This story was originally published, as a series, beginning Nov. 6, 2005.
On the first day of fifth grade, Jeremiah Merritt calls roll:
Sierra Archie, Raekwon Boykin, Brianna Gonzalez, Sha’Bria Kelly, Jennifer Lopez.
Mr. Merritt chuckles at the name, then continues through the end of the alphabet:
Jermey Steele, Anthony Stephens, Liliana Valencia.
The new fifth-graders have found their name tags and taken their seats, backpacks beside chairs. Many know Mr. Merritt from their years at Merry Oaks International Academy of Learning. Several have worked with him in summer programs. But today, they all seem a little shy.
Mr. Merritt looks the group over and smiles. “I got a good feeling about this class, “ he says. “Every single one of you are going to be successful.”
That is Jeremiah Merritt’s task: to help these children succeed. To send them to middle school reading fluently, dividing and multiplying, writing coherent paragraphs. To ensure not one is left behind.
But this is the reality: Of the 16 kids in his class, five are Spanish speakers still learning English. Ten didn’t pass one or both parts of last year’s End-of-Grade tests. Some are “educationally challenged, “ a label that covers learning disabilities, plus emotional and behavioral issues.
If they don’t pass the EOGs in May, they might have to repeat fifth grade. If they enter middle school unprepared, they might never see high school graduation.
Merry Oaks is in a quiet neighborhood of small houses off Central Avenue in east Charlotte. Despite its storybook name, it confronts nearly every challenge an urban school can face. Of its 648 students, 84 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. For nearly half, English isn’t the main language spoken at home.
Many students come from families that moved to Charlotte from other cities and countries looking for a better life. Some lack clean clothes and arrive at school hungry. Some live with several families in crowded apartments. Others have grown angry and defiant.
At Merry Oaks, attending to all these issues becomes part of a teacher’s job. Staff members find new shirts for children who need them, provide rides to parents without cars. Last summer, Mr. Merritt volunteered his time to lead a free two-week sports camp for 45 at-risk boys.
This year, some of his students walked into class working at or above fifth-grade level. But others still sound out words in third-grade picture books. To have a chance at passing the EOGs, they’ll have to show more than two years’ academic growth in one school year.
Mr. Merritt has about 170 days to help them do it.
As August becomes September, the personalities of Mr. Merritt’s students emerge. Jose Perez, born in El Salvador, loves Lemony Snicket books. Sierra Archie walks in most mornings wearing red high-top Chuck Taylors. Javoni Farrar sometimes sighs wearily before he begins a task: “Oh Lord, Jesus.”
At 10 and 11, they stand between childhood and adolescence. Some have entered puberty. But they still hug their teachers, still enjoy the reward of smiley-face stickers. And they want to please Mr. Merritt. Most arrive each day with homework completed, or at least attempted.
Mr. Merritt, in his fifth year of teaching, manages the classroom easily. He silences students with a stern look or pointed finger.
But he has another side. One morning he demonstrates the meaning of “high spirited” by imitating a rabid football fan.
“Wooooo!” Mr. Merritt yells, arms in the air. “Wooooo!”
The students laugh, and Anthony Stephens shakes his head. “You crazy, Mr. Merritt.”
Yes, Mr. Merritt can be crazy. The kids love to recall the morning he was prodding them to draw conclusions about a story. Brianna announced: If you want us to strain our brains, stand up on the table.
And so, he stepped onto a chair, then a desk. The students howled. He continued with the lesson, jumping to a new desktop each time a student provided a correct answer.
Much of what Mr. Merritt teaches - and even the week he teaches it - is dictated by the school system. Because Merry Oaks is a high-poverty school, it uses a special curriculum focused on basics - reading, math and writing.
But how Mr. Merritt teaches those basics is up to him.
Vocabulary words, for instance, become a game. Each day, the kids try to drop new words into their conversations so they can win stickers.
“Mr. Merritt, our art class has concluded.”
“Mr. Merritt, you did that deliberately.”
During math, he demonstrates several ways to solve division problems, figuring if students can’t grasp one, they might understand another. When a student answers correctly, Mr. Merritt pumps his fist. “Yes!” he says. “Excellent!”
The kids love when he walks through the class reading to them, delivering lines like an actor. One morning, his voice rises to a shout as the grandfather in the book “House of Wings” erupts at his grandson:
“Then go! Get away from here! Git!”
Students startle in their seats.
When it’s time to stop, they groan. Brianna pleads: “Read, read, read!”
Mr. Merritt also wins points for his skill on the blacktop basketball court. On some Fridays, he wears a T-shirt instead of tie and dress shirt and spends recess dribbling, shooting and delivering a stream of patter: “Come on Rae! What you got, Rae?” he yells to Raekwon Boykin. “Oh, yeah! That’s the stuff, baby.”
Merritt likes to say he still has his ghetto pass. At 28, he understands the kids’ hip-hop slang and knows their music. He’s wise to their tricks, because he once pulled them himself.
He also understands the burdens some students bring to school from home. His own parents divorced when he was young and his grandmother, who he calls “Big Mama, “ raised him for nearly a decade. He hasn’t seen his mother in 17 years. As far as he knows, she isn’t aware her youngest son went to college and became a teacher.
Merritt grew up in Michigan and graduated from Johnson C. Smith University, where he met his wife, Tifani Merritt, a fourth-grade teacher at Merry Oaks. They have two children, Jeremiah Jr., 2, and Taylor, 1. In his spare time, he studies to become a pastor with Life Center Ministries, the church his family attends. He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t curse.
Of course, even Mr. Merritt has shortcomings. He is not crafty, and his bulletin boards show it. In past years, female teachers have popped their heads into his room, looked around and announced: “Male teacher.”
He also has a tendency to forget attendance. When a staff member arrives at his door to remind him, students snicker.
“I told you I’m 76, “ he jokes. “It’s hard to remember everything.”
With 16 students, Mr. Merritt’s class is smaller than other fifth grades because it includes “educationally challenged” kids. Two resource teachers come to class part of each day.
But at times, Mr. Merritt could use even more help - someone to explain assignments to Spanish-speaking students or tutors to work with kids such as Sha’Bria, who has a learning disability that hinders her reading.
He could also use a person assigned to keep Jermey on task.
Jermey is eager to please and charming - he often greets female teachers and staff with hugs - but he struggles to focus. While other students work, he hops up from his desk to sharpen pencils. Sometimes, Mr. Merritt must stop teaching to remind him to sit down or pay attention.
Still, Mr. Merritt looks at the class and sees progress. Victoria Olivares, who takes English as a second language, earned a 90 on a quiz that tested her ability to draw conclusions. Miguel Sanchez, also an ESL student, is doing well on vocabulary tests. Javoni has mastered the distributive property in multiplication.
But Mr. Merritt also realizes some students must get extra help to catch up. And so, in late October, he holds his first after-school tutoring session.
He begins by giving a timed test on 100 single-digit multiplication problems: 7 x 6, 9 x 4, 0 x 2. Four students work silently, scribbling answers and occasionally counting on fingers. Liliana swings her legs back and forth as she concentrates.
The 50-minute session flies by, and soon, parents are waiting to collect their children. When Liliana’s mom arrives, Mr. Merritt has good news: Liliana aced a recent math test and missed only one question on a reading test. “She is growing by leaps and bounds, “ he says.
Liliana’s mom doesn’t understand Mr. Merritt’s praise until her teenaged son translates it into Spanish. She smiles. She caresses Liliana’s cheek.
