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August 2008

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Finding Hope in Our Failing Schools
Written By: 
Emily Perlman Abedon
Photographs By: 
Christopher Brown

Searching for good news in South Carolina’s poorest public schools may seem futile these days, but perhaps that’s because no one is looking in the right place. Meet 11-year-old Mary Ford 
Elementary graduate Corrie Simmons. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but his transformation from a violent, troubled child into an accomplished student—in a place that most call failing—points the way for his classmates to succeed and reveals how anyone who cares about our most vulnerable young people can pitch in to make a difference


The State of South Carolina 2007 Annual School Report Card relegated the school’s performance to one paltry word: Unsatisfactory.

The rating derives from standardized testing results, which identified that less than one-fifth of Mary Ford students were “proficient” in any of the four areas tested: English/Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. One half of the students tested “below basic” in one or more of those subjects.

According to www.schooldigger.com, Mary Ford ranks in the bottom 10 percent of South Carolina’s 583 public elementary schools, placing it in the “failing” category, along with many other schools whose student bodies come primarily from the state’s poorest families.

“Regardless of race or ethnicity, poor children are much more likely than non-poor children to suffer developmental delays and damage and drop out of high school,” explains Dr. Ruby Payne, Ph.D., a Texas-based educational specialist and author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty who lectures to teachers and administrators across the country—including Charleston County—on the topic of poverty’s effect on children’s learning abilities. “Low achievement is closely correlated with lack of resources, and numerous studies have documented the correlation between low socioeconomic status and low achievement,” she adds.

Perhaps more than anything else, according to child psychologists, residing in a city where children are constantly exposed to violent crime shatters their potential. At least 55 homicides took place during the last two years in North Charleston, many in neighborhoods where Mary Ford Elementary students live.

Statistics indicate that the challenges facing children attending Mary Ford Elementary are a microcosm for the experience of young people throughout the United States. Steven L. Berman, Wendy K. Silverman, and William M. Kurtines of the Child and Family Psychosocial Research Center at Florida International University studied the post-traumatic reactions of children to community violence and found that 84 percent of first- and second-graders in high-poverty urban environments had witnessed at least one violent act. “The high rate of crime and violence in the country has had a profound impact on youth,” they concluded. “It is the nation’s young people, particularly those from low socioeconomic, multi-ethnic, and urban communities, who are increasingly exposed to extreme acts of crime or violence, either as a witness or victim. As a consequence of this exposure, young people are at increased risk of experiencing myriad disturbing psychological symptoms.”

When Mary Ford’s new principal, Cindy Smalls, arrived at her job in July 2007, she discovered that, due to the end of a three-year grant period that had positioned a mental health worker in the school, she had no psychologist, no counselor, no social worker—and no funding to hire any of them. Within days of school starting, she experienced the results of that absence, as chair-throwing little kids and fist-fighting bigger kids ended up in her office, referred, it seemed almost daily, for discipline. “I’ve never seen kids fight so much,” says Smalls, contemplating the wide array of challenges she faced to improve the school. “They lash out for so many reasons. It’s not unusual for a child to see a brother or a cousin get killed right in front of them.”

One afternoon at the end of the school day, a little boy refused to go home. “He didn’t want to get on the bus,” Smalls explains. “Later we found out his mother’s boyfriend had just been released from jail.” On another day, a mother arrived early to inform the principal that an eviction notice on her door gave her five days to find somewhere else to live. “Her son, in second grade, was worried about her and didn’t want to work while in class,” says Smalls, who came to her current position with many years of experience as an educator and administrator in poor but rural schools where the discipline issues didn’t come near the level she now handles regularly. “He then acted out, came to me, and cried because they had no water. This is one incident that happened this week, and it’s just Tuesday.”

After one troubled seven-year-old was pulled out of class for throwing a chair at a teacher, Jim Frye, a former-steel company executive who has been volunteering at Mary Ford for six years, asked the little boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The boy didn’t hesitate to answer:“A killer.”

Picture Imperfect
“There are reasons why these kids are so angry,” says Michelle Brown, who is entering her fifth year as data clerk at Mary Ford. “And the sad thing is there’s so many of them.” During Brown’s first year at the school, it was Corrie Simmons, a tall-for-his-age, broad-shouldered child who ended up in the administrative office for discipline referrals day after day because of fighting, throwing furniture, and numerous other disruptive actions. Brown quickly learned that this type of behavior was neither unique to Corrie nor particularly unusual at Mary Ford. But soon she and most others at the school came to see that his rage was increasingly frequent and extreme.

