Year 1: Part 2
part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Spend any time in a class full of students who aren't doing well in school, and it's pretty obvious one of the biggest problems is that they don't like school. And a lot of them are way behind. The 9th graders at Western with the lowest test scores all take a special English class first semester called "Strategic Reading." Some of them are still reading at a 3rd grade level. As class begins, their teacher, Laura York, stands at the door.

"All right guys, sit down," she says. "Travis, find your seat please. RJ, Will, please don't throw things, OK?"

There's a lot to do today. First, a quick writing exercise, then a grammar lesson, next, discussion of the book they've been reading aloud in class, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ryan Justin McLaughlin (RJ) has a difficult time focusing in class. Photo by Billy Barnes

The conversation begins but the class never really settles. The students are up and down, sharpening pencils, tossing paper, tapping their fingers against the desks. And even in this rambunctious crowd, one student stands out: Ryan Justin McLaughlin. Everyone calls him RJ. He's the class clown: tall, lanky, constantly moving. RJ sports a big smile when he's joking around, a tight jaw when he's frustrated. He just moved to Greensboro from Texas, and like all the kids in this class, RJ came to high school with low test scores and bad grades.

"I'm tired of coming to school every single day," RJ says. "Some of these teachers get on my nerves. And it's not always the teacher's fault. Sometimes it's my fault. But some of these teachers do be trippin."

But even though RJ would rather not be in school all day long, he's still interested sometimes in what's happening in class. When the teacher brings up the Scottsboro trials during discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird, RJ has questions. He wants to know if the nine black teenagers accused of rape in the 1930s each had their own lawyer.

"That's a really good question," the teacher responds. "We don't know if they had the money, it's expensive to have a lawyer."

"That's what I'm sayin," says RJ. "I mean if you can't afford a lawyer, they'll give you one."

"Right," says the teacher. "I don't know if they each had one, but that's good thinking RJ. Good thinking," she says.

RJ nods. It feels good to do well. But soon he tunes out again, distracted, joking with his peers. He says he has a short attention span.

"If someone is talking to me and I ain't interested, I just turn my head and start thinking about somethin' else," RJ says. "I got a bad habit of that."

RJ's frustrated with himself for not doing better in school. "Plenty of times I go home and I look at my book bag, and I see homework and stuff on top," he says. "And then I'll look out the window and see my basketball." And he thinks, "I'll do this later on. I just keep putting it off. It's like a cycle. If I can just get something to just motivate me to do it, I can do it."

RJ says he wants to go to college. He's hoping for a basketball scholarship. But can he make it through high school? Can teachers and administrators at Western help him, and give him a reason to keep coming to class everyday?

Western Guilford High School has identified RJ McLaughlin, Jessica Giardullo and 83 other 9th graders as the ones most "at-risk" of failing and dropping out. Like a lot of high schools, Western has a big problem. Principal Randy Shaver says about 20 percent of freshman quit before the end of the year. Graduation rate is one factor that determines whether a school makes adequate yearly progress - the federal mandate Western desperately needs to make. And so to help the students, and meet the mandate, the school is trying something new. The "at-risk" students are in a set of trailers behind the main buildings. They take most of their classes together. Sounds kind of harsh, but math teacher Jo Adams says when you mix low performing students in with the ones doing better in school, they do get lost.

Math teacher Jo Adams works with "low-performing" students. Photo by Billy Barnes

"They'll be your three failures that you look at in a class of 32 and say, 'You're my three failures. You're my 10 percent that I'm gonna lose.'" Adams says, "Having them together like this, you can't do that."

Adams is one of five teachers working with this low-performing group the school calls the Freshman Academy A team. The idea is to create a small school where students get individual attention.

"They're here with you every day," she says. "And you've got to try every day to find something that you think will work."

Adams is a small woman with spiky hair and a bright laugh. She darts around the room, ready with questions when students tune out. Some of these students are way behind in math. Today she is teaching the basics of fractions with a recipe for pizza. They take the recipe and double it, cut it in half, in thirds. Some students struggle to keep up with arithmetic; others call out the answers quickly, frustrated it's taking their peers so long to get it.

For Jo Adams, getting all of these 9th graders up to speed is important. But she thinks being a teacher is about much more than numbers. She says most of her students couldn't care less about math. And they have other things on their minds - friends, sports, family problems - sometimes-big problems, she says - parents who've lost jobs, violence in their homes, not having enough to eat.

"Most days that I walk into room, math is the icing on cake. I deal with the cake first. And hopefully I get to teach a little math as I go along," she says. "And I firmly believe that when a kid is ready to learn, they'll learn."

Adams took this assignment to test herself. Can she help the students who need it most? For years she taught advanced placement calculus, the top students. She's known as one of the best teachers in the whole county. So when she took this job teaching basic math, it sent a message: the school is directing its resources to the bottom.

And Adams thinks she can help these students because she identifies with them. When she was in school, she struggled to keep up, especially reading. She says she doesn't remember what grade level she read at in high school. "I just know that I could read and read and read, and then you could ask me about it and I couldn't tell you a thing."

Adams says it wasn't until she went back to college to become a teacher that she sought help for her reading problem. She wishes someone had tested her, and helped her. But even though her reading problem made school difficult, she says she kept coming, and she loved school because of a teacher.

"She took the time to find out what was going on with me as a person," says Adams. "She made a connection that kept me alive and in school." And Adams says that's what her students are looking for too. "They're looking for someone to make a connection."

Jo Adams says she's excited about the coming school year. The payoff for her will be getting these students interested in something, anything, that will motivate them to try harder. The payoff for the school will be better test scores.

Continue to Year 1, Part 3

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