In July, North Charleston High School principal Robert Grimm will travel to Columbia to make the case for why the S.C. Department of Education shouldn't shut his school down or have him replaced. He says he won't have any written notes with him.
The prospect of a state takeover sounds bleak for the perennially struggling school, but when State Superintendent Mick Zais inspected North Charleston, Stall, and Burke high schools in April, Grimm says he ended the day feeling encouraged. "I think he just wanted to make sure that I understood that the pressure is on," Grimm says.
Of course, that pressure was on from before day one. In the summer of 2011, local NAACP president Dot Scott led a small chorus of voices railing at the district for choosing Grimm as the replacement for outgoing principal Juanita Middleton. Pointing to Grimm's lack of experience in high school administration (his previous post was at C.E. Williams Middle School), Scott said, "You don't bring in a general practitioner to do brain surgery."
Scott was at least correct about the daunting nature of the task set before Grimm. One way or another, the school chews administrators up and spits them out, and when Grimm started in August 2011, he was the eighth principal in 11 years. In the past decade, the school has made headlines for its dismal standardized test scores and its spats of violence. In October 2004, after one particularly brutal fistfight broke out in the school courtyard and ended in three arrests, a sophomore explained to The Post and Courier, "It's a territory beef."
The school has a nasty reputation to shed, and Grimm thinks it has made progress in that respect. In the 2011-2012 school year, suspensions were down, attendance was up, and the halls were orderly. While the school's ratings likely won't arrive from Columbia until the fall, Grimm is at least confident that he wants to come back when classes start in August. And at North Charleston High School, that's a really big deal.
Grimm doesn't keep a lot of knickknacks in the principal's office. On his desk, he has a sculpture of a bulldog in the style of a semi-truck hood ornament, another of a cougar — the school's mascot — and a few scientific calculators. On the floor, propped against a chair, sits a framed poster of the boys varsity basketball team, which won the AA state championship this year.
"It's a nice distraction from the challenges at hand," Grimm says, looking over at the picture of the boys lined up behind superimposed images of state-champ rings. "We're not judged based on how our football, basketball, and athletic programs do."
The challenges he speaks of are myriad, and Grimm knew what they were when he took over as principal in the fall of 2011. In its annual school report cards, the S.C. Department of Education has given North Charleston High School a rating of At-Risk since 2004. In the 2010-2011 school year, only 65 percent of students passed the English exit exam, compared to 90.5 percent across the district. The state, operating under the rules of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, sets goals for improvement in every school according to standardized test scores, and if a school fails to meet those goals two years in a row — as NCHS has, again and again — then parents are allowed to pull their students out and send them elsewhere in the district. Some parents have done just that, carting their children off to Wando High School and elsewhere, and accordingly, the student population has dwindled from 1,454 in 2003 to 619 in 2011.
Graduation rates are low at the school, but Grimm points out that those statistics can be deceptive. Many of the students who start as freshmen at NCHS transfer elsewhere in the district, and yet the state still counts them against the school's graduation totals. Some families are on the move so often that their children end up bouncing back and forth, particularly between North Charleston and Stall High School.
Across the district, race and income are major predictors for success or failure, and North Charleston High School has a high quotient of African-American students and low-income families. The district's four-year graduation rate is 72 percent overall, but it is 60 percent for African Americans and 58 percent for students who receive subsidized lunches. Because of the persistent racial and economic achievement gap, Superintendent Nancy McGinley has said that the school district is "a tale of two cities." For now, NCHS is a part of the second city.
When math teacher Colleen Knauer took a job at North Charleston High School six years ago, she says there was a fight or a scuffle every day. The courtyard was a battleground for hot-tempered youth, and the hallways were never far from chaos.
Those days are past, Knauer says, thanks to a newfound sense of law and order in the halls. Knauer still gets pitying looks when she tells people where she works, but she says things really have changed for the better in the past few years. Under Principal Grimm's administration, there is far less cursing and fighting in the halls, students wear their uniforms properly, and there are clear consequences for arriving to class late.
Grimm also touts a suspension rate that is lower than ever, at 1.1 percent. Previously, he says, the school never had fewer than 5 percent of students suspended in any given school year. The drop-off in suspensions is part of the plan he laid out when he arrived at the school in the fall: No more suspensions for minor infractions.
"We treat each of the students with dignity," Grimm says. "I try desperately not to strip them of their respect. Sometimes that's all they truly have, that they can hold in the palm of their hand, is that respect factor. Why would I be one more person to come down on them? I try so hard not to do that."
