This post reprinted in its entirety (Part 2 of 2) courtesy of Pensacola Today available online at http://PensacolaToday.com and President/CEO Randy Hammer. February 22, 2015
How the students see it
Enrollment at North Charleston High has dropped from about 1,300 in 2002 to 485 this year.
The cost to run the school has remained about the same, from $7.29 million then to $7 million now.
Coming from mostly low-income neighborhoods, many of the students face astronomical odds before entering the school building.
Some go hungry. Few get proper dental and medical care. Too many are transient, bouncing from home to home. If they aren’t lucky enough to find a family or friend’s couch, they end up sleeping on floors or in cars.
Another problem Grimm faced was keeping students from leaving the school.
Some North Charleston parents lost faith in the school. They pulled their children out to send them to Wando High School, which boasts a graduation rate of 88 percent.
Even though his parents were against it, Noah Johnson transferred to North Charleston High from a larger school two years ago.
Taking courses in AP calculus and macroeconomics, Johnson has a 3.7 grade-point average.
Johnson said he would rank his teachers among the best in the country, stressing that the courses are rigorous and challenging.
“I love this school,” says Johnson, a senior, who is on his way to college to become a mechanical engineer. “It has made me a better person. Not everything people say is true.”
Senior Nykeil Miller came to the school as a freshman. Miller used to play hooky, fight and stay in trouble. She’s witnessed the school’s meteoric rise and improvements in academics and discipline under Grimm’s leadership.
”He took an interest in me personally and turned me around,” says Miller, who will graduate with her freshman class on time and wants to become a digital graphic designer. “Coming in, Mr. Grimm started changing the whole school.”
Smart hires are key
An important part of the transformation took place before Grimm walked through the door.
It started with hiring the right teachers with the right attitude and temperament to deal with at-risk students with baggage and burdens to carry, Grimm says.
He essentially turned over 90 percent of the staff on his watch.
Part of the interviewing process involves asking poignant questions to feel out the candidate and determine if they fit in with his mission and goal.
Every person he picks, from the data clerk on up, he puts the students in mind, Grimm says.
He dismisses what he calls “pat” answers, when candidates talk about impoverished families, learning disabilities, peer pressure or trying to make a difference.
He wants teachers who understand the dynamics they face and will work to find solutions, instead of pointing out problems.
“If they don’t give me, ‘Sometimes it’s my fault as a teacher, I’m not reaching the students, I’ve not established a relationship with the students, I’ve not given them what they need in order to feel safe and secure in my classroom, I’ve not tried 50 different teaching strategies,’ then I don’t consider them,” he says. “Because, more often than not,
it is our fault.”
Miasha Wilder knew she was the right person for the job when Grimm hired her out of college three years ago.
A guidance counselor with a master’s degree, Wilder grew up in a struggling, low-income household and attended Title I schools where most of the students were eligible for subsidized lunches.
“If I can, you can,” are words framed on the wall in her office.
“He hired me because I had the energy and passion and the desire to help them become better students and people,” Wilder says.
Teachers who embrace the calling
North Charleston High is a small school in a big building. Down the pristine, gleaming hallways, up the stairs, empty desks rest in dark classrooms, the result of dwindling enrollment over the past decade.
Up the stairs on the third floor, a booming voice can be heard at the end of the quiet, empty hallway.
Inside a classroom, history teacher Anthony Ludwig scoots back and forth, up and down the isle between desks, reading a document from the Destruction of Maine, an American battleship that exploded in the Havana harbor in 1898.
Pictures of presidents past and present, history makers, world maps, and laminated newspaper articles of historic news events are plastered on the walls.
Ludwig pauses at a student’s desk, leans in close to drive home a point in the lesson.
“What happened? Who did they talk to?” he asks the student, with a thick Northern accent.
He crouches to check an answer, before dashing to the front of the class to continue his lecture.
Eyes and ears follow every step.
“These students are unbelievably talented, but kids have to be told that,” says Ludwig, a Philadelphia native, who has been at the school four years.
