Before eighth-grade math class Thursday morning, C.T. Walker Traditional Magnet School student Adonis Appleberry slipped on a grey striped suit.
He fixed a black tie and laced up shiny black shoes.
His task was to present a black history project, which required him to find the volume and surface area of a cereal box, cover it in biographical facts about a notable mathematician and present it to the class.
Like almost every activity at the school, there was an ulterior motive. Forget practicing math and research skills. The project was meant to boost self esteem, teach public speaking and hint at skills the 14-year-old will use in college and the real world.
“You have to mold your curriculum and bring in real-life situations for the students,” Principal Renee Kelly said. “We want to keep these kids, and we want to change their lives.”
Students at C.T. Walker are required to maintain an 80 average to stay in the school, while juggling a daily schedule that pushes leadership and service in every aspect. This daily rigor and the results it has produced have made C.T. Walker the only magnet school in Georgia to earn the 2013 National Merit School of Excellence title by Magnet Schools of America.
Scott Thomas, the executive director of Magnet Schools of America, said the Merit School of Excellence is the highest of two designations the organization awards to schools.
Magnets have to reapply annually for the title and qualify based on student achievement, parent involvement and vision.
Magnet schools are public schools under control of local school boards but focus on a particular theme or pathway. They accept students who meet certain requirements on a lottery basis from all areas of a district.
C.T. Walker, which has kindergarten through eighth grade, has an almost even split of black and white students and about 50 percent receive free or reduced lunch.
Kindergarten teacher Jenny Landrum said the biggest differences from traditional public schools are the expectations in academics and leadership.
Along with having to maintain an 80 average all year, students must complete a community service project. This year, first graders compiled care packages for cancer patients and sixth graders raised money to buy shoes for students in Swaziland.
In the lower grades, each student has daily assigned jobs, from holding doors open between classes to cleaning tables at the end of the day.
Students also take turns watering and maintaining a vegetable garden and pass out the tomatoes, okra and cabbage to families in the neighborhood. Science classes often leave the building and take place in a butterfly garden, where students observe migration and pollination patterns of Monarchs.
“We expect them to be who they’re supposed to be,” Landrum said. “We expect them to have manners, to have respect, to get their homework done, to be leaders in the future.”
Teachers are also trained in a Love and Logic technique, which encourages students to solve problems on their own by conflict resolution.
The training of the whole student shows in the academics. Reading scores have hovered four percent higher than the state and 8 percent higher than the district average, according to the school’s merit award application.
Math scores also range 10 percent higher than the state and 30 percent higher than the district. In 2012, 100 percent of eighth graders passed the reading portion of the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, while 96 percent of third graders passed reading.
Kelly said the goal is to help students move on to other high-rigor campuses in the district such as A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering or John S. Davidson Fine Arts magnet schools.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said his goal remains the same from when he took leadership of the district in 2010 – to implement a magnet program at every school, which can be done without converting a campus into a magnet school.
Dorothy Hains Elementary recently developed a science, technology, engineering and math program for students, and Cross Creek High has an ROTC focus within the school.
Roberson said this strategy helps provide a focus for students and spark interest in some who lack motivation to be in an academic setting.
“I think the huge thing is the relevance it provides for students,” Roberson said. “If we look at this notion of a world-class education for our students, it fits under that umbrella. It harnesses all of the energy of all the teachers and the students around a very important educational focus, and that’s what makes the difference is the energy.”
Coming from traditional public schools, C.T. Walker Assistant Principal Titania Singh said her magnet’s academic and social success comes from consistency.
When everyone is working around the same goals and expectations, there is an urgency not to fail.
“It’s not like we come in at 7:45 a.m. and leave at 3:15 p.m.,” she said. “For most of us the end of the day never comes. These are our children, not just our students.”