Mr. Merritt wants to see more students at these tutoring sessions. Jermey needs math help. Sha’Bria, more reading practice. Alfonso Salazar, still learning English, could use practice in both. But he can’t help them if they don’t show up.
After multiplication, Mr. Merritt will tutor on division, then place value. He has 125 days before the EOGs.
He’ll keep teaching and re-teaching. Eventually, he has to believe, they’ll get it. He has to believe they won’t be left behind.
NOV. 7: Leaping the language barrier
Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade students are taking a quiz on five vocabulary words - “aroma, “ “frantic, “ “accurate, “ “sequence” and “mischievous.”
One by one, students complete the tests. Then they line up for music class.
Miguel Sanchez continues to work, poring over his answers.
The students file out the door. Miguel rises, slaps the paper onto his teacher’s desk and scurries to join his classmates.
He gets a 90.
“Good job!” Mr. Merritt writes on the test.
Ten-year-old Miguel Angel Sanchez arrived in kindergarten at Merry Oaks elementary speaking only Spanish. Since then, he’s played catch up, trying to learn reading, writing and math taught in a new language.
Miguel, 10, persists. “First I do my homework, “ he explains. “Then I go to play. My dad always told me first I have to do my homework.”
This year, his persistence may be paying off. He’s reading at a third-grade level, but Mr. Merritt sees improvement. “That boy works so hard, “ he says.
Miguel arrives each day with the white shirt of his school uniform neatly tucked in his pants. When he writes a composition, he consults his word handbook to verify spelling. When he takes a computer test on a book, he ponders each answer before clicking his response.
Miguel’s parents, Josefina and Miguel Sanchez, moved to Charlotte from Texas eight years ago. Miguel’s father works in construction. Their daughter, Samantha, is 5, and they expect a third child in February.
Miguel takes seriously his role as big brother. He taught Samantha to skate and ride a bike. And since she started kindergarten in August, he reads to her each evening - in English.
Samantha is learning English faster than he did. He says his mom thinks his sister is smarter.
But he reminds his mother that he had no one to help him.
“Now,” he says, “my sister has me.”
NOV. 8: Her dad at war, Sha’Bria carries on
It’s recess for Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class at Merry Oaks elementary. Several girls start a game of “Red Light, Green Light.”
Sha’Bria Kelly sits on the curb and watches.
“My daddy just went to war, “ she tells a visitor.
In class, Sha’Bria is a quiet girl. She can’t read well because of a learning disability, but she tries hard and never makes trouble. Watch her closely, though, and the signs are clear.
Sha’Bria misses her daddy.
When the class discusses the vocabulary word “gloomy” one morning, they talk about one meaning, “low in spirit.” Mr. Merritt asks for examples.
Sha’Bria raises her hand. You might be low in spirit, she says, if your mom or dad goes away.
Her dad, Army National Guard Spc. Scottie Kelly, left in July for an 18-month deployment in Kuwait and Iraq.
Sha’Bria misses his jokes and teasing. He always tells her she needs to get a job. She replies that when she’s rich, she won’t give him any money.
She worries, too, “that he might get in trouble when he’s over there.”
Labor Day was the last time he phoned her. It was her 11th birthday.
She is counting on him to be home for a Christmas visit. That’s what he’s told her. “He told me we’re going to go to Golden Corral or somewhere.”
When Mr. Merritt assigns students to write a paper about their favorite person, Sha’Bria chooses her father.
“He all ways say he love me, “ she writes. “I love my dady so much.”
NOV. 9: Raekwon’s turnaround
Raekwon Boykin can’t always control his temper.
He’s a fifth grader at Merry Oaks elementary, and he’s a good kid. Sometimes, though, he loses it. It happened once this year. He fought with a classmate in the bathroom. Both got suspended.
But Raekwon is trying hard to follow his teacher Jeremiah Merritt’s advice: If someone makes you angry, ignore it. Walk away.
Teacher and student got to know each other when Mr. Merritt chose Raekwon to attend a summer sports camp that taught character. By the end of camp, Phyllis Boykin had seen her grandson’s attitude improve. “He’d come home every day and tell me, ‘Mr. Merritt said this. Mr. Merritt said that.’ He loved that man.”
Boykin, 58, is raising Raekwon and four siblings. Their mother isn’t responsible enough to care for them, she says, and Raekwon’s father is in prison.
Mr. Merritt looks at Raekwon and sees a bright kid with a future - if anger doesn’t derail him. He also sees himself.
Like Raekwon, he was raised partly by his grandmother. And he remembers how his temper flared when he was embarrassed or hurt. He felt like crying, but couldn’t let those feelings show. “That energy has to come out somehow.”
Raekwon moved here last year from Fayetteville, and found the change difficult. In school, he fought and talked back. One day, Phyllis Boykin discovered a note. I hate Charlotte, Raekwon had written.
Now, in Mr. Merritt’s class, Raekwon gets praise for good behavior. Raekwon raises his hand often, lifting out of his seat to get his teacher’s attention. He does homework without prodding. After Mr. Merritt took him to church a few weeks ago, Raekwon talked about it for days.
At night, Raekwon lies in bed in the room he shares with his brother. Two pieces of paper hang on his wall: An award for math improvement and a certificate from Mr. Merritt’s camp.
Before sleep, Raekwon says his prayers. Each night, he prays to do better.
NOV. 10: She’s dreaming of a better life
Merry Oaks elementary Principal Stan Frazier stood on stage at the school’s International Festival and introduced 11-year-old Tai-Asia Rios. “Our Mariah Carey, “ he called her.
Tai-Asia, cordless microphone in hand, sang “America the Beautiful” that evening. When she belted out the final phrase - “from sea to shining sea” - the audience cheered. In the front row, her mother, Nina Reyes, clapped as hard as anyone.
At home, Tai-Asia’s life isn’t easy. Reyes works at Subway, has no car and struggles to pay the bills.
But at Merry Oaks, Tai-Asia is special.
She’s a tiny girl who wears her dark brown hair in a different style nearly every day - buns, braids, ponytails. Each morning she walks down the hall pulling her rolling pink book bag to Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class.
In last year’s “Merry Oaks Idol” talent show, she won second place with Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” She loves Merry Oaks, and people at Merry Oaks love her.
This year, they’ve helped keep her at the school. When her mom fell behind in rent and had to move outside the attendance zone, Tai-Asia couldn’t ride the school bus. Teachers and staff now drive her in the morning and to her mom’s Subway job after school.
Reyes, 33, wants Tai-Asia to achieve what she hasn’t - to graduate from high school, go to college and earn enough money so she isn’t living check to check.
Tai-Asia wants to become a singer, dancer, photographer or dress designer. She has big plans for her final year at Merry Oaks: Join the school step team, deliver the morning announcements, raise her End-of-Grade test scores.
She also dreams of a better life for her mom. “I would like to give her a house, a car, her own money so she could spend it for herself, “ she says.
Tai-Asia has even asked her mother: Mommy, if I was rich, what would you want?
You, Nina Reyes tells her daughter. I just want you.
NOV. 15: When the light goes on in a student’s head
Jeremiah Merritt asks his fifth-graders: Why did the grandfather in the story say the wounded bird would be lucky to die fast?
“So he wouldn’t have to suffer, “ Anthony Stephens answers.
Anthony is exactly right.
“I knew it, “ he says. He smiles and taps his temple. “Right in my head.”
In October, a virus with fever landed Anthony in the hospital. He missed more than a week of school. Because he has sickle cell anemia and asthma, he usually ends up hospitalized at least a couple times a year.
