Birmingham-- It's easy to focus on what's wrong with education. And it's no secret that Birmingham Schools, like other urban districts, face serious problems. But there are schools here that are doing something right. From the Southern Education Desk at WBHM, Dan Carsen has more:
A thick, heavy door opens and the booming hip-hop base begins registering on my recording equipment.
No, this education story doesn't begin at a night club, but it does begin at a place where people have fun: the thumping beats are reverberating from an interactive dancing video game in the totally tricked-out, hi-tech game-room at Birmingham's Wilkerson Middle School.
Wilkerson's students are minority -- roughly 7 percent Latino and 93 percent black. It was once the affluent African-American school in town, but people of means have moved away. Now more than 90 percent of its students are on free or reduced lunch.
But Wilkerson Middle School is also a high-performing institution. The state has named it a "Torchbearer School" three years running, and four of the last five years. Torchbearer schools have to meet all sorts of federal and state criteria, but basically, their poor, minority, and special-needs students defy statistics and do well on state and national tests. For perspective, only one other middle school in Alabama has won the award since its inception in 2004, and that was just once. So what's Wilkerson's secret?
"It doesn't matter your background, your academic level. There are no excuses," says math teacher Sandreka Brown.
Speaking of math, Torchbearer schools are supposed to get $15,000, but a decrease in federal funds has wiped out the award money for the past two years. Wilkerson used money from previous years and from other state awards for its game-room, which students get to use if they come to school in uniform, on time, with reading material for before class. They also need at least a 70 in every class and no discipline problems.
So besides the incentive of a ridiculously cool game room, what else is Wilkerson doing right?
One thing is having a nationally certified, tech-savvy teacher who designs learning materials for Wilkerson and for other schools, and who enjoys his job:
"I think that the teachers bleed off on the kids because we're having such a good time that it kind of rubs off on them," says social studies teacher Jerry Strickland.
Teachers at Wilkerson say Principal Constance Burnes allows them the freedom to try innovative approaches that combine all subjects, not to mention take lots of field trips that give context to what the kids are learning. Math teacher Sandreka Brown and reading teacher Latasha Benedict echo each other's sentiments about working at a school like Wilkerson:
"It's a pleasure coming here every day, Monday through Friday. It really is," says Brown. "And you don't hear that often," adds Benedict.
Even people who haven't worked in schools can walk a hallway and get a sense of a place. Here the kids wear uniforms. They walk with their heads up. There are fish tanks in open areas, which wouldn't have worked where I went to middle school because some knucklehead would've broken them or done something unspeakable to the fish. In a hallway near the gym, tuxedo-clad students get ready for a band competition, with logistical help from their hands-on principal.
The school has to share a band teacher with another school, but principal Burnes says there's pride here:
"We've been in this building going on eight years. And as far as graffiti, we don't have that problem. It hasn't been painted since we've been here."
And a little bit of the right kind of fear doesn't hurt:
"They think I have cameras everywhere," she chuckles.
People who haven't taught in places like urban Birmingham often don't realize just how much discipline problems derail learning. When Principal Burnes first came here, "over-age" students (kids who'd been left back) were causing problems, often trying to deflect attention from their classroom failings.
"I brought in an at-risk teacher," she says. "We would pull them during the day, and then during the summer. They knew I would get the opportunity to go into this at-risk person's room, get help with some of those skills I was having problems with in the classroom. And they were able to go to high school."
Another way to squelch drama before it starts might seem strange for a middle school: classes at Wilkerson take bathroom breaks as supervised groups. They were doing that long before a student raped another in a school bathroom in another district last fall.
Okay, so once you've established a safe, orderly environment where learning can take place, how do you get learning to actually take place? Well, for starters, by reaching out to parents.
"We began to find out most of our parents had not finished high school themselves," remembers Principal Burnes. "So we would try to encourage them to come up and learn -- sit in a classroom and find out what we're teaching."
Teacher Jerry Strickland says the use of new integrated smart-board technology makes a big difference in helping kids succeed in all their subjects, as part of a deeper strategy:
"It's been a real boost, because we're able to use that technology to teach math in a social studies classroom, to teach reading in a social studies classroom. We want to give the kids the idea that education is something that's a whole-person sort of thing. It's not something where you go one place and do one thing, and go another place and do another thing."
And the kids get to experience that for themselves. Covering all Wilkerson's enrichment programs isn't possible in a six-minute radio piece, but a short list includes an interdisciplinary "zoo school," a top-notch technology center, outdoor classrooms, a mentoring program for at-risk male students, summer learning clubs, and coming soon, a school magazine.
While sneakers squeak on the basketball court behind her, P.E. teacher Shanekia Wiley boils it down:
"We play more than just the role of just teachers. We're here from 7:45 to 3:15, but we also take more time than just regular school hours. We're here with them after school if they need to be, and we wear more than one hat."
So achieving good test scores, at least at Wilkerson, is really not all about "teaching to the test": It's about school-wide discipline. It's about up-to-date technology. It's about a dedicated staff, and giving teachers freedom. It's about an integrated approach to curriculum, with lots of opportunities for otherwise isolated kids to see how knowledge works in the integrated real world.
And finally, as Principal Burnes says, on top of a hundred other things we can't easily describe or measure, it's also about perspective:
"They live such difficult lives, some of 'em. The safe haven is coming to school, so I tell the teachers all the time, we have to make school fun, because this is the only fun they have."
Which came first, the pride or the awards is a tough question to answer, but one thing is certain: Wilkerson students are defying statistics, and not just on tests. Maybe the more important question is, how can this be replicated in other schools?
~ Dan Carsen, March 20, 2012