Some already had been suspended just weeks into the school year. Many were older than classmates because they had been held back once or twice. They were known on campus for hitting girls and intimidating younger students.
When progress reports went out in September, one of the boys ripped his up in front of Principal Terry Cline.
"They were so out of control," Cline said. "Blatant disrespect for authority."
Cline had already put rowdy schoolyard out of the school for good — and thought about doing the same with many of these kids.
Then he came up with a plan to separate the boys from the rest of the eighth grade by giving them their own class. He pulled seventh-grade teacher Terrence Richmond from his regular duties to teach them.
Cline isolated the boys even more by moving them to a classroom at the "bottom of the hill" of the sprawling, two-level campus, where the upper and lower portions are separated by outdoor stairs.
Such measures aren’t typical. But they fit with Cline’s belief that he must try unusual approaches at Marie G. Davis this year.
Marie G. Davis Middle School Charlotte NC underwent enormous changes under Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s new student assignment plan, which began in August.
The plan, which assigns students to schools near home and allows them to apply to other schools, ended the district’s desegregation policies. The academic magnet programs placed at Marie G. Davis to draw high-achieving students were moved out. It became a "home school," serving children primarily from surrounding poor communities.
School leaders can’t separate the school from neighborhood events. Many Marie G. Davis students knew the 18-year-old young man shot and killed after leaving a Charlotte night club earlier this month, and a few went to his funeral, Cline said.
Last ditch effort
Even now — about five months into the experimental class — no one’s sure whether the special focus will stick. The school lost track of a couple of the boys after they moved away. Another boy — with an 11th-grade reading level — landed in jail in February after stealing a car."This was our last ditch effort to get them some help," Cline said. "This second tier, I wanted to salvage."
The symbolism — being at the bottom of hill, in their own classroom for nearly the whole day — wasn’t lost on the boys. They didn’t like being isolated and treated differently.
Richmond admits he also resisted the job. A former Air Force man, "I had my seventh-graders all set — straight lines, shirts tucked in."
He didn’t want to switch to the special class.
"The first couple of weeks was very, very challenging," Richmond said.
Then he felt a responsibility for the separated students — all black — to have a black male educator teach them how to act and think.
As Richmond led writing activities and history lessons, he also eavesdropped as the boys talked freely among themselves.
As months passed, the boys grew to like the special attention that came with being in the class.
One boy missed 40 days of school earlier in the year; after joining the class, he has missed five. Many are on the basketball team, and Cline and Richmond challenge them to games in the school gym. When Pat Collins, the assistant principal, visited the class, the kids joked about why she didn’t bring them food.
When groups of eighth-graders formed teams for an informal campus basketball game, the class chose Cline’s initials and named themselves the "TC Boys."
Class lessons are a mix of textbook work and real-life talk.
During a class last week, Richmond asked students whether they knew the latest predictions about a start date for war with Iraq: "Y’all need to understand what’s going on in the world."
He gave them several minutes for the morning writing exercise: "What is your purpose as an eighth-grader, athlete, son, student?"
Their answers were the same messages Richmond drills in the class.
"To make it out of middle school."
"Make the high school basketball team and graduate."
"Get out of eighth grade and graduate."
Richmond names one of his goals: "To dismantle this team — I think y’all are ready to be with everyone else."
Faring in the real world
Richmond has worried that the strategy to isolate the boys could backfire — the "TC Boys" were growing popular on campus for their athletic achievements and "bad boy" antics.
So the teacher made a show of moving two of the more focused boys out of the room and back with their regular class. He tells the remaining half-dozen or so students to think about being role models.
Moving back with his regular class was fine with Derrick Lewis: "I wanted to do my work and get out." Dominique McGriff said he wanted to "show them my behavior changed."
Cline said Marie G. Davis may not have the separate class next year, since this year’s seventh-graders had a year of being exposed to school discipline and expectations.
Still, Richmond worries how this group of boys will fare in high school, among the crowd of 2,000 or so students, where there will be no separate classes set up to give them extra attention.
Even now, with the class, he can’t keep them from being exposed to trouble on the weekends.
"It’s hard to compete and show them a better way."
Plans are proceeding for a $20 million renovation of Marie G. Davis.
CMS is trying to buy nearby properties before razing the "upper campus" this year and building a new school to open in 2005-06, said Guy Chamberlain, head of building services. Students will use temporary quarters next school year.