But now, you wouldn’t know it.
At recess, he’s back on the basketball court. When the game leaves him short of breath, he heads to the cafeteria. His mom, who works there, keeps his inhaler.
In the classroom, he unstacks chairs in the morning without being asked. He offers a “Bless you!” when any classmate sneezes. Anthony, 10, doesn’t always know the right answer, but when he nails one, he bounces and wiggles with joy in his seat.
“Today was a great day, “ he says to himself one afternoon as he waits for dismissal. “Tomorrow’s going to be even better for me.”
NOV. 29: Brianna, the translating whiz
Brianna Gonzalez probably asks more questions than any student in Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class.
She asks small ones about homework, and she questions big things, like Mr. Merritt’s contention that no triangle has two right angles. “My mom says nothing is impossible, “ she counters.
Brianna, 11, has been asking questions since she moved from Mexico to North Carolina at age 7. Thanks to her outgoing personality - “I’m usually not a shy kid, “ she says - and innate verbal ability, she learned English quickly.
And so she began translating. She interpreted for her parents, Gilberto Gonzalez and Gloria Vazquez, with the doctor or landlord.
When her baby sitter went into labor, she translated while witnessing the birth. “I would tell her to count to 10 and breathe, “ she recalls. She was 9 at the time.
She also helps her dad with business calls. Gonzalez makes inflatable bouncers and waterslides in the living room of their apartment, stitching together plastic on an industrial sewing machine. When he meets American customers, Brianna translates prices, sizes, warranty details.
Neighbors use Brianna when they need help, too. In August, when a neighbor boy failed to return home from kindergarten, Brianna accompanied his distraught mother to school. She listened to school officials and then explained in Spanish: Your boy is safe. He boarded the wrong bus.
Brianna, who gets As and Bs, doesn’t know what she’ll do when she grows up, but her mom thinks she’d make a good reporter.
Brianna needs a career, her mom figures, that includes lots of talking.
DEC. 6: Acting out lessons
Years from now, when students in Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class have occasion to ponder isoceles triangles, they may recall the day Raekwon Boykin and Alexis Cardosa lay on the classroom floor and formed two triangle sides of equal length.
They may remember giggling as Mr. Merritt cajoled Miguel Sanchez to join them on the floor to create the triangle’s third, shorter side.
Mr. Merritt just hopes they remember this: An isoceles triangle has two equal sides.
We all learn in different ways. Some people learn best by reading, others by listening, others by touching and manipulating, or by acting stuff out.
This is why Mr. Merritt’s students form human triangles. It’s why they stand before classmates and act out the meaning of vocabulary words like “eerie.” It’s why they play a geometry-version of Simon Says.
“Simon says, acute angle!” Mr. Merritt commands, and students form narrow angles with their arms.
Victoria Olivares begins to cross her arms. But Mr. Merritt didn’t say “Simon says.” She’s out.
Javoni Farrar is out.
Only Liliana Valencia, Jennifer Lopez and Sierra Archie still stand.
They have used their arms to make right angles, line segments, rays, planes. They indicate infinity by wiggling their fingers.
“Y’all are too good, “ Mr. Merritt says. “Sit down. I’ll give you all a prize.”
DEC. 13: Jennifer Lopez, the student
When Jeremiah Merritt assigned research papers, Jennifer Lopez decided it was time to learn a little more about the woman whose existence has dogged her since pre-kindergarten.
And so Jennifer, 11, began researching the other Jennifer Lopez.
She got off to a bad start. On a school laptop, she typed in www.jenniferlopez.com. But instead of finding the home page, she received a message in stern black letters: “Forbidden.” The school system had blocked the site because it included photos with “provocative attire.”
Eventually, she found acceptable sites and began writing her paper. She described how the other Jennifer took singing and dancing lessons since age 5 and how she left home at 18 to pursue stardom.
Really, the two Jennifers don’t share much in common except their names. Eleven-year-old Jennifer does not dream of stardom. Nor does she wear provocative attire. Her attire includes a navy school-uniform jumper with white knee socks and Mary Janes. On days she’s assigned safety patrol duty, she wears a yellow-green patrol belt.
Jennifer Lopez of Charlotte was born in 1994, shortly before Jennifer Lopez of the Bronx, N.Y., hit it big. She first recalls hearing the “J. Lo” references when she was 4.
Soft-spoken and polite, Jennifer smiles if you make a joke about her name. But she admits it gets old.
When she grows up, Jennifer of Charlotte isn’t sure what she’d like to be. Maybe a bank manager. By then, she suspects some new star will have eclipsed J. Lo, and her name won’t attract such notice. That, at least, is what Jennifer Lopez is hoping.
DEC. 27: The gift of relaxation
Jeremiah Merritt’s class has worked hard all semester. So on the last day before holiday break, they’re finally relaxing - eating cupcakes, playing Uno and Life, watching movies.
It’s a day for doing things typically forbidden, like chewing bubble gum in class and playing computer games on the Disney Web site. Sierra Archie, usually studious and quiet, surprises her classmates by demonstrating splits in the middle of the room.
Mr. Merritt reads “The Polar Express” to the class. When the author describes hundreds of elves gathered at the North Pole, Jermey Steele lets out a long whistle of astonishment. On a normal day, Mr. Merritt might tell Jermey to be quiet. Today, he lets it go.
Mr. Merritt mentioned a while back that he collected ties. This is why more than a half-dozen new ties sit on his desk, gifts from students and colleagues.
There’s a “Joe Cool” tie from Tai-Asia Rios, a pink tie from Anthony Stephens and a child-sized tie for Mr. Merritt’s 2-year-old son, a gift from Javoni Farrar.
“Think you for being their for me when I needed help!” says Javoni’s Christmas card.
With just minutes before dismissal, Mr. Merritt begins grading reading quizzes. “Miguel got a 100 on the reading assessment!” he announces.
“Go Miguel!” Anthony Stephens cheers. He gives his classmate, Miguel Sanchez, a hug.
The test scores are unusually good. Liliana Valencia got a 100. So did Jennifer Lopez. So did Alexis Cardosa and several other students.
“This, “ Mr. Merritt says, “is my Christmas present right there.”
JAN. 10: It’s a good day – Dad’s here!
Sha’Bria Kelly is just leaving the Merry Oaks elementary lunch line when she looks across the cafeteria and sees a tall man wearing a desert camouflage uniform. A smile blooms on her face. She hurries to her father and hugs him tightly.
Since summer, Army National Guard Spc. Scottie Kelly has been deployed in Kuwait and Iraq, driving supply trucks across the desert. Sha’Bria, 11, has missed him. When her teacher, Jeremiah Merritt, assigned students to write about their favorite person, she chose her dad. She couldn’t wait for his Christmas visit.
It wasn’t a long visit - just over two weeks, and the next one probably won’t come until August. Sha’Bria tried to make the most of it. She lives with her mom, but over holiday break, she spent time with her dad at his Concord home. When she wasn’t visiting, she telephoned. One morning, she called him at 5:48 a.m. Just to say hello.
Before he returned to Kuwait, Kelly decided to join his daughter for lunch at school. He made it a surprise.
They sit with plates of chicken nuggets. Sha’Bria smiles, dotting her food with ketchup. Her father asks what she’s studying in math. “Angles, “ she says.
When they finish, she grabs his hand and leads him to the gym, where her class is practicing basketball skills. He watches, smiling as the kids dribble and pass. She runs to him. “Stay a little bit longer. Please, “ she says.
