Before Benny Bolden was the principal at Nims Middle School, before he was a teacher, and before he ever went to college, he was a Black kid from South Florida who almost got expelled.
He remembers his mom, crying in a room with school administrators, and pleading there was nothing more she could do.
But Bolden and other Leon County Schools administrators have found a way to do more for students, specifically for some elementary school kids who have been held back and struggle to move on to middle school, with a new pilot program to help overage students catch up to their peers.
“You’ve told them you can’t read, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, and we just gave them an opportunity to say you can,” Bolden said.
“I see me in those kids. They are mad at themselves for the situations that they're in, and they’re screaming for help.”
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Last summer, director of elementary schools Billy Epting heard concerns from principals who were worried about some of their fifth grade students who were going to be 13 years old that year. If they stayed on that trajectory, they would be 16 in eighth grade and 20 as seniors.
Epting, who used to be the principal at Leon High School, knows the odds of actually graduating are stacked against these overage students.
“If I had a kid that was sitting in ninth or tenth grade that had already turned 18 years old, the chance of me keeping them were slim,” he said.
Epting and assistant superintendent Gillian Gregory came up with a plan, and with the help of Bolden, they found a way to give 33 students in the district a way to complete an accelerated sixth grade year to catch up to their age group.
Epting wanted the potential students and parents to have buy-in, so each had to sign a contract that said the child would come to school and behave in the classroom.
For the fall semester, the student would go to their zoned elementary school. In the spring, however, the district would provide transportation and the students would transition to Nims to start their sixth grade year.
Eighteen of the 33 students are zoned for Nims, Bolden said. Nims is a Title I school, meaning it receives federal assistance because at least 40% of students are considered low-income.
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Environment matters to Bolden, and he didn't want these students to feel like leftovers. He hired new teachers and paraprofessionals and found the space on Nims campus to hold classes. He drove a U-Haul to all the high schools to pick up chairs and tables, and the classrooms got a fresh coat of paint before the spring semester started.
"When you come on the campus of R. Frank Nims Middle School, it's going to look like a school. Because I don't want my school to look any different than any other school on the north, south, east, west. It must look like the expectation of what a scholar should have," Bolden said at a school board meeting in January.
After a spring and summer semester of classes focusing on English language arts and math, the students will have worked their way to gain back a year they lost and start the 2022 fall semester as seventh graders.
“Here is an opportunity that they can prove to themselves, forget the world, prove to themselves that they can do it,” Bolden said.
Proactive, not reactive
Thursday morning, in a bright, beige-walled classroom at Nims, students grabbed geography worksheets and opened their civics textbooks. Some needed pencils to begin their work and others left their worksheets at home, but after a quick trip to the pencil sharpener and a few extra copies were passed out, within five minutes the room was silent except for the scratching sounds of lead on paper.
Bolden said every student in the class is passing and is expected to start seventh grade in the fall.
This is a proactive, not a reactive approach, he said.
The program doesn’t fix everything in one week or one month, rather the goal is to give these kids a better chance at graduating.
But a lot of these students and their families are in survival mode.
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“Their main concern is what’s for dinner tonight? Can I pay the utility bill? And most of their primary decisions and concerns that they have are things that a lot of people take for granted,” Epting said.
Parents who work two or three jobs don’t have time to help their children with homework, he said, but this program is a way for the school district to step in and help.
“You’re trying to give their children an opportunity, because most parents want their children to be more successful than themselves,” he said.
A blueprint for the future
So far, the pilot program has been a success. Epting and Bolden presented preliminary results at a recent school board meeting and received praise from school board members who, tired of discussing COVID, were happy to hear of something new.
“This is what I want to talk more about,” said school board member Alva Striplin. “This is how I want to spend an hour and a half every other Tuesday.”
“This is a very visionary move…and a compassionate one, and I know that parents are pleased and students are feeling better and their self esteem is flourishing and growing, so thank you,” said school board member Joy Bowen.
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The success of the program has led to administrators thinking of ways to help with learning loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Epting is looking to tweak this program for younger elementary school students.
There are first graders who have not been in school for a year and a half, he said, and there are kindergartners learning how to read while sitting at a computer – which, even with the best intentions, isn’t the most helpful.
“We’ve got a group of students that we’re going to have to play catch up on over the next two, three, four years so that we don’t have a big bunch of 13-year-old fifth graders down the road,” he said.
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Leon County Schools program helps held back, struggling students catch up