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

Basketball season rolls around in the winter and 9th grader RJ McLaughlin is doing well. His grades are up, and he made the basketball team. The basketball court is where RJ feels good about himself.

Gym class at Western Guilford. Photo by Billy Barnes

"I love when it's a big crowd and people are booin' you and people want you to lose," he says. "So then you can just prove everybody wrong."

Tonight the Western Guilford Hornets are playing their big rival, the Dudley High School Panthers. The gym is full. The crowd is wild. Sitting in the bleachers - RJ's mother, his father, his little sister and his grandparents too. They come to all of his games.

RJ gets a big free throw opportunity. His mother screams, and then prays under her breath. Gale McLaughlin says her son has always loved basketball. He's been dribbling since he was a toddler. And she says back then, he had another big interest: science, nature, especially reptiles, dinosaurs.

"As a little boy, like 3, he could tell you every dinosaur. He could tell you names," she says. "In the country, when we go home in the summers to my parents' house, he be lookin' for snakes. When someone says they see a snake, he's out the door!"

McLaughlin and her husband grew up together in a small town south of Greensboro. She's a nurse now. He's a manager at a company that makes gas pumps. McLaughlin says she and her husband worry about RJ in school. Teachers never seem to notice his curious side, his interest in science. She's especially upset about the way RJ was treated at his middle school in Dallas.

"When we were in Texas," she says, "I think he got a bum steer because they labeled him a certain way and I said, 'He's not no dumb kid. I don't think he needs all this stuff you all puttin' on him.'"

RJ's mother says the school in Texas wanted her to sign papers saying he had attention deficit disorder, but she refused. She said there was nothing wrong with him; he was just bored. And to her relief, this is what Jo Adams and other teachers at Western have started saying too.

The encouragement seems to be paying off for RJ. By the middle of the year, he's not getting in trouble as much, and he has As and Bs on his report card. He's still not very interested in school though, and he rarely does his homework, but he says the teachers seem to care; they're trying to help him.

"They're not going to let you get a zero," he says. "They'll make you work until you get it done. You still might not get like a 100; you might get a one. But they're going to make you do the work."

No Child Left Behind is pushing schools to focus on low achieving students, and what's happening, at least here at Western, is that students who were once ignored are getting a second look. And sometimes, what the school sees now is not a student who is slow, but a student who needs a bigger challenge. The school's job is to deliver that challenge in a way that matters to the students; engage them, make it interesting, help them care. But at the same time, the school has to deliver on a more immediate goal too.

"Let me ask you a question about test-taking skills," math teacher Jo Adams asks her Algebra students. It's January and she's been spending a lot of class time on test prep. She's blunt with her students.

"The government has said standardized testing is the way to determine if you know information or not," she tells them. "And it's not just what you know, but how fast can you give it to me. So you've got to learn how to be the best at it."

In a few days, the students in Adams' algebra class will take something called a benchmark test: practice for the big state test that comes at the end of the year. Most students in this school take benchmarks every four-and-a-half weeks. The school needs to know how they're doing, so students who aren't passing can get extra help.

And Adams' students are not doing well. Their average score on the last benchmark was 16 percent. In other words, her students, on average, got only 16 out of 100 questions right. Adams and her colleagues are stressed, and they're doing everything they can to bring the scores up.

"We're seeing that test come down the road," Adams says. "And we know that for the state, and for the administration downtown, that is the do-all. That is the God."

And there's an urgency about passing the tests this year that goes beyond how the school or the teachers will be judged. A new county policy says students must pass the end of course test in order to graduate from high school. It's making RJ McLaughlin really nervous.

"I'm not a big test taker," says RJ. "I can get a 100 on any homework or anything we do in class. But just the word test does something and I like crunch up. And I'll pass," he says, "But it'll be skim." He pauses, swallows. "I'll barely pass it."

When RJ talks about tests, his voice gets pinched and he sounds like a different person: small, young. RJ's been haunted by this test-taking problem for years. And all the class time his teacher is spending on test taking skills hasn't made RJ a master of the multiple-choice exam.

"I'll go in order," he says. "One, two, three, four, and if I get stuck on five, I'm going to sit on five for a while until I get it right. I hate skipping around. But you're looking at the clock saying 20 minutes, 10 minutes, five minutes, so you just start guessing, cause time is going by."

By the day of the benchmark exam, Jo Adams knows her students will not do well. The test comes from the county; it covers what every algebra student is supposed to know by the middle of the year. But Adams is behind. She hasn't had time to teach everything that will be on the test. She knows she's behind because the county gives her something called a pacing guide that tells her exactly what she's supposed to teach every single day.

"The curriculum has been set for us," she says. "This is what you're supposed to do on day one, day two, day three, day four." If someone from the administration walked into her classroom on day four and she wasn't on day four, Adams says they'd want to know why. "Well, I'm sorry," she continues, exasperated. "The students I have, it might take them three days to learn how to solve equations. And solving equations is the basis for every other math level they're going to take."

Jo Adams is stressed and frustrated. She took this assignment with the low performing 9th graders because she liked the idea of having a small group of students, working with them one-on-one, trying new approaches to get them interested in math. She believes in the "small school" approach Western is using with these students. But by January, it's clear that this experiment is going to look like a failure unless the test scores go up.

Continue to Year 1, Part 4

©2018 American Public Media