The wide grin, cherubic cheeks, and youthful confidence of Corrie’s first-grade class portrait conceal the volatility he demonstrated that year. Within days of that picture being snapped, Corrie Simmons struck an altogether different pose at school: jumping out of his seat, he lifted up his desk, turned it over on top of his head, and sat on the floor in the corner of his classroom, crouched beneath the furniture. Corrie’s fury, as he describes it, was sparked by confusion, fueled by frustration, and sustained by his sense of having “totally lost control.” “I felt too hot,” he recalls. “I couldn’t calm down.”

Soon the referrals became so alarming that Tawana Richards, a mental health worker employed at Mary Ford, suggested an extreme intervention: assessment and hospitalization at MUSC’s Child Psychiatry Department. “We cried and cried,” says Corrie’s grandmother Annette, recalling the difficult decision she and his mother, LaQuisha, made to allow the six-year-old to be restrained, physically removed from school, and temporarily institutionalized. “We prayed it was the right thing.”

Though his medical records show he was only an inpatient for two days, his memory recorded a longer traumatic time. “It scared me a lot,” he remembers, pausing to shake his head as if trying to dislodge the unpleasant recollection. “I was so miserable, I was trying to break the glass open. When I saw that needle, it took five doctors to pin down my head, legs, and arms, just so they could take blood.”

Corrie returned home with a diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, a severe impulse-control condition. He was referred to MUSC’s STAR (Stabilization, Treatment, Assessment, and Reintegration) program, which is specifically tailored for children with severe emotional and behavioral issues. The day program—designed to end disruptive behavior, restore age-appropriate independent functioning, and reintegrate young people into school and home—often has a long waiting list and requires families’ total involvement in the process, both through group therapy sessions and strict adherence at home to the techniques they learn.

Corrie spent every weekday of the summer between first and second grades at STAR’s Leeds Avenue site, and when he was discharged in August, the diagnosis had been upgraded to Oppositional Defiant Disorder, considerably less dire than doctors initially thought. The medical conclusion, which was lower on a severity scale and more promising for full recovery, followed Corrie’s proven ability to control his reactions to negative feelings. LaQuisha opted to try behavioral management techniques rather than medication to keep guiding her son in the right direction.

Corrie admits his behavior improved but was not instantly perfected by STAR. It took nearly the rest of his elementary school years—and numerous caring people—before something clicked and he decided “to stop fighting, study hard, and achieve great things.” Corrie graduated as the number-one student in the fifth grade at Mary Ford last June, with the highest score on the standardized P.A.C.T. exam, test results on par with the top-achieving students at Charleston County’s best-ranked, high-resource schools.

Strategy: Support
“The children come into the classrooms reflecting what they have experienced in their environment,” says Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley of her experience as a principal who turned around troubled, inner-city schools in Philadelphia. “They need much more positive behavioral support to help them develop emotionally so they can achieve academically. We simply have too high an at-risk-student-to-counselor ratio to meet the need.” McGinley expresses frustration that the state doesn’t better fund all public schools, particularly, she says, “given all we know about what hinders and encourages learning at schools like Mary Ford.”

More than 25 years of research and hundreds of studies nationwide have helped educators determine what types of support systems best promote achievement in young people and allow classrooms to provide an emotional foundation for kids who face potential trauma when outside school walls. McGinley underscores the importance of many of these findings when she lobbies for funding to recruit and hire strong principals and experienced teachers, purchase data programs that help identify kids at risk of failure, and install adequate health resources to meet these children’s needs in each school.

McGinley describes the typical scenario from a school’s point of view. Laws like “No Child Left Behind” grant extra dollars to the worst schools, but typically only up until their Annual Yearly Report rating starts to improve. As a result, even when federal and state money do go towards the kinds of efforts that foster good behavior, a productive learning environment, and increased test scores, as soon as the school starts to turn around, funds get pulled. “We just put a program in place to help our students pass the high school exit exam,” she explains. “It worked, so our reward is, we can’t fund that program next year. They’re going to take that money away. That is not strategic. That is not how you improve a school system.”

Equally disheartening for those working to make change in low-income, low-performing schools is the teacher-turnover rate, which the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future calls “chronically high.” According to the National Education Association (NEA), a perceived lack of respect, government mandates, and underfunding have led teachers to exit the profession in record numbers, causing thousands of hard-won dollars to be poured into recruiting, hiring, and training replacement faculty at schools where budgets are already pushed past their limits.