Randy Greenberg, who has been the school nurse for two years, says that while behavior improved significantly in the 2011-2012 academic year, the health issues she encounters on a daily basis remain unchanged. Much of the NCHS attendance zone lies in what the USDA calls a food desert, a low-income area where residents have little access to healthy foods. When a lack of nearby supermarkets combines with a lack of personal transportation, people often end up getting their meals from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
"We have a lot of students that they eat two meals here, and I'm not sure what they're eating at home at night," Greenberg says. Some show up malnourished, while others come from families who can't afford the medications they need. Dental problems abound. At night, some students sleep on floors and in cars.
Knauer hears stories every year that break her heart. The day before school let out for summer, she got the news that a former student had been shot and killed. His little brother is still in school at NCHS. "These kids are living in a war zone at home," Knauer says. Another former student recently wrote on Facebook, "Thank goodness that my brother, cousin, and friends are in jail, so that they're not on the streets."
Knauer, who is working on a doctorate dissertation about teacher retention, says a lot of teachers couldn't handle the job, moving on after just a year or two and keeping up the high turnover rate. When her husband took a job at the school eight years ago, for instance, she says he came with a crop of 34 new hires to fill open positions. Two years later, she was applying for one of only four open slots. She says the school used to hire teachers just because they needed jobs, but Grimm and Middleton, the previous principal, have taken more of an interest in the hiring process and allowed department heads to provide input.
And when it comes to academics, she sees plenty of success stories — they just don't always show up on paper. "I teach calculus, and we haven't had a child pass the AP Calculus exam in years," Knauer says. "But I will tell you this: When my kids go to college and they take calculus, they call me and say, 'Oh, I got an A in the class,' or 'I got a B.' They're passing college calculus. But they were never given the tools to take a standardized test."
Tristan Raphael, valedictorian of the North Charleston High School Class of 2012, says he aced the exit exams on his first try and came into the SAT with a surplus of confidence. On his second attempt at the SAT, he earned a combined three-section score of 1340. That, added to a laundry list of extracurriculars, was good enough to earn him some scholarships and get him into the psychology program at Clemson University, where he will start in the fall.
But he says the exit exams were a disaster for many of his peers. Students who had performed well during the school year would get confused by a question's wording, and they would freeze up. In class, he says, "when the kids don't understand the material, they go to the teacher, and the teacher pushes them in the right direction. But when it comes to the standardized testing, teachers cannot help them, and they're not used to that."
Throughout high school, Tristan was fully aware of which students were in the top 20 percent of his class: They were the ones taking the Honors and Advanced Placement courses with him. When he joined the soccer team, he saw a good number of them, but not as many were on the more popular basketball and football teams, which he also joined. On top of sports and academics, he kept busy with student council, chess club, National Junior Honor Society, and a leadership group called the Jefferson Club.
In 2008, one in five incoming freshmen in the Charleston County School District could read at no better than a fourth-grade level, and many of Tristan's classmates arrived at NCHS far behind the game. But when he moved up from Morningside Middle School, he was ready. "I think my parents and myself prepared me more than my middle school did," Tristan says, "because I already had a focus on what I wanted to do." Tristan credits his parents for pushing him hard, even if it made him mad sometimes. His father, who attended community college in California, would make him read books and write reports on them in the summer months. And his mother, who graduated high school in Jamaica, was always there to help with math homework.
Tristan's story might be the exception to the rule, as Principal Grimm says parent involvement has been slim in his first year. "When it's celebrating the basketball team, you know, we get huge turnouts," Grimm says. "But when it's the PTA meeting, it could be as few as 20 people."
At a school where nearly half of the students are receiving free or reduced-price lunches, Grimm says he has to be respectful of working parents. "A lot of the parents have hourly jobs," he says, "and to be asked to come to school is taking money out of their pocket."
Michael Miller, a West Ashley barber who has been volunteering weekly at the school for four years, presents an alternate theory to explain the lack of parent involvement: "A lot of the parents have very negative experiences when it comes to school." As early as elementary and middle school, he says, some parents have attempted to bring their concerns to administrators and have only been shot down.
While Tristan has had a steady environment at home, he has seen five principals in his four years at the school, including two interims his freshman year. But he gives Grimm a vote of confidence — the sort of vote that Grimm hopes to get from the Department of Education in July. "I know if Mr. Grimm's still gonna be there, they're gonna turn everything around."