A plan that needs to work

The widespread excitement of Murphey Middle School's new charter school status has even trickled down to the office secretary, who is gathering clippings and photos for a school scrapbook.

"She's collecting," Principal Veronica Bolton said with a laugh. "Our whole year will be captured in a portfolio."

And it will be an important year for Murphey.

The school on Old Milledgeville Road hasn't had just a cloud over it. It's been a whole storm front. Chronically slumping academics. Hundreds and hundreds of disciplinary incidents. All that has tarred the school with a reputation that Murphey is not where you want to send your kids.

But under a charter system, Mrs. Bolton and her faculty have set out to change that - drastically. As a charter school, she said, "we get a chance to really be innovative and creative and think outside the box."

That's a sentiment this page has long echoed. The current system of education delivery has not been working. If one set of tools isn't fixing your problem, switch to another set of tools.

Murphey's new set of tools is designed to advance four areas: academic achievement, self-improvement, college/career prep and community service.

That last item is especially intriguing. All who attend Murphey must sign a "student contract" that binds them to a number of academic and behavioral stipulations, including the completion of at least 25 hours of community service.

"Some people think they deserve help," Mrs. Bolton said. "But what are you going to do for somebody else?" Community service can show kids the benefits of getting involved - such as gaining civic pride and contributing to a better quality of life.

Self-improvement also is key. It's hard for teachers to reach willfully unmotivated pupils who lack direction or hope.

To remedy that, Mrs. Bolton wants to give pupils more reasons to come to school, through extracurricular activities that offer fun environments in which to learn. The school's first book club, for example, can foster a love of reading. Spanish Club, Future Business Leaders of America - she even mentioned the formation of a Stock Market Club for budding financiers.

Murphey also will offer a personal management class. Kids will use math, reading and research skills to learn life skills such as writing checks, prudent budgeting and credit card responsibility. "If we can start teaching that," Mrs. Bolton said, "we will have better citizens."

Mindful of the school's discipline problems, Murphey will have classes addressing anger management and bullying, and breaking down the concepts of good leaders and bad followers. "If we can change their whole mentality, and show them what we're trying to accomplish," Mrs. Bolton said, "the academics will take care of themselves."

Ah, the academics. This is the most important part.

It's an administrator's dream to have a school full of kids eager to learn, but it means little unless they post positive results. Perhaps no school in Richmond County is in greater need of those results than Murphey, which has made Adequate Yearly Progress just once since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The conventional method of teaching isn't working at Murphey as well as it should. That's why it is switching to a method called differentiated instruction. The method has been around for at least 20 years, but began as a teaching model toward gifted pupils. Now schools have been applying it to all pupils, and many charter schools have reported success with it.

Differentiated instruction at Murphey will work like this: Each pupil will have a plan that teachers will monitor weekly to chart that pupil's progress. Say a class is learning about fractions. Before the teacher moves forward in her lesson plan, she notices a few pupils still haven't grasped some concepts.

That's when she differentiates her instruction: While the rest of the class moves forward with higher-functioning work, more time is spent working with those pupils who need help with fractions. This way, all pupils are learning at paces that best match their skill levels, and no child is - well, left behind.

By Mrs. Bolton's estimation of a recent school meeting of between 75 and 100 people, Murphey parents seem to be on board with all the changes. They'll have to be, since increased parental involvement is going to be another key element in helping the school improve.

Community volunteers also are stepping up. Mount Calvary Baptist Church has trained 35 of its members to be mentors and tutors to Murphey students.

A big complaint against many inner-city schools is that they fail to create a positive climate in which pupils can learn, and have fun doing it. Compared to schools in more affluent neighborhoods, urban schools seem to start out at a disadvantage and can't keep up academically.

Under a charter school system, Murphey Middle has a chance to turn that around.

Principal Bolton, incidentally, is a Murphey alumna. She attended eighth grade there, and as a pupil she didn't see the level of disciplinary problems that the community talked about even back then. But in every school, she said, you'll have "a handful of troublemakers."

When Mrs. Bolton attended, they were the Murphey Middle Demons. Today, they're the Murphey Middle Mavericks, an apt mascot to match the course the school is plotting.

And what does Murphey's newest principal plan to do with the "handful" she has now?

"Bring that handful into our team," she said. "We just want to make sure we can change their thought processes, and everything else falls into place."

A lot of people will be watching Murphey Middle closely this coming year. This is, after all, an experiment - and it's one that we hope succeeds.

Augusta should hope so, too.

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Fri, 12/09/2016 - 23:31

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