He walks her back to Mr. Merritt’s class. They stand at the doorway, and he tells her he’s got to go.
He wraps his arms around his daughter. She puts her head on her daddy’s chest. She hugs him tightly.
JAN. 17: Math tutoring after school adds up
At Merry Oaks elementary, Jeremiah Merritt had been hitting geometry lessons hard since November.
To help his fifth graders grasp concepts, he’d played a geometry-version of “Simon Says, “ commanding students to form parallel lines and acute angles with their arms. To add fun to reviewing, he’d divided the kids into teams for “Math Jeopardy.” One day, he arranged three boys on the floor to form a human isosceles triangle.
But a week before the second-quarter math test, some students were still puzzled by much of the material. Mr. Merritt decided to offer daily after-school tutoring. He provided snacks and offered rides home to those who lived near the school.
They took the test last week. Because of learning disabilities, nine of Mr. Merritt’s students were permitted extra breaks and extra time.
The results arrived Friday. Mr. Merritt’s reaction could be heard up and down the main hallway at Merry Oaks. He let out a whoop. He leaped in the air. He kissed the tops of several students’ heads.
On a test where 60 to 70 percent correct is a decent score, the class averaged 81.7 percent. All but two students scored above 60.
Several scoring highest were those Mr. Merritt had tutored. Alfonso Salazar, who’s still learning English, got 93 percent right. Anthony Stephens, who made 43 percent last quarter, got a 90.
Reading scores weren’t as good as the math results. So minutes after he’d celebrated the kids’ math success, Mr. Merritt began contemplating what he could do in the third quarter to boost reading scores. He’s thinking of more individual tutoring.
But then, as his students romped at recess Friday, he took a moment to enjoy their success.
“Man, “ Mr. Merritt said, “I love this job.”
JAN. 24: Come on! Read. Read, people!’
With only hours remaining in the second school quarter, Jeremiah Merritt’s class still needed 13 points to reach its reading goal.
Like other Merry Oaks elementary students, Mr. Merritt’s fifth-graders participate in Accelerated Reading, a program that matches books to reading levels.
Once they finish the books, they take computer quizzes. If they answer most questions correctly, they get points, based on a book’s length and difficulty. Each student has three goals: Earn a certain number of points, reach a specific reading level and answer a specific percentage of test questions correctly.
Mr. Merritt’s students read in school, and they’re supposed to read 30 minutes nightly. But several, including some of his better readers, weren’t reading enough and hadn’t reached their goals.
Now, some were trying to make up for lost time. During music class, three boys remained in the classroom, their noses in books. As they lined up for lunch, several carried books.
Anthony Stephens met his goals after completing a goofy version of “The Three Little Pigs, “ in which the pigs run off the page into another story to escape the wolf.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Anthony announced, his arms in the air.
“Anthony, you the man, “ Mr. Merritt said. They’d have a movie and popcorn party, he told the class, if they reached 270 points by day’s end.
“Come on!” Anthony urged his classmates. “Read. Read, people!”
The final point tally: 273. Tai-Asia Rios announced she’d successfully completed her first chapter book. And since August, the reading levels of several students, including Anthony, had risen by about half year.
They are making progress. But some are still reading at second- or third-grade level.
JAN. 31: Learning on field trip
To prepare for their field trip to the Mint Museum, Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-graders had been studying the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs.
So by the time they were gazing at the museum’s pre-Columbian burial urns and figurines, several were full of questions and observations. Luckily, Mint Museum docent Fran Rolband was up to the challenge.
“Yes, dear?” she’d ask, each time a student raised a hand.
“We was talking about civilizations in class today, “ said Jermey Steele, referring to a discussion of the Incas. “If they break the law or something, they get their arms chopped off.”
That’s true, Rolband said.
“What are sun virgins?” Brianna Gonzalez asked, “because we read a paper and they said some (young Inca girls) were chosen to be sun virgins.”
Rolband wasn’t sure. She suggested researching the question on the computer.
“Why do the ancient people put masks on?” Miguel Sanchez asked.
“They probably thought it gave them power, “ Rolband said.
Religious-themed art in the “Spanish Colonization of the New World” gallery elicited more questions.
“How did they draw pictures? Did they have colored pencils?” Javoni Farrar asked.
Not colored pencils, Rolband explained, but paints.
“Can I ask you something? Where does silver come from?” Jermey asked.
Ore in the ground, Rolband said.
When the tour ended, Rolband praised the students for their keen interest and good behavior.
Riding the bus back to Merry Oaks elementary, Jermey told his teacher: “I asked her a lot of questions, Mr. Merritt.”
“Umm hmm, “ Mr. Merritt said. “You sure did.
FEB. 7: Stars for an evening
Before the big night, the night they became special guests at a Charlotte Bobcats game, this is what Jeremiah Merritt’s students did:
Discussed the free food they’d eat.
Created a banner thanking Bobcats forward Emeka Okafor and NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne, the two athletes who invited them.
Listened closely when Mr. Merritt told them not to ask Okafor how much money he made. “You want to ask educated questions. You don’t want to ask, ‘Do you have five gold necklaces?’ “
The class scored the invitation after a Bobcats vice president read the Observer’s stories on the Merry Oaks fifth-graders. Okafor and Kahne recently created a partnership to provide opportunities for kids in need. Mr. Merritt’s students were the kind of kids they wanted to help.
And so, for one evening, 16 students from a high-poverty school were celebrities.
Television stations filmed them. Fans applauded when they carried their thank-you banner onto the court before the game.
It’s like a dream, Jermey Steele said.
In a party suite, Bobcats arena staff kept the kids supplied with hot dogs, chips, popcorn and sodas. A dessert cart arrived, filled with ice cream, cakes, lemon bars, M&M-studded caramel apples. All they could eat. All free.
Kahne hung out with the class for the whole game. Okafor, who’s recovering from an ankle injury, arrived after halftime.
The students took turns asking the two athletes to sign their T-shirts. They got autographs from Bobcats dancers. They even collected autographs from the teachers who’d accompanied them to the game.
Raekwon Boykin’s grandmother, Phyllis Boykin, brought a disposable camera so she could record her grandson’s special night.
First, Raekwon took a photo of Okafor next to his grandma.
Then Okafor draped his arm around the boy’s shoulder. Raekwon grinned. Boykin snapped the picture.
FEB. 14: ‘The new kid’ gets adjusted
The new kid arrived at Jeremiah Merritt’s classroom door one day in mid-January.
Eduardo Cardoza, like many Merry Oaks elementary students, was a transplant to Charlotte. He’d lived in California, Honduras and, most recently, Indiana.
Last month, he left his home in Indianapolis with his mom, two sisters and brother to settle in Charlotte. The five moved into a two-bedroom apartment off Central Avenue with his aunt, who cleans houses, and her three kids.
A few days later, Eduardo and his two sisters showed up at Merry Oaks to enroll.
At first, Eduardo kept mostly quiet as he tried to learn school rules and routines.
One day, he stayed after school for tutoring, then realized he didn’t know his address to tell the after-school bus driver. A fifth-grade teacher came to his rescue and drove him to his apartment.
Eduardo was adjusting at home, too. Just a couple weeks after his family moved in with his aunt, his mom had to fly to Honduras to stay with his grandfather, who was dying.
But soon, Eduardo was making friends at school. At lunch, when the cafeteria ran out of cheese sauce for nachos, he gave his cup of sauce to classmate Miguel Sanchez.
