Culture of achievement takes hold in Durham school

Posted May 7, 2010 4:51 p.m. EDT
Updated May 7, 2010 6:45 p.m. EDT

— Superior Court Judge Howard Manning is known for lambasting school officials over lagging student performance. This week, though, he commended the changes taking place at a Durham middle school.

Two years ago, 20 percent of students at Lowe's Grove Middle School passed end-of-grade tests. The school is predominantly low-income, with about three-fourths of the students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

After Principal Kathy Kirkpatrick arrived, the passing rate rose to 32 percent for the 2008-9 school year. This year, she said, she expects 50 percent to pass.

Kirkpatrick said her first challenge was changing the academic culture at the school to make student achievement a priority.

"(We had) to make sure kids understand that they are expected to be in class, that they are expected to do their work, that we are not going to accept anything less than your best," she said. "Getting that across to kids, getting that across to teachers is also kind of a mind shift.”

The faculty proved to be a hard sell: The school has seen a 20 percent turnover in its faculty each of the last two years.

"There has been some strong push-back, but that’s OK," she said. "We have put (pressure) on teachers to make changes we need them to make. If they are not willing to make the changes, I'm sorry, this is not the school for you."

The students, on the other hand, have taken Kirkpatrick's message to heart.

"In sixth grade, we were like a low-class school, but in the last two years, we grew so much,” eighth-grader Tahjee Young said.

"They say, 'No one can fail at this school. You are going to do good,' and then that’s become true," seventh-grader Justin Brown said. "People believe it, and then you get A's and 100s and do so good.”

Kirkpatrick has used both carrots and sticks to move students to an academically gifted curriculum level, including teaching algebra in lower grades, and emphasized giving extra help to those who need it through tutoring and after-school programs.

Students who don't do their homework go to a homework center in the middle of the school day instead of getting 30 minutes to socialize. A zero score on an assignment isn't an option, Kirkpatrick said.

Academic success also brings rewards for students. For every A, B or C they earn in class, they rack up tickets that are then put into an end-of-year drawing to win donated laptop computers.

"It started out as an excuse. 'I'm going to win that computer, so, yeah man, I'm going to do my homework,'" Kirkpatrick said of student attitudes. "Now, it's 'If the computer comes, that's great, but look at what I'm doing, (see) my report card.'"

This year, the school started handing out K-Cash – named after Kirkpatrick – to recognize good behavior by students. The certificates can be redeemed for donated items, including footballs, basketballs, gum, lip gloss and lotion.

So far this year, suspensions at Lowe's Grove Middle are down.

"When I look at the younger students, I think it should be my job to teach them an example so they should follow me,” Young said.

"I used to do bad. I used to make bad grades and poor decisions, and I just realized that they weren’t the right things,” Brown said. "I started to believe in myself, and it worked out great."

Kirkpatrick said she hopes to have all of her students passing end-of-grade tests within three years.

"We’ve really got to shift to think all kids can excel because, if we don’t think all kids can excel, then we don’t teach to the high levels. Therefore, they don’t learn to high levels,” she said.