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WUNC's American Graduate Project is part of a nationwide public media conversation about the dropout crisis. We'll explore the issue through news reports, call-in programs and a forum produced with UNC-TV. Also as a part of this project we've partnered with the Durham Nativity School and YO: Durham to found the WUNC Youth Radio Club. These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and these generous funders: Project Funders:GlaxoSmithKlineThe Goodnight Educational FoundationJoseph M. Bryan Foundation State FarmThe Grable FoundationFarrington FoundationMore education stories from WUNC

What It's Like Inside A Low-Performing School

Lead teacher Amy Brewer goes over a Math lesson at Concord Middle School in Cabarrus County.
Reema Khrais
Lead teacher Amy Brewer goes over a Math lesson at Concord Middle School in Cabarrus County.

Over the last five years, four different principals have cycled through Concord Middle School. The latest principal to step into the role is Carrie Tulbert. She remembers when the superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools called her last year and asked her if she could come.

“The more he told me about Concord Middle School, the more he just kind of inadvertently pulled at my heart strings,” she explains.

A former state principal of the year, Tulbert decided to take on the challenge of helping to turn around the high-poverty, low-performing middle school.

High Teacher Turnover

Credit Reema Khrais / WUNC

Test scores at Concord Middle are low, particularly in math. Last year, only 20 percent of 8th graders passed the state math exam.

Tulbert explains that students have gaps in their learning. For example some kids are expected to multiply fractions, but they’re still struggling with 12 x 12.

When asked if high teacher turnover has anything to do with these gaps, Tulbert doesn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” she says.  

Eleven out of 60 teachers have already left this school year—an unusually high number in Tulbert’s experience. For some students, that can mean non-certified substitute teachers for months.  

“My math teacher this year, she left after like Thanksgiving break. We didn’t have a teacher for about two-and-a-half months,” says seventh grader Mackenzie Fain.

Fain admits  her substitute teacher wasn’t the best, so she taught herself by watching YouTube videos during class.

“It was just really hard taking tests without actually learning it. And I would have to go to a tutor after school so I could learn what I should’ve learned in class,” Fain explains.

Several kids—like Ta’jay Brown—say it can feel like chaos with substitutes.

“We didn’t learn anything,” Brown admits. “She (the substitute) would try to talk and people would run out of the classroom, scream, yell. She would try to calm them down and like focus on them and not focus on trying to teach a lesson anymore.”

Middle school student Jojo works on a math assignment at Concord Middle.
Credit Reema Khrais / WUNC
Middle school student Jojo works on a math assignment at Concord Middle in Cabarrus County.

Being Labeled An "F" School

But when I ask the students what grade they’d give their school, most of them gave it a B. Ta’jay was surprised that the state actually gave it an F. She says the staff is loving and kind.

“Until you really come here and see what like our school is about, you won't really like know. Just because we’re an F doesn’t mean we’re an F,” she explains.

The F grade is based on state exam scores and the fact that students have not shown growth.  Nearly a quarter of the state’s public schools are considered low-performing.

In North Carolina, schools that score a “D” or “F” on the state’s grading scale and didn’t exceed growth expectations are considered low-performing. Nearly a quarter of the state’s public schools are low-performing and most of them have large populations of low-income students, like at Concord Middle. 

Seventh-grader Mackenzie remembers when she got her score back on last year’s end-of-grade math test. She ran out of the classroom.

“It was just really hard for me to understand that I studied so hard for that...and so I just started crying in the restroom because of how sad I was,” Mackenzie says.

Lead teacher Amy Brewer says years ago test scores were higher and teachers stuck around for longer. That’s changed as the student population has become poorer. Plus, Brewer says, teachers have fewer resources these days.

“They have large class sizes, they don’t have all the tools that other places have, they don’t have textbooks so they’re really trying to struggle through that and it’s frustrating.”

Last year, after five teachers left in the mid-year, Brewer began applying to other jobs.

“My husband, he's like, ‘How do you keep going to work there every day, why don’t you find a new job? Why don’t you put your name on the transfer list, why don’t you leave?’ There were times I wanted to, but at the same time I love Concord Middle, I love these kids, and I can’t think of teaching or working anywhere else.”

So Brewer decided to stay.

'How can I get good teachers?'

Principal Carrie Tulbert is a former state principal of the year. It's her first year at Concord Middle School.
Credit Reema Khrais / WUNC
Principal Carrie Tulbert is a former state principal of the year. It's her first year at Concord Middle School.

Teachers like Kelly Carpenter recognize the challenges of working at a school with many low-income students are much different than those at a school with more affluent students.

“Some of them have to take care of their family members, young siblings, they have to cook, babysit,” Carpenter says. “Some don’t have water at night; their power has been cut off; they don’t have heat.”

Principal Tulbert says she’s been hiring all year as teachers have been leaving. Some of them have told her the school wasn't "the right fit." Others said they weren't getting paid enough to pay off their student loans. One teacher decided that she was going to leave education all together. 

"It was around that fourth or fifth resignation that I was like, ‘What the heck is going on? How can I get good teachers in these classrooms?’" she remembers. “And so I just had a breakdown.”

She closed the blinds and cried in the corner of her office.

"A teacher that's worked 20 years gets paid the same as a teacher that's worked 20 years in a high-performing school," she says. "If you're getting paid the same, what would make you come to this school?"

Low-performing schools are required to come up with improvement plans. If they don’t make progress, principals can be pushed out. Tulbert says she’s not scared for her job, but for her kids.

“I’m scared that we’re not working hard enough,” she says. “I’m scared that we’re not working on the right things, yeah, I’m scared that my kids won’t perform.”

But she also had those same fears at her former school. For now, she knows the best thing she can do is just to stay put and to give her kids a little more stability. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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