At Byers preK-8 school, the promise of continuity is undermined by homelessness

Elementary students at Walter G. Byers preK-8 school enjoy a 2015 pep rally.
Elementary students at Walter G. Byers preK-8 school enjoy a 2015 pep rally. Observer file photo

When Anthony Calloway became principal at Walter G. Byers School, he liked the idea of seeing kids arrive as 4-year-olds and helping them leave ready for high school 10 years later.

Continuity is supposed to be one of the biggest benefits of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s preK-8 schools. When the plan was rolled out, district leaders said merging elementary and middle schools would smooth the transition for sixth-graders, who generally see scores drop when they move to a new school.

But stability can be hard to deliver in a school that serves low-cost apartments and a large homeless shelter for women and children. Almost 30 percent of this year’s students are homeless or lack stable housing. Children arrive with all the challenges of poverty and trauma, and they often switch schools before they can sink deep roots at Byers.

As CMS leaders poll the communities at eight merged elementary/middle schools about possible change, Byers is one that’s leaning toward returning to traditional grade levels.

The promises made when CMS merged the two levels have proven elusive. Sixth-graders still struggle academically. Even if they don’t switch schools, the curriculum gets harder and their peer group changes.

“We’re not making the progress that we need to in regards to our middle school scholars,” Calloway says.

He acknowledges that parents’ fears about small children mingling with adolescents aren’t unfounded. The school works to keep them separated, but on the bus, “sometimes there are things that are said or conversations that might be eavesdropped on that I’m sure wouldn’t pass Grandma’s test and you don’t want the kids listening to.”

Eyvonne Hooper, grandmother of three Byers students, blames behavior problems on students who don’t get discipline at home: “The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ ”

Most students are performing below grade level, and last year 20 percent were suspended at least once. Even so, Kevin Sutton, whose wife teaches at Byers, moved his two children there from a magnet school and feels like they’re getting better help with reading. He’s happy now, but worries about the lack of electives, clubs and advanced classes when they get to middle school.

“Why should my kids not have access to the same classes that they would at a traditional middle school?” he asks.

Calloway says his older students want “a real middle school,” with lockers and freedom to change classes without being lined up and supervised. He understands: “You can offer the same courses but it doesn’t have a middle school feel,” he says. “It has an elementary school feel.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms