Teachers at Jenkins-White Elementary Charter School begin their pupils’ days with a conversation.
For 20 minutes each morning, after they have sharpened their pencils and hung up backpacks, pupils sit around and talk about what’s on their minds.
But sometimes, what comes out in morning meetings is tough to hear.
There’s the child who heard gunshots the night before and had to sleep on the floor just to be safe. Another might share that her father is in jail or a relative was just recently killed.
“Our children have to deal with a lot, but it’s not an excuse for failure,” said Principal Janie Norris. “We want our children to see a better life.”
As one of two charter schools in the Richmond County school district, Jenkins-White is aiming to give a top education to a demographic of children dealing with social and economic challenges.
Its leaders say they’re reaching kids in a way that a traditional public school just can’t.
But this year, the school has a sense of urgency it didn’t have before. The state renewed Jenkins-White’s charter this summer, even though its state test scores aren’t showing strong student improvement, which is required for charters to stay in place.
The school has not made “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind law since 2007 and is in the third year of Needs Improvement status. That means it has to offer parents the option to transfer their children to another school not in Needs Improvement Status and offer free tutoring by outside groups. The school also has to implement a corrective action, such as extending the school year or day, reorganize its instructional staff or appoint an outside expert to advise the school on its progress.
Norris, however, said her faculty had to first work on improving the character and culture of the school before academics could come through.
Beginning this year, though, the public will see proof of that on paper, she said.
“I do think people will be watching us,” Norris said. “We just want what’s best for our children.”
Each day at Jenkins-White begins with routines that many of the pupils may not find at home, Norris said.
Ninety-nine percent of the 350 pupils receive free or reduced-price lunch, and only 40 percent of their parents have a high school diploma.
The school on 15th Avenue is a feeder for three of Augusta’s housing projects, which is why Norris demands that school be a consistent, safe place.
“Our students are students who may not have a lot of stability in their lives,” Norris said. “They may not have a lot of consistency in their lives. But when they come to school, they know what to expect.”
What makes Jenkins-White different as a charter is the freedom to mold its instruction around its pupils.
Four days a week, pupils have extended days for intervention sessions in reading or math. Jenkins-White is the only elementary school in the district that has full-time art, Spanish, music and physical education classes, which is meant to broaden pupils’ exposure to culture.
Norris is also pushing to implement a year-round schedule. This system would have the same number of days as other schools but without the lengthy holiday breaks, where pupils can lose much of what they learned during the year, Norris said.
Although the school’s state test scores do not yet show it, Jenkins-White is showing a big improvement where it needed it the most -- within its culture -- Norris said.
Before, pupils wouldn’t make eye contact or answer questions and didn’t realize the importance of learning.
The school had to work with these children coming from poverty and its disadvantages and change their perspectives before academic success could come, Assistant Principal Cheryl Fry said.
“Its like when somebody is speaking to you, speak back,” she said. “When someone asks you something, answer. They wouldn’t even make eye contact before. It’s expectation now. It’s setting those high expectations and expecting those high expectations.”
For some, the leap to allow Jenkins-White to continue as a charter school wasn’t easy. Not only did it appear that test scores weren’t approving, but the charter model also takes authority away from the local school board and gives it to the school’s governing board, which is a group of appointed leaders who controls the school’s finances and curriculum.
School board member Barbara Pulliam voted against renewing the charter in May, explaining that the governing board’s model may not fit in public education.
Pulliam said she applauds the outreach and intensive instruction done at Jenkins-White, but that those initiatives should be able to be done at a traditional public school.
““You’ve got a governing board that’s not elected by the people,” she said. “They don’t owe anybody anything, so to speak, because they were appointed. That’s important, and I’m too concerned about public education.”
However, the governing board is held to financial and academic accountability by the state, according to Kelly Cadman, the vice president of school services for the Georgia Charter Schools Association.
Although Jenkins-White became a charter in 2007, state laws that determine the level of autonomy given to charters have changed since then. After renewing this year and rewriting the charter, Jenkins-White will have more financial and academic autonomy because of the revised laws.
“With respect to Jenkins-White in their first charter term, if you really look at them and what they were allowed to be, they were not really a charter school at all,” Cadman said. “They did not have control over who their principal was … no authority over teachers they chose, no flexibility with scheduling. Now, they have all that.”
Cadman helped facilitate conversations between Jenkins-White, the Richmond County school board and the state during the charter renewal process this summer.
She said because of Jenkins-White’s academic performance, it was a struggle to achieve the renewal.
But because the state is willing to look at growth over time, officials were able to see what Jenkins-White has already achieved with an at-risk population.
On the 2011 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the passing rate in fifth-grade reading increased by 21 percentage points to an 83.7 percent, which was the largest gain in the region.
Fifth-grade math increased by 4.7 percentage points, and third-grade reading showed a slight gain.
The culture that administrators have molded for so long is also starting to pay off. Fights between pupils last year dropped to 67, 60 fewer than in the 2009-10 school year.
So far, the school has seen one fight this year, and Fry said her goal is to see no more than two.
“We are looking to be that school that parents are knocking down the door wanting to get their child in,” Fry said. “We want to be an example for other charters. And I think we can do it.”