He went to college north of Charleston in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He applied at more than 70 schools in 11 states, before Mr. Grimm found a rare talent.
“He’s one of my best teachers,” Grimm says. “He relates to students, and they are smart enough to see that he cares about them as humans.”
Ludwig recalled during his first week of teaching when a student was giving him some grief. He threatened to call the boy’s parents.
“He said, ‘Both of my parents are locked up, so what you gonna do?’”
Another student had just had a baby with no parent at home to help out.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Ludwig says. “It’s tough to get kids to understand the South American War and they didn’t get any sleep the night before.
“I do whatever it takes to get it done,” he says. “As long as I’m needed and making a difference, I will be here.”
Grimm gives high marks to his teachers for helping the school shed its nasty reputation.
Hallways, once filled with boisterous disruptions, now give way to order and restraint.
Eady recollects a different place at a different time a few years ago.
His job was to keep the students moving between classes. It was bedlam, Eady says, as the mass of students rushed through the hall, pushing, shoving and fighting.
All he could do was helplessly stand against the wall and watch. “For a couple of years, I was around here doing nothing, just standing here watching them tear this school to the ground,” Eady says. “Mr. Grimm came in, got his people in place and turned things around.”
Eady says the principal is hands-on, in the hallways and in the classrooms. He doesn’t sit behind a desk giving directions.
“The key to being a good leader is that everybody knows that you’re a leader, but you don’t have to announce it,” says Eady. “He jokes and has a good time, but we all know when it’s time for business.”
When the bell rings, a gaggle of students hustle from their class for lunch.
Grimm grabs his two-way radio and steps out of his dimly light office into the bright lights of the hallway, twirling a key chain that dangled from his faded jeans beneath his tan sport coat.
Gregarious and affable, he makes his way through the school’s cavernous cafeteria, shaking hands and slapping high fives like a politician on a stump.
He offers a smile, a laugh or a pat on the back for almost every student in his path. He rattles off questions about issues at homes as often as he probes for answers about school.
“How’s your father?” asks Grimm, stopping a student in the hallway. “Why didn’t you tell me he was in the hospital?”
“Rom-u-lus!” says Grimm, bumping fists and laughing with the gangly sophomore. “The coolest name I’ve ever heard!”
A crooked smile breaks on Romulus Townes’ face. He relishes the attention and being a part of the school family.
“He’s not the type who acts like he runs the school,” says Townes. “He acts like family. I don’t see him as a principal.”
Like many of his classmates, Townes hasn’t lived on Easy Street. He arrived in Charleston a few years ago from the rough-and-tumble city life of Atlanta.
He’s bounced from place to place, living with one member of the family to the another. He has lived in group homes most of his 15 years, a wounded teenager, searching for someone to trust, some place to call home.
“If I need something, I can always count come to them,” Townes says. “They’ve helped me in more ways than one.”
It is students like Townes that Grimm has in mind when he looks for a teacher. They need to be ready as a nurse, a counselor, a psychologist and a friend, he says.
“I let them know that they are going be more than just a teacher,” Grimm says. “If you’re not comfortable doing that, then don’t come, because you’re not doing me any good. And if you’re not doing me any good, you’re not serving the children.”
‘Prove you care’
In the fourth and final year of his contract, Grimm wants to continue his plan and reach higher goals.
He wants a graduation rate of 100 percent. He’s focusing on raising scores on standardized test. The At-Risk rating is not acceptable.
Grimm admits that the first couple of years were rough. He had to prove to the students, their parents and the community that he wasn’t just some new guy on the block seeking a paycheck and a pension.
“They don’t care unless you prove you care,” Grimm says. “We’re going to get better and better, and hopefully the next person can continue to do good work.”
Special thanks to Randy Hammer from Pensacola Today for connecting with us via email about our request to reprint this post for WRIE readers. Reprint courtesy of Pensacola Today, Pensacola, FL, http://PensacolaToday.com.
Read Part 1 of “When Education is a Priority, Every Child Can Learn” here.
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