The chronic cycle has an even more costly outcome in human capital, say social scientists: it undermines efforts to implement policies and standards that support children’s academic success. A recent study indicates that, nationwide, the attrition rate is close to 20 percent for teachers in troubled, urban communities, hampering the schools’ abilities to close the achievement gap, because “they are constantly rebuilding their staff. ”

When Cindy Smalls started work at Mary Ford two months before the school year started, she had to find and hire 16 teachers to fill openings in classrooms of every age group. With the type of threats they face, and the near-impossibility, some days, of actually educating the kids, Smalls says it is hardly surprising that many good teachers won’t stay at poor, inner-city schools. But she agrees with the NEA, which notes that those that do stay are often among the most committed, dedicated educators in the country. “You have to be a warrior to teach here,” says Brown, “or any place like it.”

Team Corrie
Speaking at last May’s commencement at Mary Ford, Samuel S. Singleton, Jr.—executive director of School’s Out, a nonprofit that manages after-school programs—addressed the topic of potential in children. On the same stage was Corrie Simmons—the master of ceremonies, thanks to his exemplary behavior and leadership skills—standing next to a giant trophy for attaining Principal’s Highest Honors. In the audience sat Annette and LaQuisha Simmons, overwhelmed with joy as they considered Corrie’s accomplishments.

The two women, along with Corrie’s uncles, played an enormous role in the child’s transformation, according to the STAR program staff, who taught the family to provide appropriate and firm discipline when Corrie got off course and to reward him with praise when he made the right choices. When he misbehaved, he got his bicycle taken away, Corrie’s mother LaQuisha explains. “When he was really bad, he wasn’t allowed to go to his grandmother’s that day,” she says. “For Corrie, that was the worst thing imaginable.”

The family is the ultimate decision maker, explains Meredith Lyons-Crews, the social worker who heads STAR. “If we don’t give families the information and the tools to make a change, they are going to feel helpless.” MUSC’s program focuses on the positive, trying to get children to see the benefits of following directions, good sportsmanship, staying calm, and working toward specific goals. In the treatment facility, they earn points for good behavior, which eventually can garner perks, like fun outings.

Recently, Lyons-Crews invited Corrie to speak to the current group of kids in the STAR program. Looking down at his file, she was impressed to find that he graduated the program in the top category of achievement. “That shows that his core strength is remarkable,” she says, noting that only five to 10 percent of the participants ever reach that level.

Beyond medical intervention, one element in Corrie’s path to success might be deemed a classic: the unforgettable teacher who makes a difference. “If there was one thing that changed my life from bad to good,” Corrie says, “it was Miss Harvey in second grade. She didn’t just say, ‘No, you’re wrong, Corrie.’ She showed me what I did wrong in the process. And she made it fun.”

By third grade, thanks to his “advanced,” testing performance, he was identified as “gifted and talented,” which made him eligible for SAIL (Students Actively Involved in Learning), an enrichment program at North Charleston Elementary, where he traveled by school bus once a week with three other Mary Ford students, picking up a handful of kids at other schools along the way. That program expanded his learning opportunities and built his confidence, but Corrie also credits his counselor, Tawana Richards, with teaching him techniques to help him control his emotions—such as deep breathing and redirecting aggressive thoughts—so he can focus on his studies.

Is it a skill he could show other kids how to do? “I could do it; but I couldn’t do it like her,” Corrie says of the mental health professional who, because of the expiration of the three-year grant, was moved out of Mary Ford before he started fifth grade. “She made me feel like I was her son or something. She cared.”

That care, says principal Smalls, will be the key to changing her failing school into a winner. “I’m trying hard to change the whole culture,” explains Smalls, who advises her teachers to take time early in the day to check in with their students’ mental and emotional states, connect with them, and give them a chance to respect each other. “To do that, you need to get into these kids’ hearts.”The State of South Carolina 2007 Annual School Report Card relegated the school’s performance to one paltry word: Unsatisfactory. The rating derives from standardized testing results, which identified that less than one-fifth of Mary Ford students were “proficient” in any of the four areas tested: English/Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. One half of the students tested “below basic” in one or more of those subjects.

According to www.schooldigger.com, Mary Ford ranks in the bottom 10 percent of South Carolina’s 583 public elementary schools, placing it in the “failing” category, along with many other schools whose student bodies come primarily from the state’s poorest families.