At recess, he joined boys playing basketball. He was impressed that Mr. Merritt allowed them a short recess nearly every day. At his old school in Indianapolis, recess was weekly.
And when the students all signed a banner to thank two professional athletes who had invited them to a free Bobcats basketball game, Eduardo wrote “the new kid” under his name. At the game, he ate three hot dogs and cheered his new favorite team.
Since Indiana’s fifth-grade curriculum is different than North Carolina’s, Mr. Merritt knew he’d have to find time to teach Eduardo math he’ll be expected to know for end-of-grade testing.
But Mr. Merritt is pleased with how well Eduardo is doing. He worked hard during Accelerated Reading time, and he made a perfect score on a vocabulary test. Eduardo was so proud that he displayed the test under clear plastic on the front of his binder.
“He’ll be just fine, “ Mr. Merritt said.
FEB. 28: Sex ed: questions, answers
It was time for FLEBHS for fifth-graders at Merry Oaks elementary.
FLEBHS, as most Charlotte-Mecklenburg graduates know, is the unwieldy acronym for the Family Living, Ethical Behavior and Human Sexuality program. “Flee-bus” is how it’s pronounced. Sex education is what it is.
Jeremiah Merritt hasn’t had FLEBHS training, so other teachers instruct his students. Girls go to one classroom, boys to another. In the girls’ classroom, fifth-grader teacher Veronica Kodzai launches a discussion of male puberty. When she shows a drawing of male reproductive organs, a couple girls clap hands over their mouths to stifle laughter.
“This is real, “ Ms. Kodzai says. She tells the girls to deal with it.
And after that, they do. Is a male ready to father a child, she asks, just because he’s capable of it? Several hands go up.
“No, because you ain’t got enough money. You don’t got a job, “ one girl says.
A classmate adds: “You should have an education and go to college and have a good job and a good relationship with that person.”
After classroom discussions, the students travel to Discovery Place to hear from Merry Angela Gallo, a school system health educator.
Gallo quizzes them to review changes accompanying puberty - acne, menstruation, nocturnal emissions, increased body odor and moodiness, among others.
As she walks the kids through conception, pregnancy and childbirth, she takes questions. There are many.
A girls asks what happens when a baby’s born with both sets of reproductive organs.
A boy describes a baby with two heads he saw on “Oprah.”
Another boy wonders: If one conjoined twin drinks a lot of alcohol and gets drunk, does the other twin get drunk too?
Gallo has heard them all before, even the one about the two-headed baby. She answers those she can.
Mr. Merritt also has a question: How many eggs are released in a female’s life?
One a month, Gallo says, from about age 13 to 52.
Mr. Merritt makes a note. But he’s not thinking about sex education. He’s thinking he’s got a good math problem to give his class.
MARCH 14: Families go, students stay
At Merry Oaks elementary, students move to new homes for many reasons. Those reasons tell much about their lives.
Take, for example, Brianna Gonzalez and Tai-Asia Rios, both students in Jeremiah Merritt’s class.
In November, Brianna told Mr. Merritt and just about everyone else she knows that she might be leaving Merry Oaks. Her family was moving to a larger apartment outside the school’s transportation zone.
It was a positive step. Less than five years ago, Brianna immigrated with her family from Mexico to North Carolina. Since then, her father, Gilberto Gonzalez, has started a business selling inflatable bouncers and waterslides that he sews in his living room. Brianna helps her dad by translating for him when he goes on business calls. He needed a bigger apartment for more sewing space.
At school, Brianna, an outgoing kid, presented news of the upcoming move matter-of-factly. But the thought of leaving Merry Oaks bothered her more than she admitted. When Mr. Merritt promised her that the class would do something special on her last day, he saw tears fill her brown eyes.
This story has a happy ending. It turns out that an assistant teacher, Okemia Porch, passes Brianna’s apartment on her way to work, and she volunteered to pick her up each day. So Brianna has remained in Mr. Merritt’s class. And in the new apartment, she has a room she doesn’t have to share with her sister.
Tai-Asia Rios moved more recently, in January. But her family’s move wasn’t by choice.
Just before Christmas, her mom, Nina Reyes, lost her job at Subway. Then the family was evicted. Reyes found a new job two days later and moved to an apartment off North Tryon Street.
That apartment is also out of the Merry Oaks transportation zone, and Nina Reyes doesn’t have a car. But like Brianna, Tai-Asia wanted to stay at the school. She now stays with her dad during the school week, so he can drive her to Merry Oaks.
“I’d rather her be with me, “ her mom says. “I miss her.”
Tai-Asia says her mom’s new apartment is too small. She vows that when she grows up, she’s not going to get thrown out of a house.
MARCH 21: Stop anger and trouble will end, too
You wouldn’t know to look at the four bright-eyed boys sitting before Jeremiah Merritt, but they are among the biggest behavior problems at Merry Oaks elementary. That’s why they’ve been tapped as charter members of Mr. Merritt’s “social club.”
“How many of you want to stop getting in trouble?” Mr. Merritt asks them.
Four hands go up.
The twice-weekly club, part of a new Charlotte-Mecklenburg system effort, aims to cut discipline problems by teaching kids how to control themselves. Today, the topic is anger.
“Believe it or not, “ Mr. Merritt tells the group, “I used to be a very angry young man.”
The third- and fourth-grade boys listen as Mr. Merritt, the cool, basketball-playing fifth-grade teacher, describes a time in high school when anger got the best of him.
He’d just returned to Spanish class after an absence, so he didn’t want to take a test. The teacher disagreed. He lost his temper, flung his books off his desk, got suspended.
Mr. Merritt helps the group make a list of things they can do when they get angry: Ask for a few minutes alone. Ignore the person. Walk away. Talk to a teacher or the principal.
At the next meeting, five boys discuss disrespectful behaviors, like interrupting their teacher, or leaving the room without permission. If they can stop these behaviors, Mr. Merritt pledges, he’ll reward them: They can spend recess with his class.
The social club is just a month old, but Andrea Flood, who teaches three of the boys, sees them trying to behave. They want Mr. Merritt, she says, to be proud of them.
Mr. Merritt closes the discussion of respect by urging the boys to follow directions the first time they’re given.
“How many of you are willing to do that?”
All of them raise their hands.
APRIL 4: ‘I’m starting to get it now’
If Merry Oaks elementary gave an award for charm and imagination, Jermey Steele might take the prize.
Jermey’s the kid who pauses in the hall to compliment the principal on his tie. In class, he drapes his arm around a reporter’s shoulder and asks how she’s doing.
At his first Bobcats game, he touches the men’s bathroom doorknob and wonders whether his favorite player, Sean May, has touched that knob too. When he sees religious art at the Mint Museum, he requests permission to inform the class that Jesus is our Lord.
Schoolwork, however, doesn’t come easily to Jermey.
When he reads, the 11-year-old has trouble staying focused. When he does math, he can’t compute in his head. Faced with 18 minus 8, Jermey draws 18 circles, crosses out eight, then counts those remaining to find the answer.
One afternoon, as Jeremiah Merritt’s class practices adding and reducing fractions, Jermey sidles up to his teacher. “I’m starting to get it now, “ he says, optimistically.
Jermey very much wants to get it.
Think of something you can’t do well. Maybe it’s algebra, or dancing, or reading Spanish. You try, but it doesn’t come as easily to you as other people. You get frustrated.
That’s how Jermey often feels.
In the fall, at Mr. Merritt’s request, the school tested Jermey for learning disabilities. The testing turned up nothing.
