In 2009, Governor Bev Perdue and the State Department of Public Instruction took over the Halifax School System in Northeastern North Carolina. At the time, only about one third of students in Halifax high schools passed end of grade tests, and only about one-half graduated.
Things have improved. Graduation rates have risen by 16 percent. But there’s still a long way to go. As part of our American Graduate series, Dave DeWitt visited Halifax Northwest High School to see how the turnaround is going.
Dave DeWitt: By mid-morning, a line is forming outside Principal Marvin Bradley’s office. There’s a student who came to school late and wants to explain why, and another who was busted for using a cell phone in class.
Bradley is casual with the kids, but stern.
Marvin Bradley: to write you up, you get suspended, and then what you do? You lose what?
Student: Senior trip.
Bradley: Senior trip. Is that what you want to lose? That’s what it’s coming to.
Bradley organized the senior trip to Orlando to try to give them something to look forward to at the end of the year. He’s also renamed the campus’s eight buildings after universities, formed student work groups to repaint parts of those buildings, and instituted a dress code.
Bradley says it’s all part of setting a new tone.
Bradley: The biggest thing is establishing relationships. And I think once you establish relationships, you get more out of a student. And I think that extends from where I was as a young man, a troubled young man, and just knowing how they are received and how you relate with them makes a tremendous difference in their lives.
Bradley tells the students that his mother was an alcoholic and his father was a drug addict. He spent time in the military after high school, and it refocused his life. He came here most recently from Chicago, where he specialized in turning around schools.
Halifax Northwest High School might be his most challenging stop yet. The campus buildings here are old. Rust covers most everything, especially the poles that hold up the sheet metal awnings over the walkways. Some of the door handles are broken, and even the ones that are intact aren’t exactly in top working order.
Wearing a sharply pressed shirt and designer glasses, Bradley walks briskly through campus. He is greeted warmly by most of the students…
Bradley: I was out the last three days and when I came back, you’d have thought I was a rock star, because they hadn’t seen me. But they’re just good kids.
One in 3 of those kids lives in poverty. Many spend more than an hour and a half on the bus every day. Halifax schools rank 114th out of 115 school districts in the state in local funding. According to DPI’s school report cards, Northwest High School is in the bottom 1 percent of the state’s high schools for student performance.
Don’t tell that to Loren Whitehead, Junior.
Loren Whitehead, Jr: I’m an A student.
Whitehead is a senior and says the school has improved in the last year. He’s even pitched in and helped paint on Saturdays.
Whitehead: Try to help it look a little better around here. Like Dr. Bradley, he’s trying to make some changes around here. Good changes. So I’m on board with him on that.
Whitehead is the cream of the crop of the senior class at Halifax Northwest. He’s looking at several colleges. But first, he’s here in Mr. Beebe’s calculus class, working out some problems with his study group.
Beebe is in his fifth year of teaching. He’s a UC-Berkley grad who grew up on the west coast. He came to Halifax County as a Teach For America teacher, but unlike the vast majority of his colleagues in that program, he stayed beyond his two-year commitment to teach at a traditional public school.
Mike Beebe: I think so many times these students are used to people, specifically in this area, of people making promises and not following up on promises. I feel that by coming back and by continuing to work with them, they’ve built trust and faith in me that I have their back and that I do support them.
Beebe now owns a house in nearby Roanoke Rapids. He’s helped put solar panels on the school’s roof, he coaches an improving track team, and he connects with a wide variety of kids.
Kids like De-Ante Williams. He wanders into Beebe’s class late in the day to talk.
Deante Williams: Well, I see people I don’t want to be like that was in my life. So I just want to make the best. Make sure I better myself and be better than who I was around.
Williams says he’s struggled at times, but people like Mr. Beebe kept after him when he needed it.
Williams: And I wanted to make sure that whenever I succeed, or whatever I succeed in, I recognize the people who helped me get there.
Williams and the other 560 or so students at Northwest High are making their way to the school gym. It’s the end of the day, and nerves are a bit frayed. Some yell profanity in the walkways between buildings. Others shout for them to stop. A few fights have broken out on campus in the last several weeks.
In response, Principal Bradley has called an all-school assembly.
Bradley: Listen Up. Listen. I realize that we are all tired right now. But what I don’t want to happen, I do not want us to lose our focus.
End-of-Grade tests are coming up. And Bradley knows better than anyone that, right or wrong, he, the teachers, the students, even the community will be judged on those scores.
And all the new paint in the world isn’t going to change that.