“Regardless of race or ethnicity, poor children are much more likely than non-poor children to suffer developmental delays and damage and drop out of high school,” explains Dr. Ruby Payne, Ph.D., a Texas-based educational specialist and author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty who lectures to teachers and administrators across the country—including Charleston County—on the topic of poverty’s effect on children’s learning abilities. “Low achievement is closely correlated with lack of resources, and numerous studies have documented the correlation between low socioeconomic status and low achievement,” she adds.

Perhaps more than anything else, according to child psychologists, residing in a city where children are constantly exposed to violent crime shatters their potential. At least 55 homicides took place during the last two years in North Charleston, many in neighborhoods where Mary Ford Elementary students live.

Statistics indicate that the challenges facing children attending Mary Ford Elementary are a microcosm for the experience of young people throughout the United States. Steven L. Berman, Wendy K. Silverman, and William M. Kurtines of the Child and Family Psychosocial Research Center at Florida International University studied the post-traumatic reactions of children to community violence and found that 84 percent of first- and second-graders in high-poverty urban environments had witnessed at least one violent act. “The high rate of crime and violence in the country has had a profound impact on youth,” they concluded. “It is the nation’s young people, particularly those from low socioeconomic, multi-ethnic, and urban communities, who are increasingly exposed to extreme acts of crime or violence, either as a witness or victim. As a consequence of this exposure, young people are at increased risk of experiencing myriad disturbing psychological symptoms.”

When Mary Ford’s new principal, Cindy Smalls, arrived at her job in July 2007, she discovered that, due to the end of a three-year grant period that had positioned a mental health worker in the school, she had no psychologist, no counselor, no social worker—and no funding to hire any of them. Within days of school starting, she experienced the results of that absence, as chair-throwing little kids and fist-fighting bigger kids ended up in her office, referred, it seemed almost daily, for discipline. “I’ve never seen kids fight so much,” says Smalls, contemplating the wide array of challenges she faced to improve the school. “They lash out for so many reasons. It’s not unusual for a child to see a brother or a cousin get killed right in front of them.”

One afternoon at the end of the school day, a little boy refused to go home. “He didn’t want to get on the bus,” Smalls explains. “Later we found out his mother’s boyfriend had just been released from jail.” On another day, a mother arrived early to inform the principal that an eviction notice on her door gave her five days to find somewhere else to live. “Her son, in second grade, was worried about her and didn’t want to work while in class,” says Smalls, who came to her current position with many years of experience as an educator and administrator in poor but rural schools where the discipline issues didn’t come near the level she now handles regularly. “He then acted out, came to me, and cried because they had no water. This is one incident that happened this week, and it’s just Tuesday.”

After one troubled seven-year-old was pulled out of class for throwing a chair at a teacher, Jim Frye, a former-steel company executive who has been volunteering at Mary Ford for six years, asked the little boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The boy didn’t hesitate to answer:“A killer.”

Picture Imperfect
“There are reasons why these kids are so angry,” says Michelle Brown, who is entering her fifth year as data clerk at Mary Ford. “And the sad thing is there’s so many of them.” During Brown’s first year at the school, it was Corrie Simmons, a tall-for-his-age, broad-shouldered child who ended up in the administrative office for discipline referrals day after day because of fighting, throwing furniture, and numerous other disruptive actions. Brown quickly learned that this type of behavior was neither unique to Corrie nor particularly unusual at Mary Ford. But soon she and most others at the school came to see that his rage was increasingly frequent and extreme.

The wide grin, cherubic cheeks, and youthful confidence of Corrie’s first-grade class portrait conceal the volatility he demonstrated that year. Within days of that picture being snapped, Corrie Simmons struck an altogether different pose at school: jumping out of his seat, he lifted up his desk, turned it over on top of his head, and sat on the floor in the corner of his classroom, crouched beneath the furniture. Corrie’s fury, as he describes it, was sparked by confusion, fueled by frustration, and sustained by his sense of having “totally lost control.” “I felt too hot,” he recalls. “I couldn’t calm down.”

Soon the referrals became so alarming that Tawana Richards, a mental health worker employed at Mary Ford, suggested an extreme intervention: assessment and hospitalization at MUSC’s Child Psychiatry Department. “We cried and cried,” says Corrie’s grandmother Annette, recalling the difficult decision she and his mother, LaQuisha, made to allow the six-year-old to be restrained, physically removed from school, and temporarily institutionalized. “We prayed it was the right thing.”

Though his medical records show he was only an inpatient for two days, his memory recorded a longer traumatic time. “It scared me a lot,” he remembers, pausing to shake his head as if trying to dislodge the unpleasant recollection. “I was so miserable, I was trying to break the glass open. When I saw that needle, it took five doctors to pin down my head, legs, and arms, just so they could take blood.”