Jermey attends after-school tutoring, along with other students. During class, when Mr. Merritt sees the boy stumped by a math concept, he steals a couple minutes to give him extra help.
Jermey’s mom, Sebrina Steele, knows her son is trying. “He always says, ‘Momma, I want to make you happy. I want you to smile when you see my report card.’ “
He is progressing. Jermey now reads short chapter books. He’s staying on task more and following instructions better.
One afternoon, Mr. Merritt presents Jermey with a slip of paper, a “praise note” for “focusing during class and reading the entire (Accelerated Reading) time.”
“You’re becoming a better listener every day, “ Mr. Merritt tells him.
“I can’t wait to take this home, “ Jermey says.
APRIL 11: Preview of middle school
“Good morning, future Jaguars, good morning!”
Robin Green smiles at 60 fifth-graders gathered in Merry Oaks’ cafeteria to register for their next educational adventure: middle school.
Green is a guidance counselor from Eastway Middle, the school that about two-thirds of Merry Oaks’ fifth-graders will attend.
Her visit is the most tangible reminder yet that just over 40 days remain in their elementary school careers. But for weeks now, Merry Oaks teachers have been trying to impress upon fifth-graders that they’re almost in middle school. It’s time to grow up.
Jeremiah Merritt tells his class that middle school teachers won’t hold their hands. A media center specialist warns students with unfinished assignments that they won’t pass in middle school. “When you get to middle school, “ she tells one boy, “you’re going to be in a world of trouble.”
At lunch, Brianna Gonzalez worries that she won’t know anyone when she goes to McClintock Middle School. Miguel Sanchez says he worries about getting punched.
“When you go to middle school, “ Jose Perez says, “they beat you up.”
During Eastway’s presentation, teachers try to dispel notions that older students use new sixth-graders for punching bags.
“No, “ Ms. Green says, before the question’s even posed, “sixth-graders are not stuffed into lockers.”
But there are other challenges.
They have to know their class schedules and keep their binders organized. If they fight, they’ll be suspended for 10 days. And they’ll have five minutes to change classes, or be marked tardy.
“Being a middle school student, you have to start becoming responsible, “ Green says.
Hands go up.
Will they have homeroom teachers? Yes.
Do they have food fights? No.
Do they put salt on the fries? No.
Sierra Archie raises her hand: Will you get in trouble the first few days if you’re late for class? No. The school waives tardies while students learn their way around.
Sierra is relieved.
APRIL 18: A novel passion emerges
Once upon a time, there was a very cute and very powerful girl.
So begins a story titled “The Fantastic Diva.” We can’t tell you how it ends, because its author, Sierra Archie, a student in Jeremiah Merritt’s class, hasn’t figured that out yet.
We can tell you, however, that the main character, a girl named Jessica, makes boys fall in love with her and hypnotizes them with her beauty. Also, there are pirates.
Eleven-year-old Sierra wants to be a writer.
Most classmates don’t know this. Sierra is a good student, but reserved, a kid who’d rather watch others than be the center of attention.
So most of Mr. Merritt’s students have no idea that the serious girl working quietly at her desk is imagining a mob of pirates jumping out of trees.
Sierra’s love of writing emerged a couple years ago, about the time her father, Nathaniel Archie, published his first story in a romance magazine. And that’s an interesting tale in itself.
Archie drives a Greyhound bus, all over the East Coast and Southeast. He didn’t go to college. But he reads a lot and always had an interest in writing. A few years ago, a friend who wrote stories for romance magazines suggested he give it a try.
A magazine accepted his very first story. Since then, he’s published 14, steamy tales with titles such as “Big Girls Need Love Too.” He’s now working on a romance novel.
Archie has been married to Phyllis for 25 years, since he was 18. And, needless to say, unlike his female protagonists, he’s a guy. So his plots aren’t pulled from personal experience.
“I guess I have a pretty active imagination, “ he says.
Just like his daughter.
Writing has given father and daughter a shared passion. When Sierra finishes a story, he edits it and offers suggestions.
And sometimes, just for fun, he writes a story about the two of them.
In one, they go fishing. She wanders into the woods and gets lost - something a sensible girl like Sierra wouldn’t do in real life.
Finally, her dad finds her. She vows never to walk off again. The ending is a happy one.
APRIL 25: Achievement is family’s focus
Jose Perez spent a lot of time trotting up to the stage last week at Merry Oaks’ third-quarter honors program.
He earned awards for perfect attendance and good citizenship. He made the A/B honor roll. And he became the first “classic reader” in Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class, an honor that required him to read three sixth-grade-level books.
Key to student success, experts agree, are parents.
In Jose’s case, that would be his dad, Jose Perez, and his mom, Delmi Perez, the smiling dark-haired woman who watched from the front row as her son picked up his awards.
Delmi didn’t have to go far to attend. Four days a week, she’s at the school attending Even Start, a program that teaches English to Merry Oaks parents.
“Every day, “ she says, “I try to improve my English.”
At Even Start, Delmi and other Hispanic mothers learn English words that help them with important life skills. Recently, they practiced deciphering prescription instructions.
Delmi and her family moved from El Salvador in 2001, when Jose, the oldest of her three children, was 6. Since then, her husband has worked in construction while she focuses on raising her children and learning English.
She wants to master English so she has an easier time helping Jose and his two sisters with homework. Also, so she can get a job.
“My dream, “ she says, “is maybe work next year in the hospital.”
In El Salvador, she studied five years to become a medical technologist. In Charlotte, she volunteers once a week at a free medical clinic. While she works drawing blood, Jose and 6-year-old sister Lesly do homework. “That’s where I do a lot of my reading, “ Jose explains.
Already, Delmi is thinking about money for college. Jose wants to be an engineer.
And sometimes, she thinks about her home in El Salvador, where her proud parents covered the walls with awards honoring the academic accomplishments of their five children.
In the Perez home in Charlotte, academic awards are displayed over the living room sofa. Already, the space is beginning to fill up.
MAY 2: Practicing for the tests
Read the passage. Choose the best answer.
A dentist in California had a strange patient recently. A person brought in a rug made of a real lion’s skin, with the stuffed head attached. But a tooth had fallen out of the lion’s wide-open mouth. So the dentist put the lion skin in the chair and went to work inside the beast’s mouth. The dentist took care of the lion on a day off, so it wouldn’t scare any other patients.
You can tell that the:
A. dentist was afraid.
B. lion’s head looked scary.
C. lion was alive.
D. lion’s owner was afraid.
Javoni Farrar, Anthony Stephens and Eduardo Cardoza read the question together. Today, in Jeremiah Merritt’s class, the three boys are competing against other student teams for the most correct answers.
Their discussion begins with Javoni’s admission: “To tell you the truth, I don’t know.”
He tries to eliminate obviously wrong answers. “If he’s scared of the lion, “ he reasons, “why would he put the lion in the chair?”
“Man, “ Anthony says. “Mr. Merritt makes this stuff hard.”
In recent years, as End-of-Grade testing has assumed top importance in Charlotte schools, practice questions like this have become part of the school day.
Why? Because correct answers determine teacher bonuses. Because test scores shape public opinion about a school. Because the stakes have never been higher.
So Mr. Merritt has spent countless hours teaching strategies to make these questions easier: Go back. Reread. Narrow your choices.
Javoni reads again and thinks some more. “It’s B!” he concludes.
“Shhhh, “ Anthony says. He wants to keep the answer a secret from other teams.
Mr. Merritt will keep drilling kids with reading questions until the EOGs begin May 22.
