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Most of the students at Southern Leadership Academy in Louisville, Ky., come from housing projects nearby. Ninety-five percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Seventy percent of the students come from single parent households. Over 75 percent of parents do not have a college degree. Southern is still very much a neighborhood school. There are seven buses to transport the student body, and everyone else lives close enough to walk home. “This area of town gets forgotten somehow. Parents, because of their poverty, don’t have a lot of choices that other people do,” said assistant principal Angie Doyle. Southern has the lowest CATs test scores in the state, and all teaching and administrative contracts were released last year, creating an entirely new staff charged with raising students' performance.
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“They have holes in their education,” said seventh grade math teacher Sharon Utley. “I’m not sure exactly where that comes from.” “A good teacher is one who tried to keep their class calm, tries to help students learn,” said sixth-grader De’Antre Jones. “But the other teachers let their class run wild and don’t teach us anything.” Seventh grade social studies teacher Lonnie Goldston worked one-on-one Harlan Laffew during “team ISAP,” a disciplinary action that keeps kids in the classroom, but doing individual work among their peers. The two spent 45 minutes doing 10 two-column subtraction problems. Sixty-one percent of Southern’s students perform below grade level in math.
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“I don’t think any of them knew how hard it would really be,” said assistant principal Angie Doyle of Southern’s new teachers. Maria Tabb is a first-year, seventh grade social studies teacher at Southern. Nearly 75 percent of the teaching staff is new this year. Fifty percent have never taught anywhere before. “Classroom management has been my biggest struggle,” said Tabb. “Being on a team makes it easier, but when you’re alone in your room it’s really tough.” She said the biggest problem in the classroom is discipline, which limits the ability of the teachers to teach. “It’s like some of them don’t know how to be students,” she said. “It feels like we’re teaching them how to be students, so it’s hard to get further in the curriculum.” Tabb will be teaching at Southern a minimum of two more years. She has great hope for the future, despite frustrations she has encountered thus far. “Sometimes I feel really naïve, but I always feel like tomorrow will be better,” Tabb said. “I want to be here for the ones who want to be in school. They just have a difficult lot. If I can help them succeed, it’s worth it. If I can get through to one kid, it’s worth it.”
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There are specific qualities that make a good teacher at Southern, according to assistant principal Angie Doyle, far right. “They have relationships with kids,” she said. “They try to get to know them. Their lesson planning – they know what they’re going to do every minute. It’s very structured.” These teachers do not take the behavior of students personally and are non-confrontational. “I’ve had the good life. I taught at Catholic schools for a number of years,” said master teacher Milida Chilten, center. Despite the day-to-day struggles, Chilten has been at Southern for 12 years. She has helped students through remedial work in math and science, helping students perform on grade-level and get into better high schools. “This is my neighborhood,” she said. “I went to Iroquois Middle School. My sister went to Southern. I still feel like there’s something that I can give that these kids can benefit from.” From left, seventh-grader Deangelo Crawford, Chilten, eighth-grader Luan Nguyen, Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Sherman Morrow and Doyle. Chilten separated the two boys during a fight and had two of her fingers broken with severe nerve damage. Nguyen, at 16, could have been arrested and taken to jail for the assault after the incident.
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“The greatest obstacles that our kids face are generational poverty and the issues that come with that: no healthcare, no transportation, areas they live in, crime in those areas, loss of hope,” Doyle said. “I think the other thing is just things that have happened to them before they got here.” She cited evictions, involvement in the court system, inconsistent education and sexual/physical abuse as some of the key contributors. “It’s all this cycle, and it’s any given kid that comes up here.” Students used to have over 1,000 suspensions a year. This year there have only been 210. “Our kids don’t know how to be positive, productive leaders. They don’t see anyone doing it,” Doyle said.
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“It’s like a car you want to run and run right, but half the motor’s missing,” said substitute teacher Altaire Bey, bottom right. At Southern, 52 percent of the students are African-American; 20 percent speak a different language; 17 percent qualify for Exceptional Child Education (ECE); 26 percent read below grade level (most in the district among middle schools); 61 percent perform below grade level in math. Several classes of seventh-grade girls spend a spring afternoon working outside together on class work. There is a constant undertow of violence – hitting and yelling are present as a means to resolve all conflicts.
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Principal Bill Perkins gives a pep talk to a classroom of eighth-grade boys the day before CATS testing starts across the state. This single exam plays the greatest role in determining a school’s progress year-to-year, and is now a measure that weighs heavily against the teaching ability of its teachers. “Now it’s more of a policing of schools, and it’s not even a fair policing,” Perkins said. “I mean, I get it. I used to work for the state. I understand the need for accountability, but you can’t measure what’s not equal,” Doyle said.
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In the conference room at the State Board of Education, the woman behind the panel in the corner is nodding off. The man sitting against the east wall is audibly snoring and teachers and administrators from across the state are exchanging bemused glances. SLA leadership looks anxious, having had an hour to think and rethink the trial in which they are about to take the stand. From left, master teacher Milida Chilten, priority school manager Amy Dennes, principal Bill Perkins, Deana Dosset, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sheldon Berman and assistant superintendent for middle schools Dr. Sandy Ledford all gave progress reports to the state Board of Education regarding improvements in performance.
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Louisville Metro Police Officer Beverly Jones removes the handcuffs from sixth-grader Martez Salters. Salters was nearly arrested on the second floor when three teachers and six students were unable to restrain him. After bringing the other boy to the floor, he continued to kick the student and another teacher. Officer Jones had to put Salters in handcuffs before he stopped fighting. He then sat in an assistant principal’s office for two hours before being released. Assault is a felony, and Salters ran the risk of being arrested for attacking the teachers. Assistant principal Angie Doyle walks the fine line between implementing discipline and doing what is best for the child. They are not always accomplished by the same actions. In this instance, both students involved were suspended, Salters to the Board of Education, who places him in a temporary school for disciplinary problems and assesses whether Southern is the right placement for him.
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Children at Southern play at fighting. It is hard to distinguish between two students about to beat each other up and two friends joking around. After hours of CATS testing each morning, students spent an hour outside playing together. The boys chase each other, but the end result is a pretend jumping. Most of the problems these kids have are based on socioeconomic issues. “Because you’re looking at an area of town with one of the highest poverty rates, highest teen pregnancy rates, highest crime rates and highest dropout rates,” Durk Davidson, the Family Resource Coordinator at Southern, said. “The children in this area have to come based on demographics,” he said. They don’t really have a choice.
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“They get to the point where they hear it so much,” said master teacher Milida Chilten, “They think they can’t succeed.” Negative media portrayal compromises the self-esteem of the students, Chilten said. The media consistently tells them they are dumb and cannot compete with peers at other schools. She teaches intervention classes during regular school hours each day to make sure kids who were failing early on do not fail for the year. Ron Cheeks teaches social studies to the sixth-grade boys, then preparing for a Core Content Assessment (CCA) test. Because the rate at which students are able to learn the material differs from the state’s timeline, the students may spend a week cramming for the test on Rome, then return to where they were in the chapter on Ancient Egypt.
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Rodgericka Gunn, left, shoots her arm into the air to answer a question during her seventh-grade social studies class with Maria Tabb. The group was working on a technology-based activity, a technique that has been integrated into every classroom to give students more opportunity to work with computers and keep up with wealthier populations at other schools in the district. While starting behind state and national standards, students, teachers and administrators are trying daily to pull up together and ensure the success of all the students.
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