HILLSBOROUGH — There’s no honors class at C.W. Stanford Middle School, and no “remedial” class either.
Students of all academic abilities and interests learn side by side, except for daily “Literacy Blocks” for reading practice, and the weekly “Intervention” hour to prepare for End-of -Grade tests.
This balance of sensitivity and focused instruction has won Stanford the distinction of a 2014 “School to Watch,” from the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, in collaboration with the N.C. Association for Middle Level Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Stanford is one of only two schools in North Carolina, and 400 in the nation, to earn the honor. Recognized schools had to stand out as “academically excellent,” “developmentally responsive” and “socially equitable,” according to award criteria.
The National Forum is an alliance of over 60 educators, researchers, national associations, and officers of professional organizations and foundations, with the stated mission of promoting academic performance and development of young adolescents.
“I think Stanford for a long time was a diamond in the rough,” said Principal Anne Purcell. “When I came here and saw the teachers and what they were doing, the hard work … I thought it was time they were recognized for their hard work and the many hours of commitment.”
“It’s exciting recognition for the teachers who work so hard every day.”
The National Forum evaluated Stanford’s test scores from 2010-12, but also dug deeper to assess the day-to-day quality of students’ education and overall experience. Stanford submitted an application, demographic data, and suspension/expulsion data. Giving only a 24-hour prior notice, a review team from the forum visited Stanford to interview students, parents and teachers.
With 638 students for the 2013-14 academic year, Stanford’s student body is 71 percent white, 16 percent black, 5.2 percent multi-racial, 6.9 percent Hispanic, 0.61 percent Asian, and 0.77 percent American Indian.
Stanford students consistently scored higher than district and state averages from 2010-12.
In 2012, for example, 81.5 percent of all Stanford students scored at or above their grade level in reading; 86.4 percent of students did in math. In comparison, Orange County Schools averaged 75.3 percent for of students at or above grade level for middle school reading, and 84.7 percent for math; North Carolina Schools averaged 71.2 percent for reading and 82.8 percent for Math.
Teachers help students solidify basic skills through the daily Literacy Block and Intervention hours on Fridays.
“We have a very strong emphasis on reading. Any child that needs reading help in this school gets it,” said literacy coach Pamela Fitzpatrick. “Every child in the school is going to (Literacy Block) at the same time, so the stigma is lifted.”
For students who are struggling to read grade-level material, teachers offer lots of time for simply talking: about student’s prior knowledge of the material, and then with discussion after students read.
“The kids here respond really well to it,” said eighth-grade teacher Angie Stephens. “Middle school kids love any time they get to talk.”
During Friday Intervention hour, students also gather in groups to strengthen their understanding of core subjects.
“Those (Intervention Fridays) kind of give you a warm-up of what’s going on in class,” said eighth-grader Malcolm Phillips.
“Especially if you’re behind in that class, it gives you time to catch up,” added fellow eighth-grader Kevin Cummings.
In addition to scheduling time to work in-depth with students, Stanford also challenges its teachers to stay attentive to students, said eighth-grade teacher Mark Harrington.
“You identify students early on who are maybe on the cusp … working with them, encouraging them to participate in tutoring activities … if they need just a little help to get over that hump,” he explained.
Toyie Bullock, an eighth-grader, says after struggling in science classes, she sought help and was soon making 100 on assignments.
“Teachers have a really good relationship with (their) students, because they come and help you one-on-one if you’re struggling,” she said.
Stanford teachers and staff strive to understand and respect students’ needs, Fitzpatrick explained, through the mixed-ability classes, and through carving out time for recess even as middle schools across the country are cutting it. Stanford offers a wide array of electives and support groups like the Ladies and Gentlemen of Excellence.
Purcell prompted Stanford to switch from tiered classes to mixed-academic level classes, after she became principal six years ago. In the four years of mixed classes, has seen a distinct change in how students interact.
“Because (with mixed classes) it doesn’t create these little cliques … and it doesn’t make (some) students feel better than everyone else … and other students feel like they’re in the ‘dumb class,’” she said.
“It’s a good school for a student who’s an excellent student, and a good school for a student who is struggling,” Fitzpatrick said.
She also pointed to strong offerings in choir, drama, band and athletics for students who thrive outside of traditional academics.
To foster healthy conflict resolution, and teach life skills like resume-writing, assistant principal Quanda Turner founded the Ladies of Excellence program. The Ladies of Excellence, all students of color, gather during once a week for character-building education, facilitated by 4-H Youth Development Extension Agent Sheronda Witter.
“Everything is based around good social skills for life,” said Turner. “It has really allowed the girls to become closer. They’ve been able to have discussion about (conflicts).”
Inspired by the success of the Ladies of Excellence last, a group for Gentlemen of Excellence is forming this year.
Stanford’s emphasis on literacy, according to Fitzpatrick, plays a key role in the school’s commitment to equity.
“I think the ability to read and write well is a civil rights issue,” Fitzpatrick said. “If we can really provide these students with the tools to be communicating … then they’re in the position to make decisions about their lives… They have more options.”
The librarians also strive to develop a collection of books that reflect the diversity of the school – including African American and Latino main characters. Librarians even surveyed all of the books that African-American boys checked out, to ensure that the library had enough books to interest all students.
Student now also have access to laptops, since the fall of 2012, in an effort to close “the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” according to Stephens. Students can use the laptops in class, as well as check them out for homework assignments.
“It gives you a whole other resource,” said eighth-grader Taison Farrington.
Stanford will remain an official “School to Watch” for three years, when it will have to re-apply for the recognition.
“Stanford offers a place for every student – a valued place, a respected place,” said Fitzpatrick.