Ron Dixon, principal at John Taylor Williams Middle School, says his primary job is to ensure the education of some 550 students, 96 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Sixty percent are below grade level in reading and math, but that’s down from 83 percent when he came to the school a year ago.
“We’re making progress,” Dixon said, “but it’s not enough.”
To help his staff better understand the students’ economic conditions, Dixon and assistant principal Christa Flood loaded a group of teachers onto a blue-and-white bus Friday morning to tour the neighborhoods that feed John Taylor Middle.
The trip was not meant to elicit sympathy or to lower teacher expectations, the principals explained, but to give the teachers a simple reminder. Some on the bus were new to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, others were new to Charlotte.
The two-hour trip went past public housing projects, homeless shelters and poor neighborhoods north, south, east and west of center city.
“To me, all this means is that these kids come from homes where there is not a lot of money,” Dixon told Qcitymetro.com as the bus chugged along Central Avenue heading toward NoDa. “It does not mean you can attach labels about what they can and cannot do. Kids rise to your expectations.”
But even Dixon concedes, however, that poverty does matter.
Because some parents work two or three jobs, he said, they often have no time to read to their children or attend parent-teacher conferences. Some of his students, he said, will return to school having not touched a book or pencil since they lift in the spring.
Some live periodically in shelters or extended-stay hotels.
“When a student comes to class without a uniform, maybe the first question to ask isn’t “Why,” but what’s going on at home,” he reminded the teachers.
Despite the push for neighborhood schools, John Taylor Williams Middle would hardly qualify.
Located on Carmine Street off Statesville Avenue, it sits in the shadow of center city’s towers, but in an industrial area better known for truck stops and warehouses. It draws students from as far away as Boulevard Homes near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport and the NoDa district north of uptown.
Antces Rivas, a Spanish teacher from Venezuela, is about to enter her first year at John Taylor Williams Middle. She is part of an international exchange program and spent the two previous years teaching in Gaston County.
Rivas said the bus trip would remind her to avid assumptions based on her students’ economic conditions.
“I am a teacher,” she said. “I can be a teacher here for everybody… We need to see students equally; we can’t stereotype.”
Principal Dixon lives in a modest neighborhood off Oaklawn Avenue, right beside the house he grew up in. In a pinch, he said, he could walk to the school. Some of his students live nearby.
Dixon, whose mother was a teacher, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from UNC Chapel Hill and a master’s and doctorate from UNC Charlotte. After living in the suburbs, he said, he moved back to his boyhood community a few years back.
He said he’d like to believe his presence there has a positive influence.
“I want the students to understand that just because you come from this neighborhood,” he said, “ doesn’t mean you can’t one day have people calling you Dr. Dixon.”
Asked what he needs most at John Taylor Middle, he answered: “We need students who come to us every day fully ready for the day – homework done, school uniform, and then making sure you are not preventing other kids in your class from learning. That’s parental involvement. If they can do those three things for us every day, we can do the rest.”
Photo below: John Taylor Wiliams Middle school teachers, along with CMS staff and local news media, ride a bus through some of the low-income neighborhoods that feed the school, Friday, Aug. 21, 2009. (Photo: Qcitymetro.com)