Delaware's High-Risk Students Find Success
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Most educators will tell you that middle school often is make-or-break for poor and minority children. In Wilmington, Delaware, for example, the attrition rate for African-American boys in public school is alarmingly high, six out of ten eventually drop out.
So three years ago, Catholic lay workers and educators set out to rescue a few of these boys with a new middle school just for them. Now, as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the first of these students are about to make the big leap to high school.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:
The Brothers of Saint Francis de Sales built Nativity Prep for kids like Darren Crippin (ph), 15, and Byron Bailey, 14, a couple of kids from one of Wilmington's toughest public housing projects, the Riverside Projects.
It was hardly a match made in heaven.
Mr. BYRON BAILEY (Student): Well, I got in a lot of trouble, fooling around trouble.
SANCHEZ: Sitting on the front steps of his family's apartment, Byron remembers thinking, why would a private school want a kid from the projects?
Darren, his best friend at Nativity Prep, wondered the same thing. Just look around, he says, half the apartments on this block are boarded up. Teenagers with nothing better to do huddle on street corners all day.
Mr. BAILEY: There're not a lot of role models, like people to go to, people to look up to, I mean there's no positivity. And like, children like us, growing up, we need a little bit of that. Yeah, there's just a lot of negativity around here.
SANCHEZ: Byron, who lives with his mother and stepfather, has stopped hanging out on corners all together. Darren lives across the street with his 27-year- old brother, who's married with kids of his own. Darren's parents are around but not really involved in his life these days.
Drugs are common here. So is death. That's what Darren wrote about in an essay for his application to Nativity Prep, a long, single sentence, about losing a friend.
Mr. DARREN CRIPPIN: His name is Damon. He got shot in his back.
SANCHEZ: He missed the opportunity that I now have, says Darren. Although that's not how he felt about Nativity Prep in the beginning.
Mr. CRIPPIN: First I didn't want to go because, like, I was just getting into girls. So I didn't want to go because it was going to be all boys. But then my brother and my sister-in-law, they basically said I'm going, they made me go. And after awhile, I learned how to write, not only structure sentences, but paragraphs, essays, stories, and all my other subjects I can see myself progressing and doing better from the first year I started.
SANCHEZ: It wasn't easy, says Darren, but he's glad he stayed. Byron says he feels the same way. He was twelve when he enrolled at Nativity. Frustrated and angry because he could barely read, and no one at his old public school seemed to care, says Bryon.
Mr. BAILEY: I didn't have the support I needed. Teachers, they didn't want to work with me.
SANCHEZ: Now, as eighth graders, Byron and Darren say they're reading 15 to 20 books a year, OF MICE AND MEN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. By all accounts, Darren and Byron have experienced a profound transformation at Nativity. Thanks in large part to the school's principal and one of its founders, a man kids call Brother Ed.
Brother ED OGDEN (Principal, Nativity Prep): When we're all quiet I would like you to please stand for the prayer.
SANCHEZ: This is how Brother Ed Ogden, a thin, graying gentleman in his late 40s, starts every day in the school's makeshift cafeteria.
Brother ED: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
SANCHEZ: Like most days, Brother Ed asks the students to pray for courage, and most of all, strength of character. After all, says Brother Ed, we're not miracle workers. This is hard work, and not everyone responds well to the school's grueling academic program and strict code of behavior.
Since the school opened over two and a half years ago, Brother Ed has expelled four students, mostly for fighting.
Brother ED: You know I look at some of these kids, they're behind, they have very little self-confidence, and there's not a lot of motivation to do well. But, you know, once we decide to take them, we're going to work with them. And, it's 35 kids, and I don't like the word save, but I'm going to make it better for these kids.
SANCHEZ: Although the list of applicants to Nativity Prep keeps growing, Brother Ed is convinced that the school can only succeed if it stays small, sixty-five students tops. Only low-income families are eligible. The schools spends around $12,000 per student a year, parents pay no more than $100.00 of that. Donors make up the difference.
And though a committee screens kids, no one has ever accused Nativity Prep of picking the best or brightest. Still, the goal, says Brother Ed, is to place every single student that graduates from here in a good, private high school, all expenses paid.
Brother ED: That's a pretty hefty task, because the private schools' entrance levels are pretty high, and I have to get them there. That means 10-hour school days, mandatory summer school, night classes from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., and lots of tough, demanding courses.
(Soundbite of Nativity Prep's Latin class)
Mr. MATT CARHARDT (ph) (Teacher at Nativity Prep): When we make a comparative adjective in Latin, this is the trick.
SANCHEZ: Matt Carhardt is one of six young resident teachers, all fresh out of college.
Mr. CARDHARDT: I teach Latin and Grammar.
SANCHEZ: Yes, Latin.
Mr. CARHARDT: Instead of (unintelligible), we would say (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (unintelligible)
SANCHEZ: Latin seems to help kids with poor vocabulary learn a number of new, harder words. It's one big reason their reading skills improve so dramatically, which is why Carhardt says he chose to teach here after graduating from Columbia last year, to help open kids' minds to a world beyond the one they've known.
Mr. CARHARDT: From what these students say, it seems like they're coming from some pretty rough, rough places. And I think it's horrible that you can, you know, be born without much of a chance of succeeding because of the school system. That's what attracted me to this program. It seems to be fighting against that and doing it on a small level, but on a really palpable level.
SANCHEZ: In other words, says Victoria Williams, one of the school's trustees, Nativity Prep rescues children who've been written off.
Ms. VICTORIA WILLIAMS (Trustee, Nativity Prep): Like Byron, he couldn't read. The only kind of books that Byron could read when he was in public school was like Cat in the Hat, and here this child is reading chapter books, not 15, 20 or more chapter books a year. Can you imagine how he feels as a person? For years he heard, oh, you can't, you need to be in special ed, or this is why your grades are the way you are, because you're slow. And look at Byron today, this is character, and this is what we've built here at Nativity.
(Soundbite of children playing)
SANCHEZ: It's mid-morning and the boys run into the frigid winter air for some exercise and some basketball.
Mr. CARHARDT: Yeah, but I haven't seen anybody make a basket!
SANCHEZ: Darren and Byron stand out because they're so tall. I asked them how they feel about graduating in a few months, and in some ways, setting a pretty high standard for all those who'll follow. Byron.
Mr. BAILEY: Yeah, I don't really think about it, because we just children. We don't know that we setting a high standard like that. Until we gone and grow up and look back and see how young children like us, our age, are doing.
SANCHEZ: Byron has already been accepted at (unintelligible), one of the city's best Catholic high schools. Darren is waiting for word from two private schools. In fact, all seven students who'll graduate from Nativity Prep in June are headed to Wilmington's most selective private schools in the fall.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.