Corrie returned home with a diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, a severe impulse-control condition. He was referred to MUSC’s STAR (Stabilization, Treatment, Assessment, and Reintegration) program, which is specifically tailored for children with severe emotional and behavioral issues. The day program—designed to end disruptive behavior, restore age-appropriate independent functioning, and reintegrate young people into school and home—often has a long waiting list and requires families’ total involvement in the process, both through group therapy sessions and strict adherence at home to the techniques they learn.

Corrie spent every weekday of the summer between first and second grades at STAR’s Leeds Avenue site, and when he was discharged in August, the diagnosis had been upgraded to Oppositional Defiant Disorder, considerably less dire than doctors initially thought. The medical conclusion, which was lower on a severity scale and more promising for full recovery, followed Corrie’s proven ability to control his reactions to negative feelings. LaQuisha opted to try behavioral management techniques rather than medication to keep guiding her son in the right direction.

Corrie admits his behavior improved but was not instantly perfected by STAR. It took nearly the rest of his elementary school years—and numerous caring people—before something clicked and he decided “to stop fighting, study hard, and achieve great things.” Corrie graduated as the number-one student in the fifth grade at Mary Ford last June, with the highest score on the standardized P.A.C.T. exam, test results on par with the top-achieving students at Charleston County’s best-ranked, high-resource schools.

Strategy: Support
“The children come into the classrooms reflecting what they have experienced in their environment,” says Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley of her experience as a principal who turned around troubled, inner-city schools in Philadelphia. “They need much more positive behavioral support to help them develop emotionally so they can achieve academically. We simply have too high an at-risk-student-to-counselor ratio to meet the need.” McGinley expresses frustration that the state doesn’t better fund all public schools, particularly, she says, “given all we know about what hinders and encourages learning at schools like Mary Ford.”

More than 25 years of research and hundreds of studies nationwide have helped educators determine what types of support systems best promote achievement in young people and allow classrooms to provide an emotional foundation for kids who face potential trauma when outside school walls. McGinley underscores the importance of many of these findings when she lobbies for funding to recruit and hire strong principals and experienced teachers, purchase data programs that help identify kids at risk of failure, and install adequate health resources to meet these children’s needs in each school.

McGinley describes the typical scenario from a school’s point of view. Laws like “No Child Left Behind” grant extra dollars to the worst schools, but typically only up until their Annual Yearly Report rating starts to improve. As a result, even when federal and state money do go towards the kinds of efforts that foster good behavior, a productive learning environment, and increased test scores, as soon as the school starts to turn around, funds get pulled. “We just put a program in place to help our students pass the high school exit exam,” she explains. “It worked, so our reward is, we can’t fund that program next year. They’re going to take that money away. That is not strategic. That is not how you improve a school system.”

Equally disheartening for those working to make change in low-income, low-performing schools is the teacher-turnover rate, which the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future calls “chronically high.” According to the National Education Association (NEA), a perceived lack of respect, government mandates, and underfunding have led teachers to exit the profession in record numbers, causing thousands of hard-won dollars to be poured into recruiting, hiring, and training replacement faculty at schools where budgets are already pushed past their limits.

The chronic cycle has an even more costly outcome in human capital, say social scientists: it undermines efforts to implement policies and standards that support children’s academic success. A recent study indicates that, nationwide, the attrition rate is close to 20 percent for teachers in troubled, urban communities, hampering the schools’ abilities to close the achievement gap, because “they are constantly rebuilding their staff. ”

When Cindy Smalls started work at Mary Ford two months before the school year started, she had to find and hire 16 teachers to fill openings in classrooms of every age group. With the type of threats they face, and the near-impossibility, some days, of actually educating the kids, Smalls says it is hardly surprising that many good teachers won’t stay at poor, inner-city schools. But she agrees with the NEA, which notes that those that do stay are often among the most committed, dedicated educators in the country. “You have to be a warrior to teach here,” says Brown, “or any place like it.”

Team Corrie
Speaking at last May’s commencement at Mary Ford, Samuel S. Singleton, Jr.—executive director of School’s Out, a nonprofit that manages after-school programs—addressed the topic of potential in children. On the same stage was Corrie Simmons—the master of ceremonies, thanks to his exemplary behavior and leadership skills—standing next to a giant trophy for attaining Principal’s Highest Honors. In the audience sat Annette and LaQuisha Simmons, overwhelmed with joy as they considered Corrie’s accomplishments.