Then, when testing is over, he plans to teach social studies, a subject barely taught during the school year. He doesn’t plan to teach any more multiple-choice reading passages.
Most kids won’t miss them. Neither will Mr. Merritt.
MAY 9: Learning the ropes
Dianna Orihuela studies the turning jump rope as it circles, up toward the ceiling, down to the gym floor. She thinks about P.E. teacher Marcy Closner’s advice:
When the rope hits the ground, you have to say to your brain: “Go in!”
The plastic rope thwacks the floor. Dianna bobs her head forward. Then stops.
You say to yourself: “I’m going to go in!”
Finally, Dianna runs into the turning rope. But forgets to jump. It tangles at her sneakers.
When Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-graders began jumping rope in P.E. class in April, no more than half were what you’d call seasoned jumpers.
Mrs. Closner’s trying to change that, trying to make each fifth-grader a competent jumper before June graduation.
Pro athletes jump rope, she tells the class. “It builds coordination, endurance. It helps you lose weight.”
During weekly physical education class these past three weeks, Mrs. Closner has coached and encouraged the kids who squeal and freeze instead of jumping when the rope comes around.
Everyone has a different style.
Raekwon Boykin excels at jumping by himself. He turns the rope so fast it whizzes in the air. Eduardo Cardoza jumps a good 12 inches off the ground. Miguel Sanchez hops on one foot while turning in a circle.
Last week, they began doing jump-rope chants. And now, Dianna doesn’t even hesitate as she ducks into the turning rope and begins jumping. Jermey Steele joins her, and the two jump in unison as Sha’Bria Kelly sings:
Ice cream soda, cherry on top,
Tell me the name of your sweetheart.
A, B, C, D
They get all the way to T before they miss.
MAY 23: Studying right up until tests arrive
They’ve been prepping for weeks at Merry Oaks Elementary, laboring over End of Grade review problems in workbooks titled “Buckle Down” and “Blast Off!”
On Monday, the long-awaited test finally arrived. Jeremiah Merritt’s 17 fifth-graders began their EOGs. They continue through Wednesday.
At the year’s start, Mr. Merritt assured his students they could all be successful. But his teaching challenge is tough. Five students are Spanish speakers still learning English. About half are “educationally challenged, “ a label that includes learning disabilities. Most haven’t reached a fifth-grade reading level.
When they read aloud, some stumble over words such as “situation, “ “neither” and “focused.” One student recently asked Mr. Merritt the meaning of “decreasing.” Some also have trouble retaining information. When they reviewed geometry recently, they’d forgotten material they’d known in January.
Because of learning disabilities, some of Mr. Merritt’s students are getting test modifications, including extra time and someone to read math problems to them. Some also are taking alternative tests that use simpler vocabulary.
“All three of you guys get” problems read to you, Mr. Merritt told students toiling over math recently. “If you don’t understand it the first time, ask them to reread it again. Have them reread it five times if you have to.”
This year, because North Carolina is using a new math test for grades three through eight, results won’t be released until summer. Students will get reading test results before school is out.
Even though students have been reviewing for weeks, Mr. Merritt decided that a little more review is always preferable. So this past Saturday morning, he recruited nearly a dozen members of his church, Life Center Ministries, and several Merry Oaks teachers, to hold an “EOG Boot Camp” for about 20 students who needed extra help. For 90 minutes, the school media center buzzed with quiet conversations as volunteers worked with students to solve math problems.
When they finished, tutors sent each child home with a new pencil and highlighter. Then everyone joined hands, and Mr. Merritt sent them all home with a prayer: “I thank you, Lord God, that this work is not in vain.-
MAY 30: Tackling last-minute tasks
When Jeremiah Merritt assigned the Civil War project last week, his fifth-graders dove into it.
Alfonso Salazar searched Internet sites to find an important person from the Civil War. Raekwon Boykin printed out pictures of the Siege of Vicksburg to help him create a battlefield replica.
Sierra Archie, Tai-Asia Rios and Sha’Bria Kelly worked together, rewriting the Gettysburg Address in their own words. “87 years ago, this nation was born and raised in freedom, “ it began.
With End of Grade tests behind them and less than two weeks left in the school year, Mr. Merritt is attempting to fill a few of the gaps in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg curriculum he’s required to teach.
Like schools across the nation, Merry Oaks elementary has responded to testing requirements by maximizing reading and math class time, and cutting other subjects.
Merry Oaks fifth-graders get science once a week, for 45 minutes. They get social studies only when a reading assignment deals with a social studies-related topic.
Current event discussions are also rare. When Hurricane Katrina hit in August, students brought in change to donate to victims. But Mr. Merritt’s daily schedule didn’t allow time to discuss one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
He worries that his students aren’t learning how to think. “If you give them something to solve - ‘What would you do? How would you attack this?’ - they wouldn’t know where to start, “ he says.
With the Civil War project, Mr. Merritt’s teaching social studies, plus skills all students need: Working as a team, gathering information from different sources, solving problems that don’t come with multiple-choice solutions.
When Mr. Merritt announced they had five minutes left, Tai-Asia shushed him, because Sierra was reciting their Gettysburg speech. When they finish, students will deliver their rewritten speeches to the class.
“I’m very much pleased with the progress you guys made today, “ Mr. Merritt told the kids as they cleaned up.
This week, his teaching plan includes rocket making.
JUNE 11: A lesson in courage 5th-graders learn they have ability – and accomplish more than they dreamed possible
Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-graders lined up at Merry Oaks elementary Thursday evening, giggling and fiddling with their mortarboards.
Several girls teetered on high heels. Jose Perez wore his first tuxedo. A pile of dark curls rose atop Liliana Valencia’s head.
Before he sent them to graduate, Mr. Merritt gave last-minute instructions. “Remember, we’re serious. Stand straight up, “ he said. “Let’s show them how much we’ve learned. Let’s show them how mature we are.”
When Mr. Merritt welcomed these new students in August, he promised them they could all succeed.
But success was by no means assured. Five Spanish speakers were still learning English. About half the students were “educationally challenged, “ a label that covers learning disabilities, plus emotional and behavioral issues. Ten hadn’t passed one or both parts of last year’s End of Grade tests. Many read simple picture books.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg retains few fifth-graders, so the students were likely to move ahead, even if they didn’t pass the EOGs.
If they weren’t prepared for middle school, however, they might never see high school graduation.
Mr. Merritt’s challenge was to send his 17 students to sixth grade reading fluently, dividing and multiplying, writing good paragraphs. Part of that task was making some of these students believe they could do it.
As Mr. Merritt got to know his students, he realized they all had, as he put it, “the right attitude.”
Miguel Sanchez, for instance, read picture books to his little sister so she’d have an easier time learning English than he’s had. Raekwon Boykin was making progress controlling anger.
And Anthony Stephens practically lived to earn perfect Accelerated Reading scores. When he got a 100, he did a victory dance.
Mr. Merritt, who got into his share of trouble as a teen, saw himself in many of these kids. Now 29, he’s married with two young children. He’s studying to be a pastor, and church is at the center of his life. But he likes to say he still has his ghetto pass.
Because his class included “educationally challenged” students, Mr. Merritt broke lessons into small parts. He devised math games and offered rhymes to help kids remember rules for rounding: “Five or above, give it a shove. Four or below, let that joker go.” Often, he had to teach concepts over and over.
