“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.”