Catawba College's 14 West Teaching Scholars, accompanied by several mentors, faculty, and staff, traveled to Atlanta in late January to visit three Atlanta Public Schools — Heritage Academy (elementary), Parks Middle School, and Booker T. Washington High School.
The students also took advantage of a number of cultural opportunities in the Atlanta area after their visits to inner-city schools. Included were tours of CNN, World of Coke, High Museum of Art, Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and the Atlanta Zoo.
The Catawba group was somewhat surprised at the demographic make-up of the students and faculty at the three schools, which are a part of the Project GRAD national program which is designed to make sure that all students graduate from high school.
For example, the first stop was at Heritage Academy, an elementary school which serves an economically disadvantaged (97 percent free and reduced lunch) and largely African American (98 percent) population. The school has experienced dramatic improvement in student scores on standardized tests of reading and mathematics. Eight years ago 22 percent of the school population was scoring on grade level, but the percentage last year rose to 78 percent of fifth graders on grade level in math, for example.
Students are assigned to reading classes based on reading level, rather than grade level, as most schools do. Students are assigned specific jobs in the classroom, freeing the teacher to concentrate on teaching. This allows the students to be a part of a learning community. Communities in Schools program played a key role in each of the three schools visited by providing additional resources and volunteers to assist the teachers. For example, 78 students with perfect attendance for the year received expensive new bicycles.
The West Teaching Scholars, named for long-time Catawba educator and trustee Martha Kirkland West '59, saw a very structured, focused program which supports student learning, consistency throughout the school, student involvement, and strong classroom management. The school followed a system of data-driven assessment in which test data is reviewed every eight weeks with adjustments in student placements as needed. Kindergarten students were learning Spanish and some students were reading at a seventh-grade level.
The second school, Parks Middle School, also serves an economically disadvantaged population with 99 percent free and reduced lunch and 98 percent African American. Most doors were kept locked and students had to pass through a metal detector as they entered the building. Administrators and students all wore uniforms. Discipline and cleanliness rated superior marks from the visitors at all three schools.
Parks has experienced remarkable success. Eight years ago the school was under sanctions. However, last year, 90 percent of eighth graders were on grade level in math and 94 percent were on grade level in reading. Last year, the school also met the Average Yearly Progress (AYP) under very stringent No Child Left Behind (NCLB) guidelines.
School principal Christopher Waller welcomed the group from Catawba by saying, "Welcome to Parks Middle School where we are eliminating the achievement gap and where we believe our kids can improve with the kids in Buckhead (wealthy area of Atlanta)." He noted the need for students to become "global learners" who had a need for exposure to what the world has to offer. So the school sponsors trips to Canada and Puerto Rico. The belief was expressed that "every student can and should go to college" and that in an information age "college is for everyone."
Booker T. Washington School, the high school attended by Martin Luther King and other famous persons, is the first high school founded for African Americans east of the Mississippi. The school serves a population of 1292 students, 91 percent of whom are on free/reduced lunch and 99 percent of whom are African Americans. Since joining Project GRAD, the graduation rate has risen from 58 percent in 2002 to 86 percent in 2007.
The school is divided into four academies: teaching, health/human services, business/finance, and fine/visual/performing arts. Each academy serves as a learning community in which students explore potential careers while learning academic subjects.
"The visit to Project GRAD schools revealed students whose demographic data would normally indicate that they had no chance of success in school, but these young people were engaged, motivated, learning, and going to college," Dr. Cyndi Osterhus '73, Director of the Peeler Academy of Teaching and the West Scholars program and assistant professor of teacher education, said. "The Scholars were touched by these young people and I hear in their discussion an increased motivation to make a difference, not only in teaching, but by learning strategies that enable them to reach all students."
Dr. Jim Stringfield, chair of the teacher education department at Catawba and a participant in the trip, added, "It was invaluable for our students to visit three schools in which large numbers of economically disadvantaged minority students were achieving at such high levels and experiencing such high graduation rates. As these Scholars progress through our program and learn more about the achievement gap, the "digital divide" and the large numbers of students (particularly minorities) who fail to graduate from high school, they may come to appreciate exactly how remarkable these schools were."
"I'm sure our students will encounter well-intentioned teachers who will speak of "at risk" students and offer a myriad of reasons why their schools are low performing. However, at least Scholars have visited schools where their economically disadvantaged minorities are not only eliminating the achievement gap, but are achieving at higher levels than many majority students."
Phil Kirk '67, Vice President of External Relations at Catawba and Chairman Emeritus of the N.C. State Board of Education, was blunt in his assessment. "What we saw in Atlanta debunked the myth that a school which has 'too many' poor children is a school doomed for failure. We saw educators who truly believe that all children can learn. The signs on the wall at Heritage Academy which read 'No Excuses' are one reason why these students are succeeding. Their teachers believe in them...the community believes in them ... and many of their parents believe in them. The attitudes of the educators and students were overwhelmingly positive."
How did the Teaching Scholars react to what they saw in Atlanta?
"To see the blossoming success from the underprivileged students in Atlanta was an awesome experience; however, the most poignant thing noted by myself, are the smiles and the twinkles in every child's eye because you could see how very proud they are of where they are from and who they have become," Stephanie Hill of China Grove said.
Courtney Jackson of Flat Rock commented, "I felt very welcomed in the schools and the students were ready to learn and get the education they knew they could. The curriculum was very structured but put every student on the right pathway to succeed in school."
Other Scholars echoed that view. "Visiting schools in Atlanta that fostered such different and new systems was an experience that gave us the chance to encounter and learn many of the different ways that students can learn and benefit from specific programs as well as the opportunity to reflect on our own future teaching styles and how important they are to the student's success," Laura Ritchie of Salisbury said.
Elizabeth Sloop of Salisbury commented on the personal and educational aspects of the five-day trip, "The trip to Atlanta was very exciting for me personally because I have never been in any school outside of Rowan County, let alone North Carolina. Realizing that there are other methods of teaching and approaches to education, such as the incorporation of music into class changes, was definitely an eye opener. I hope that with future trips our Scholars can continue to see the possibilities and unique ideas that would be great tools and educational motivators for our classrooms."
The benefits of the Peeler Academy for Teaching were explained to educators at each school. "The staff members of Project GRAD were very impressed with Catawba's Peeler Academy for Teaching our students and want to bring a group of potential teachers to visit our campus," Dr. Osterhus said. "It is so exciting to see young people, 18 and 19 years of age, who know they want to teach and are so enthusiastic about learning and being part of the experiences that are offered by the Academy for Teaching."
Kelli Ferguson of Raleigh, another Teaching Scholar, said, "I have more opportunities here at Catawba as a Teaching Scholar than I would at any other school in any other program, regardless of school size."
The Teaching Scholars plan to meet with Dr. Judy Grissom, Superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, to brief her on what they learned in the three Atlanta schools and to hear from Dr. Grissom what the local schools are doing to raise the achievement level of all students. "This should be a great learning experience, both for our students and for Dr. Grissom," Osterhus said.
Mark Musick, former President/CEO of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), assisted in setting up arrangements for the trip and joined the Catawba group at Booker T. Washington High School.
Dr. Osterhus is in the process of recruiting the second class of 15 West Teaching Scholars for admission to Catawba for the 2008-09 school year.
PHOTOS: Teaching Scholars Visit Atlanta