The two women, along with Corrie’s uncles, played an enormous role in the child’s transformation, according to the STAR program staff, who taught the family to provide appropriate and firm discipline when Corrie got off course and to reward him with praise when he made the right choices. When he misbehaved, he got his bicycle taken away, Corrie’s mother LaQuisha explains. “When he was really bad, he wasn’t allowed to go to his grandmother’s that day,” she says. “For Corrie, that was the worst thing imaginable.”

The family is the ultimate decision maker, explains Meredith Lyons-Crews, the social worker who heads STAR. “If we don’t give families the information and the tools to make a change, they are going to feel helpless.” MUSC’s program focuses on the positive, trying to get children to see the benefits of following directions, good sportsmanship, staying calm, and working toward specific goals. In the treatment facility, they earn points for good behavior, which eventually can garner perks, like fun outings.

Recently, Lyons-Crews invited Corrie to speak to the current group of kids in the STAR program. Looking down at his file, she was impressed to find that he graduated the program in the top category of achievement. “That shows that his core strength is remarkable,” she says, noting that only five to 10 percent of the participants ever reach that level.

Beyond medical intervention, one element in Corrie’s path to success might be deemed a classic: the unforgettable teacher who makes a difference. “If there was one thing that changed my life from bad to good,” Corrie says, “it was Miss Harvey in second grade. She didn’t just say, ‘No, you’re wrong, Corrie.’ She showed me what I did wrong in the process. And she made it fun.”

By third grade, thanks to his “advanced,” testing performance, he was identified as “gifted and talented,” which made him eligible for SAIL (Students Actively Involved in Learning), an enrichment program at North Charleston Elementary, where he traveled by school bus once a week with three other Mary Ford students, picking up a handful of kids at other schools along the way. That program expanded his learning opportunities and built his confidence, but Corrie also credits his counselor, Tawana Richards, with teaching him techniques to help him control his emotions—such as deep breathing and redirecting aggressive thoughts—so he can focus on his studies.

Is it a skill he could show other kids how to do? “I could do it; but I couldn’t do it like her,” Corrie says of the mental health professional who, because of the expiration of the three-year grant, was moved out of Mary Ford before he started fifth grade. “She made me feel like I was her son or something. She cared.”

That care, says principal Smalls, will be the key to changing her failing school into a winner. “I’m trying hard to change the whole culture,” explains Smalls, who advises her teachers to take time early in the day to check in with their students’ mental and emotional states, connect with them, and give them a chance to respect each other. “To do that, you need to get into these kids’ hearts.”

The path ahead for Mary Ford students stretches long and uphill, as it does for young people with similar challenges nationwide. But there are tremendously hopeful changes taking effect. Over the summer—having pushed through a budget that ensures mental health counselors are back in her school this fall—Smalls and her staff attended a Flippen Group program, which trains educators to build a safe, productive learning community. Other strong signs of progress: the Charleston County School District has committed to implementing a new literacy program at Mary Ford and is coordinating public-private partnerships in hopes of increasing the number of critically needed volunteers in lowest-achieving schools. “A healthy community has a united front on child welfare,” said Nancy McGinley after meeting Corrie at Mary Ford last May. “Corrie is one example that, if given the right support, all kids can achieve.”

Corrie’s high-aiming take on his future underscores the possibility of breaking the cycle of failure at high-risk schools. “I want to go to college for more than four years,” he says. “I want to go to school as many years as it takes me to do anything I feel is possible. I know I’m smart and can be successful and do anything I set my mind to. I want to have everything wide open for me.” 

The path ahead for Mary Ford students stretches long and uphill, as it does for young people with similar challenges nationwide. But there are tremendously hopeful changes taking effect. Over the summer—having pushed through a budget that ensures mental health counselors are back in her school this fall—Smalls and her staff attended a Flippen Group program, which trains educators to build a safe, productive learning community. Other strong signs of progress: the Charleston County School District has committed to implementing a new literacy program at Mary Ford and is coordinating public-private partnerships in hopes of increasing the number of critically needed volunteers in lowest-achieving schools. “A healthy community has a united front on child welfare,” said Nancy McGinley after meeting Corrie at Mary Ford last May. “Corrie is one example that, if given the right support, all kids can achieve.”

Corrie’s high-aiming take on his future underscores the possibility of breaking the cycle of failure at high-risk schools. “I want to go to college for more than four years,” he says. “I want to go to school as many years as it takes me to do anything I feel is possible. I know I’m smart and can be successful and do anything I set my mind to. I want to have everything wide open for me.”




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