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Washington-Wilkes Middle succeeds where similar schools struggle

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WASHINGTON, Ga. — Deleki Lee starts the morning announcements on a positive note.

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Washington-Wilkes Middle School teacher William Peek leads an  English class at Washington-Wilkes Middle School.  MICHAEL HOLAHAN/Staff
Washington-Wilkes Middle School teacher William Peek leads an English class at Washington-Wilkes Middle School.

“Today is a great day for learning at Washington-Wilkes Middle School,” the first-year principal says on the public address system at the Wilkes County school.

Her tone quickly becomes firmer.

“Remember, students must wear their identification badges around their neck and displayed,” she said. “The gentlemen must have their shirts tucked in.”

It is this combination of a positive attitude and high expectations, both academically and behaviorally, that plays a key role in the school’s success, teachers and pupils say.

Washington-Wilkes was recently identified as one of 12 “successful middle schools” in a report by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Educa­tion. The school stands out from most of the others in several ways, most notably in that it shares characteristics with some Richmond County schools:

•  It is the only Augusta-area school on the list. Most of the rest are clustered in and around the Atlan­ta metro region.

•  It is the only school in an area classified by the University of Georgia as “rural decline” based on its community’s population trend. Seven of the 12 schools are in a suburban area, two are in an urban region and the other two are in a “rural growth” area.

•  Its pupil population more closely resembles an urban school than a suburban one: Almost six in 10 pupils are minorities, and 73 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Richmond County has had trouble keeping its middle school test scores close to state averages, as do a good number of urban districts. These systems tend to have most of their students be racial minorities living in low-income families, and they see significant numbers of students changing schools as their parents move.

Wilkes County has some of those factors, particularly the majority-minority and low-income student population. Two advantages it has over larger urban districts are its small size and relatively stable population, both in terms of students and the overall community.

Washington-Wilkes Middle teachers and administrators speak of the satisfaction of watching students go on to graduate from Washington-Wilkes High School and enroll their children in Wilkes County public schools.

The middle and high schools share a campus, with some mixing of students.

“The benefit of being in a small community is we can say, ‘I’ll see your mama in the grocery store,’ ” language arts teacher Joni Keiser said. “All of us have had conferences in the milk aisle at Bi-Lo.”

THE EXPERIENCE of Wash­ington-Wilkes, and some of the other middle schools identified as “successful,” show schools with high concentrations of pupils in low-income families can achieve on a level with their counterparts in more affluent areas.

Since 2007, Washington-Wilkes pupils typically have had higher pass rates on Criterion-Refer­enced Compe­tency reading and math tests than the state average. In areas where they fall short of the state average, they are usually only a few percentage points behind.

Washington-Wilkes teachers make a point of being sure pupils aren’t just sitting in desks listening to a lecture.

On a recent morning, eighth-grade Eng­lish/language arts instructor Wil­liam Peek, in his first year as a full-time teacher at Wash­ington-Wilkes, had his pupils construct paragraphs with topic sentences and, as he termed the supporting sentences, “tell-me-mores.”

He helped one girl who was struggling with trying to write more than just a topic sentence about why honesty is a desirable trait.

“Why do you think someone should have honesty?” Peek asked the girl.

“I don’t know,” she responded.

“You do know,” he said immediately. He had her create a “circle map,” a way of brainstorming and writing ideas without the structure of a sentence. She started giving him answers, which he had her write as sentences.

“If you have trouble coming up with three,” Peek then told the rest of the pupils, “make a circle map. Use it to help you.”

EVEN THOUGH LEE is in her first year as principal, she is an example of the school’s stability.

She was the assistant principal for curriculum for the past few years and has worked 12 years at the school, starting as a teacher. She also is a product of the Wilkes Coun­ty school system.

Most of the school’s instructional staff have been there five years or more, though a few are starting this year.

The school is focused with tracking pupils’ progress. Every child’s name is on a color-coded card on a wall known as the “data room.” The colors are: red for pupils behind in two or more core courses, yellow for those behind in one course, and green for pupils who are on track or ahead.

Those cards can move between the color-coded levels depending on how a child is doing at various times during the year.

“That is instilled in us,” Keiser said of the data wall.

Lee and the teachers say they take advantage of the high school being on the same campus. They point to high school students as examples of what middle school students can become if they stay focused on their academics.

That doesn’t mean the pupils can’t be kids at school. It just means the teachers establish limits the pupils clearly understand.

“The teachers will punish you for something you deserve to be punished for,” said Ethan Holton, 12, a seventh-grader.

“They teach you enough to where you can understand,” added Lindsey Moore, also a 12-year-old seventh-grader. “They make it fun, where you want to learn.”

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scoobynews 11/06/11 - 08:19 am
Would love to know the

Would love to know the student to teacher ratio at this school. From the picture it is hard to tell how many students are in the class. Class size does make a big difference. I have seen a decline in learning in the past two years as class sizes have grown to capacity which is 31 students per class. Hard to give one on one with 31 kids in 75 minutes. Not even a full 75 minutes if you include the instructional part of the lesson as well as telling little Timmy- "sit down", little Tommy - "be quiet", little Susie needs to go to her locker because she forgot her notebook, little Betty who has to go to the office, little Johnny needs a pencil, little Billy was absent and needs make up work, need I go on.

ugamich 11/06/11 - 08:50 am
@scoobynews---Wilkes County

@scoobynews---Wilkes County is struggling with furloughs and class sizes, too. Our system has a multitude of things that others don't, some of which people don't even realize as being important. 1) Administrative support, 2) High accountability for students as well as teachers. So much weight has been put on teachers with low test scores, and in our system we put a lot of that on the kids with high expectations----again, administrative support, 3) NO EXCUSES----regardless of poverty rate or personal issues, that's checked at the door. While we're all very compassionate, we do not allow the students to use that as a crutch----again, administrative support. Ultimately, it comes down to the administration. They let us go into our rooms and teach, and they support us in doing that. Thanks to standardized testing, not too many schools listen to their teachers anymore:(

Kudos to WWMS!!!!

scoobynews 11/06/11 - 03:55 pm
ugamich - I have to say I

ugamich - I have to say I envy you because that is the biggest concern a lot of us have in other counties. We feel overwelmed by the high expectations placed on us but then we are expected to not have high expectations of our students. I expect my students to use all the tools I give them - study guides, guided notes, standard based lessons, higher order thinking questions, over a week notice for test or quizzes, online support, and so much more. Yet I am expected to take late work, allow retest, and no score on the report card lower than a 60 all things that in the real world we know would not be allowed.

Craig Spinks
Craig Spinks 11/07/11 - 05:27 am
Scoobynews, You write of


You write of problems shared by many conscientious teachers in our state.

If you'd like to do something to help solve these problems, please contact me, Dr. Craig Spinks of GEORGIANS FOR EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE, at:

You would be allowed to remain ANONYMOUS.

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