Along with teaching, he applied bandages to hurt fingers, distributed punch and chips before after-school tutoring and drove kids to apartments afterward. Occasionally, he took aside and comforted a child distraught over family problems. Several times, he and his wife, Tifani, also a Merry Oaks teacher, invited students to their home for dinner or weekend sleepovers.
In March, when Mr. Merritt’s colleagues voted him “teacher of the year, “ he wasn’t sure he deserved it. He felt weighed down by meetings and paperwork. He never had enough hours to teach.
But his students’ successes kept him going.
One day in April, for instance, it was independent reading time. Except for the sound of turning pages, the room was silent.
Jose Perez, who had discovered C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, was deep into “The Magician’s Nephew.” Others had easier books - “Judy Moody Predicts the Future, “ “Just Juice, “ “Twister on Tuesday” from the Magic Tree House series.
But not a single one was a picture book. Every student had graduated to chapter books.
“Give yourselves a hand, “ Mr. Merritt told them, and they applauded.
Not surprisingly, the kids who had started way behind hadn’t made up several years’ reading growth. Several still read third-grade chapter books.
Nearly every child’s reading level had risen by a year or more, though. Several now read sixth-grade-level books. Alexis Cardosa recently finished Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.”
In their final weeks of elementary school, Mr. Merritt’s students began looking ahead.
Jennifer Lopez’s family was planning a trip to Atlantic Beach. Alfonso Salazar was going to help his dad doing drywall jobs.
Eduardo Cardoza, who arrived from Indianapolis in January, would soon be leaving Charlotte. His family was moving back to Indianapolis after visiting relatives in Honduras.
Sha’Bria Kelly got a call from her father, who’s serving in Iraq. His deployment was soon ending, and he’d be home before her 12th birthday in September.
The students had grown in many ways since they began fifth grade. Several, nearly silent at first, had gained confidence. They raised their hands in class and spoke up more.
Some girls had become interested in boys, and vice versa. All were tight-lipped when questioned about this interest, however.
And Tai-Asia Rios, who started fifth grade with a rolling pink book bag, now carried a silver purse that held lotion, body spray, a brush, comb and lip gloss.
She has decided she’s too old for her mom to call her “baby” anymore.
The EOGs were the last hurdle before middle school. At the start of May, Mr. Merritt began an all-out review. He even spent part of the Saturday before the test leading one final tutoring session.
On the first morning of the tests, he directed his students to form a circle and join hands. Then, he prayed.
“Lord God, “ he said, “help them understand they’re bright, they’re intelligent, and they have everything it takes to be successful.”
As they lined up to go to testing classrooms, Miguel brought up the rear.
He looked stricken, like a prisoner being forced to march to his execution.
“I’m nervous, “ he muttered.
Mr. Merritt tried to reassure him. “See how relaxed Mr. Merritt is, “ the teacher said.
“You’re not taking the test, “ Miguel replied.
Afterward, over pizza in the cafeteria, Miguel pronounced the reading test easy. He was relieved. He couldn’t wait to see his score. His mother wasn’t going to buy his graduation suit, he said, until he got his EOG results.
But there was a problem.
Everyone knew this year’s math results would be delayed until late summer. But they didn’t expect a delay in reading scores. Though regular EOG reading results arrived after Memorial Day, they didn’t include scores from an alternate test taken by seven of Mr. Merritt’s “educationally challenged” students.
Mr. Merritt told the class he wanted to wait for them, so everyone could get the news at the same time.
“Can you call us if it’s in the afternoon?” Brianna Gonzalez asked.
After more waiting, a Merry Oaks administrator contacted the school system. The missing scores weren’t coming until late summer, she learned.
One boy wept when Mr. Merritt broke the news. Another, Miguel, worried he’d never get his graduation suit.
Mr. Merritt, too, was frustrated. His students had taken the test seriously, and he had expected most, if not all, to pass. In fact, the 10 students who took the regular test did pass, including two who hadn’t passed last year.
Tai-Asia Rios, for instance, has a reading disability and used to get stuck on big words. This year, her reading level rose by more than two years.
When Mr. Merritt told her she’d earned a “3,” she hugged him.
You get a “4” as a teacher, she said.
Mr. Merritt, keynote speaker for graduation, took his seat on stage Thursday night, a stack of student award certificates in his hands. It was Brianna’s job to introduce him. “His philosophy is every child can learn, “ she read.
In his talk, the teacher described the way helium allows a balloon to rise, and how it’s the job of teachers and parents to fill students with confidence and determination - the stuff that allows them to rise, too.
Dozens of award certificates later, several students joined Mr. Merritt on stage for hugs and photos.
One was Jermey Steele, a small boy who’d struggled with academics, but had made progress paying attention and following directions.
Family members urged the boy to stand beside his teacher for a photo. Instead, Jermey wrapped his arms around Mr. Merritt’s waist and fought back tears.
At that moment, Jermey wasn’t ready to let go.
Mr. Merritt decided to leave Merry Oaks, and teaching, at the end of the school year. He broke the news to his students one day in mid-May, after recess. It was harder than he thought.
“If anybody should know, I think you guys should know, “ he began. “You guys are the reason I get excited about coming to school in the first place.”
Jeremiah Merritt never made a secret of the fact he was studying to be a pastor. Once a week, he led an after-school Bible study with teachers and staff. Some students had visited his church when he preached.
Now, he said, he hears God telling him it’s time for his next challenge. He’ll be establishing a church in South Carolina. Mentoring disadvantaged kids will be a large part of its ministry.
“I wanted to tell you guys, because all of you are very important to me, “ he continued. “You always - all of you always....”
Mr. Merritt, seldom at a loss for words, couldn’t speak. The students waited. Fifteen seconds passed.
Finally, he resumed: “All of you guys I want to see you grow up to be something wonderful one day.
“I know all of you will. I know.”
JUNE 27: What I learned
One thing I learned in fifth grade this year: Parting with students isn’t easy.
Starting last August, photographer Gary O’Brien and I spent some of nearly every school week at Merry Oaks Elementary with Jeremiah Merritt’s 17 fifth graders. Through the year, we presented their challenges and triumphs.
By graduation day, we felt a bond with each of them.
Teachers get used to it, I guess, but we found it hard to say goodbye. Lucky for us, the class wrote us letters - something to remember them by.
Like the kids, the letters are earnest, funny and occasionally heart-tugging.
FROM DIANNA ORIHUELA: “I hope you get a lot of money for working with us. I hope they pay you really well. The other 3 fifth grade classes are jealous because we are famous and I’m glad I am famous.”
FROM JAVONI FARRAR: “Thanks for being for me and my class and this is coming (from) my heart god bless you.”
FROM JERMEY STEELE, whose observational skills are worthy of a veteran journalist: “Every time when Mr. Merritt talks I notice you would write. Sometimes you would write without looking, that is very cool.”
He also noted one of my personal habits: “Every time you walk in the door you will have gum in your mouth.”
FROM TAI-ASIA RIOS: “Every time I read the articles, I feel tears come on like a waterfall because it’s very emotional for me.”
FROM VICTORIA OLIVARES: “I hope that in the future you will miss us and the class.”
School hasn’t been out a month, and we already do.
Story behind the story
From August 2005 to June 2006, Observer reporter Pam Kelley and photographer Gary O’Brien regularly visited Jeremiah Merritt’s fifth-grade class at Merry Oaks International Academy of Learning. At that time, at the school, off Central Avenue in east Charlotte, kids came from about 30 different countries and 90 percent got free or reduced lunch. That year, 95 percent of Merry Oaks fifth-graders passed the regular EOG reading tests. It was the best the school had ever done.