His audience is hardly a unified group.
The 575 students at Marie G. Davis Middle School transferred in from about 25 schools. Only 20 who were here last year chose to return to the west Charlotte school, while nearly one-third didn’t choose the school, but were placed here by the district — the highest percentage of any school in the county.
The school’s well-established and popular International Baccalaureate magnet program — which usually drew a waiting list — is gone, moved several miles southeast to Randolph Middle under Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s new student assignment plan.
Black and white students – once a point of pride at Marie G. Davis — is now also a memory. Last year, it was 44 percent white and 46 percent black; it’s now 8 percent white, 87 percent black. The student body is also poorer.
No other school in the district changed in so many ways so quickly under the new choice plan.
So for this first formal gathering of the new student body, Principal Cline played "We Are Family" and "Lean On Me" over a boom box. As kids bounced to the music, the bonding began.
But this was no house party.
Cline confiscated someone’s laser-light ring. He tossed out a girl with ponytails and ribbons after hearing her mutter some backtalk about his discipline rules.
"Get her out of here," he told an administrator as the girl cut her eyes. "Call her mama. Have her come pick her up. She can come back to school next Friday" — a week later.
But Cline soon had the students murmuring in delight as he promised fun times — fashion shows, field trips, talent shows. He promised he and his staff would ease up a bit as everyone got to know one another.
Then he moved front and center on the stage. "I’ve got a secret for you," he began.
"There are folk out there who think we are going to fail."
He and his staff have other plans, Cline said.
"We will make this one of the premier Marie G. Davis in Charlotte, NC."
Away from the students, he acknowledged just how tough it will be to fulfill that bold promise.
And how glaring it will be if Marie G. Davis fails magnet.
"The success of the choice plan," Cline said simply, "is hinging on schools like this."
Some had no choice
Cline believes he has an advantage — he knows and understands children from these backgrounds. He hopes to draw the community in through computer classes at night and a homework club that parents would tutor.He’ll have some winning over to do.
Although the district’s new assignment arrangement is called a "choice" plan, it didn’t offer equally compelling choices to everyone. First dibs went to kids living near a school. Other applicants got seats only if there was room.
The advantage for this center-city school: Nearby children would have a short bus ride or walk. T
hat’s especially true for children from Southside Homes, a public housing complex, from which kids were bused to schools outside their neighborhood for years under former desegregation policies. Those policies were lifted by a federal court earlier this year.
The flip side: Many students tried to go elsewhere, but couldn’t. And because it had empty seats, other students were placed at the school after not submitting a choice application.
Change happened so quickly here that not everyone saw it coming.
Parent Pamela Nichols just moved with her family to Charlotte from upstate New York and thought Marie G. Davis — her son’s home school — still had the IB program, just like the sign still says on the front of the building. She was surprised to learn Monday that the school is no longer a magnet.
But after seeing Cline’s discipline techniques, Nichols decided to let her seventh-grade son, Joshua, give the school a try.
"He’s in a school where they’re going to be paying attention," she said. "I think he’ll be OK."
Making a real difference
There’s a lot riding on Cline’s efforts.
The 43-year-old principal came to Charlotte five years ago from Virginia, where he earned a reputation for turning around a struggling middle school. He spent two years as principal of West Charlotte High, then was reassigned to Smith Middle, a foreign-language magnet.
Cline said he "jumped for joy" when assigned to Marie G. Davis for this school year.
"You can go to other places and make a difference in the lives of kids who will do fine, no matter what," he said of Smith Middle.
But here, "I’ve done this before … There’s a calling in my life to make a difference."
The test began immediately.
On the first day of school, one unexpected thing happened. Twenty boys showed up wearing plain, white shortsleeve undershirts — a scene apparently repeated at other schools in the district.
Days later, Cline heard that students sporting that look had a confrontation at a local mall.
So at the first Friday assembly, he announced a ban on white undershirts at school to quell a potential "gang atmosphere."
The news didn’t go over well. But moments later, Cline had students laughing at his references to "Fubulu" and "Destiny’s Children" — intentionally mispronouncing the Fubu clothing line and belly-baring look of the musical group "Destiny’s Child."
Dress code rules continued the following week, when Cline spotted a boy in the hallway with a towel draped around his neck.
"Drop that towel, son," Cline told him. "You’re not in jail this morning."
Cline doesn’t plan to lighten up just yet.
"Things will get better," he promises students.
"But right now I’m building a community."