Bob Johnson.
“Some of our children made some bad decisions and that's why they're here,” Ijames said. “But for the most part these are not children who failed. They have been failed.”
A wake-up call
Crissy Floyd wasn't happy when she learned she'd be coming to Midwood. She said she'd warred with teachers at Eastway Middle School, getting suspended multiple times in the eighth grade.
But at Midwood, she won awards for attendance and behavior. She credited Midwood's teachers with showing more respect and patience toward her. And she credited herself for working harder and curbing her attitude.
Being sent to Midwood was a wake-up call, she said. She's heading to 10th grade at Independence High next year.
Seventeen of Midwood's 23 original teachers will return this fall. If Tuesday's year-end awards ceremony was any indication, Midwood's first year will leave a lasting impression on them, as well.
At bigger high schools, organizers zip through the presentation of awards, realizing it would take far too long to praise each student. But Midwood teachers hugged student after student as they called them up for certificates.
They praised students individually, how they'd tempered bad attitudes or showed quiet dignity while making the best out of a bad situation.
Suzanne Black, a physical education teacher, choked up as she told students how challenging and rewarding it had been to work with them. She said she'd known one student previously at another school, “and it wasn't always a pleasant experience.” She said she watched the young man change at Midwood.
“I came with the purpose of changing your lives,” she told the students, “and you have changed mine. I truly love you.”
“We love you, too!” a student called back.
Edah Johnson said her twin sons, Sanwone and Santae Benjamin, weren't thrilled about attending Midwood. But they are headed to Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in the fall as 10th-graders.
“They have teachers who are really concentrating on helping these students succeed,” she said. “This was a blessing for (the twins), it really was.”