Grove Street fighting to fill the cracks

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2005

Grove Street School teacher Josie Williams discusses a lesson Friday morning. (BRIAN LODEN The Vicksburg Post)

[1/24/05]Talk to Jennifer Strickland and the labels attached to underachieving children suddenly don’t fit so well.

The teacher of the year at Grove Street School, now the Vicksburg Warren School District’s home for nontraditional programs, teaches 16- and 17-year-olds who are classified as seventh- or eighth-graders. But, as far as Strickland’s concerned, classification is something that stops at the classroom door.

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Label: They’re too dumb to be taught.

Strickland: “I thought I’d have children who didn’t have the academic ability, but that wasn’t the case.”

Label: They’re too wild to be taught.

Strickland: “I haven’t had any discipline referrals this year.”

Label: They won’t show up at school.

Strickland: “For some reason, here they don’t miss. I’ve got a really low absentee rate.”

The school opened this year as a central location for the 9,200-student school district’s programs for students who are overage, have behavior problems, have been arrested or are having some other difficulty. It began the year with 45 students and now has slightly fewer than 200.

It was more than 200, but six students have left. While most principals don’t like to talk about the students who leave after a semester, Gloria Sims brags about them. The reason: Those six were each 17 or older and began the year classified as either seventh-, eighth- or ninth-graders. A semester later, they have their high school equivalency diplomas.

The school is the brainchild of Superintendent James Price.

“We’re charged with meeting the needs of all our students, and this seemed to be the most logical way to do that,” Price said.

Price knew the faculty would be essential to the school’s success, so he hand-picked most of the 42 teachers, counselors and administrators.

“We don’t just take anyone. We take the best of the best,” Price said.

Josie Williams, a 27-year veteran of the classroom, is one of those teachers. She teaches the long-term suspension class, designed for students who’ve reached the maximum disciplinary days out. The idea behind the class is that even when students are suspended, they are not rewarded by being sent home, Sims said.

Williams said taking the job at Grove Street was an easy decision.

“They need more help than the other kids. If you don’t help them, they’ll fall between the cracks,” she said.

In another part of the school, Shannon Barnard’s first-grade students were lining up for lunch. Each put a finger to his or her lips as he or she walked down the hall, though one stole a quick wave to Sims.

“Every one of those children had difficulty in the home school,” Sims said. So each was reassigned from one of the district’s seven traditional elementaries.

“Difficulty” could be anything from hyperactivity to uncontrollable temper tantrums to deficient personal hygiene, she explained.

“They don’t look difficult now, do they?” Sims said as the children silently walked to the cafeteria.

In addition to a teacher and assistant teacher, a behavior health specialist from the Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Service splits his time between the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

“The one-on-one time is really big,” said Russ Schulte, the specialist. Many of the students come from homes where no clear lines of authority exist, he said. Others need help learning the proper way to express anger. Some just couldn’t function in the typical elementary school class of 25 to 30 students. Only nine students are in each class, he said.

Barnard said most of the children are as bright at the typical elementary school student.

“I was amazed at how street-smart they are,” she said.

“But the way they’re being taught at home isn’t what’s within the standards of the community. It’s kids raising themselves,” she said.

Aside from the normal curriculum, the class focuses on recognizing authority and how to conduct oneself in public, she said.

Turning around the perception of the school as a “dumping ground” is the biggest challenge the school faces, Sims said. Having a first-class math lab and getting BancorpSouth to adopt the school are two of the ways she fights that perception.

The lab, funded by a $300,000 state grant, is a part of most every student’s day. The computer-based lessons are designed to let each student move at his or her own pace. A teacher monitors the lab and helps with problems.

BancorpSouth contributed $1,000 to the school and will send employees to teach money-management lessons to GED students.

The school also has a deal with the City of Vicksburg in which several students with new GEDs are interviewing to get jobs. Out of several dozen applicants, four or five will be selected.

The job program exemplifies the school’s mission, the superintendent said.

“That school is now producing productive members of our society,” Price said.