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Wilma Magazine: Enriching Our Public Schools

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Published August 3, 2014

The quiet at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy during the last week of school in June was a serious one - enough to make the sound of shoes clicking on its tile floors echo like the slap of typewriter keys.

It was testing time for the school's sixth and seventh grade students at 813 Nixon Street. Students were tucked inside classrooms, their backs bent over bubble sheets. Boards in the cafeteria before lunchtime boasted: "You can't hide that lion pride."

Most of the movement in the office that day was from adult volunteer test proctors checking in to help.

Before stepping inside to take his turn as a proctor, the Rev. Robert Campbell, pastor of New Beginning Christian Church, chatted briefly with a parishioner.

He said his church was invested in Virgo's success, especially since the school got a second chance, reopened as a new model with higher academic and community involvement standards as well as a strict uniform policy in August 2012. (The New Hanover County Board of Education previously closed the middle school in 2011, deeming it as failing.) ­

Today, Virgo is a school loved by its community and full of hope that its day of renewal is at hand, even as it plans to open as a full middle school next year, adding an eighth grade class. It has added a new class each year since it reopened. Is it possible that the momentum gained by reinvigorating Virgo could spread to other struggling schools in the district?

Reopening Virgo required a specific community partnership between the school district and the Blue Ribbon Commission for the Prevention of Youth Violence (BRC), which became its own nonprofit in July 2013.

Working with Virgo's principal, ERIC IRIZARRY, the BRC provides community programming and partnerships, volunteers, and enrichment for students to enhance the school's curriculum.

JANA JONES HALLS, the BRC's executive director, has an office inside the school, close enough to schedule regular meetings with parents, school officials, and volunteers.

With its new direction, the BRC added a new mission statement: "Building a community where youth are safe, healthy, educated and successful … Now!"

"We're really putting that sense of urgency in there," Halls says, "knowing we need to always be doing something. The prevention of youth violence piece forced the urgency."
After last summer's violence in neighborhoods surrounding Virgo, the school's staff intensely focused the 2013-14 school year on creating an atmosphere of safety at the school.

"Our kids feel a sense of belonging here. The kids know the teachers and staff care and know all of them and their families by name," Halls adds. "When a lot of our kids are coming in without their basic needs being met, not sleeping and the exposure to violence in their families or neighborhoods, it's hard."

The insistence on dress uniforms, similar to many local private schools, was an equalizing tool. If a student comes to school wearing a dirty uniform, staff members use a donated washing machine to clean it.

The major successes Halls has seen in her first year have been in the enrichment programs from community partners which included golf, fencing, African drumming, martial arts, filmmaking, step dance, and gardening.

"It's allowed our kids to have exposure to activities they hadn't known about before, giving them cultural experiences to get them closer to leveling the playing field," she says.

Parental involvement is still a struggle because "our parents work a lot, sometimes three jobs," she says, but some dedicated parents coached the cheerleading squad and organized the school's homecoming this year.

This summer, Virgo piloted the Youth Enrichment Zone Summer Initiative and the BELL program (Building Educated Leaders for Life) to keep students engaged in learning and safe when school's out of session.

Increasingly, the school district is partnering with the University of North Carolina Wilmington to enrich school programs.

At Williston Middle School next year, district arts director Georgeann Haas and UNCW's assistant director of cultural arts Courtney Reilly are planning an artist residency called The Clothesline Muse Project.

"The residency will be housed at Williston Middle School and will include two weeks of in-school workshops for eighth graders who will research Williston's rich history and create and display new works of art inspired by their findings," Reilly says.

"The residency will also include professional development workshops for teachers and artists; a free performance of The Clothesline Muse at Kenan Auditorium for middle and high school students; and opportunities for community members to meet the artists and share and document their own stories of the Williston legacy" culminating in a March 28 performance of The Clothesline Muse at UNCW.

But a major measure of school growth includes state test scores, and on that point, Virgo's improvement has been slow. In the 2012-13 school year, only 24.1 percent of students were at or above grade level in reading, and only 9.5 percent met that bar in math. In the district overall, 50.9 percent of students scored at or above grade level in reading, and 51.5 percent in math.

Halls says expectations of high test scores in the first two years for Virgo students are "unrealistic" until the other stressors in their lives are corrected.

"If kids showed growth in grade level reading, I think that would be more reflective than just one test score," she adds. "There needs to be a footnote."

State test scores at Snipes Academy of Arts and Design have lagged for many years, hedged by the fact that about 99 percent of the students there are economically disadvantaged. District Superintendent Tim Markley asked veteran principal Cindy Talbert to come out of retirement to improve the school in 2012.

But more help was needed. So in February 2013, about fifty neighbors around the Carolina Place area attended a meeting at former UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller's residence.

The irony was none of those neighbors had children who attended Snipes, but they knew it was time to step up to help.

Out of that meeting came Friends of Snipes, a community reading and outreach program meant to provide learning enrichment and incentives for students and assistance for teachers in the school.

"It's not meant to replace the PTA. A lot of what we did was just being a conduit," says neighbor Scott Whisnant.

Besides reading weekly with students, the group networked with local businesses to provide cultural experiences such as rides on the Henrietta riverboat and a jazz piano concert.

"Regardless of how people feel about redistricting," he says, "it's on us as neighbors to help the schools in our neighborhood."

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