Part I: Cold, Hard, Statistics
The numbers hit me like a wayward breeze, the bar graphs looking like sparse forests with bare patches. I knew that Gaston, North Carolina, stood below the national average in categories like median income and number of adults with college degrees, but to actually see the graphs and numbers—cold and brutally honest—filled me with an assortment of feelings as I prepared for my Branch Out National trip: “The Test for Charter Schools: Addressing Education Inequalities in Under-Served, Rural America.” Looking at an interactive map of adults with college degrees in the United States by county, I was already surprised that the national average stood at 27.5%. While the fact that little over a quarter of the country’s adults have college degrees should not have been news to me, having been aware of the country’s socioeconomic disparity, the bubble of college life muffled my awareness of this disparity. In Northampton County, where the town of Gaston is located, the percentage of adults with college degrees is 12.83%. As for the graphs, that of the distribution of median family income in 2009 showed that the majority earned less than $15,000 yearly. What did all of these numbers and figures mean to me? Having watched “Waiting for Superman” in preparation for my trip, I had become more familiar with issues of education inequality in the country, along with the concept of charter schools, something I had not previously heard of. The idea of a more personalized educational experience for students that charter schools offered appealed to me greatly, so in conjunction with the statistics on Gaston, the idea of GCP, or Gaston College Preparatory, brought me hope.
Part II: Knowledge is Power Program
GCP is a part of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a nationwide network of open-enrollment charter schools with a focus on college preparatory education. Having been recognized by major publications like Newsweek and The Washington Post, GCP is
known for its rigorous curriculum, operating under the KIPP principle that “there are no shortcuts.” The kicker—GCP is located in the tiny town of Gaston, all but a spec on the state map of North Carolina, where the closest fast food restaurant that I could see for miles was Hardee’s, and where the closest and most industrious-looking facility was the paper mill, massive and looming ominously over the area at night. GCP has to face the challenging task of serving multiple underperforming counties, all with percentages of adults holding college degrees similar to that of Northampton County. The issues of
education inequality in the nation that “Waiting for Superman” mentioned, along with those of education reform in the hopes of finding alternatives to the issue of inefficient teachers and sub-par scores in core subjects like math and reading, were ones KIPP and GCP aimed to tackle. For starters, although KIPP is publicly funded, it doesn’t operate under the same system as other public schools. Teachers in the KIPP system are not in unions, and at least for GCP, they must renew their contract yearly. What does this mean? Less than satisfactory teachers will not be hired back, which provides extra incentive for teachers to work extra hard if they want to return. At GCP, the KIPP principle of no shortcuts very clearly applied to its teachers as well.
Part III: Welcome to GCP
I remember the first time I walked into the middle school of GCP. I didn’t even notice as I walked throughout the school, but the building wasn’t even an actual building—it was a series of trailers that had been masterfully conjoined to form one seamless facility. Despite the lack of a “real” building, GCP exuded vitality and promise, with brightly colored classrooms, motivational quotes painted along the walls, and a cafeteria with college paraphernalia serving as decoration. Our contact person at GCP, Robbie, embodied the spirit of GCP: passionate, unconventional, and dedicated. His classroom, with an entire wall adorned with pictures of influential Americans, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Paula Deen; and Yoda presiding over every corner, was easily one of my favorite rooms. From the beginning, Robbie gave us a disclaimer—there is no magic to GCP. The end-goal for GCP high school students to all gain acceptance into at least one college came at a heavy cost: 8-5 days for even the primary grade school students, no recess, and high personal and academic standards. I experienced this firsthand when the other interns and I were given a chance to observe classes and the progression of a typical school day. Admittedly, I was overwhelmed. Transitions between classes were silent, the entire day’s schedule was planned down to the minute, students were carrying armfuls of textbooks, and it was a given that students give their full attention and participation in every single class. While I was impressed at the level of involvement of most of the students in their classes and the incredible level of enthusiasm at which the teachers operated, I continually wondered to myself—“how does everyone do it?”
Part IV: A Hard Knock Day
The following day, the interns actually got to become a part of the inner workings of GCP, and we were given a task list, which was a compilation of requests by the teachers for help with a variety of tasks, ranging from sharpening pencils to grading papers. As the day wore on, it became apparent how much teachers had to do beyond the very essence of their job, teaching. In preparation for upcoming standardized tests, it was necessary to have enough pre-sharpened #2 pencils for the students. Getting enough pre-sharpened pencils took one of the interns over a day of intermittent sessions of non-stop sharpening. One of my first tasks was to record test results, question by question. Referred to as benchmark tests, these assessments determined whether or not students were proficient in different subject areas, with questions ranging in difficulty. In order to effectively track a student’s progress, it was crucial to record the student’s results for every single question. Ultimately, the cumulative data could provide teachers with a better idea of what kind of questions within the subject area students needed more assistance with. While the idea of benchmark tests is remarkably useful and effective, actually recording the results was a laborious task involving poring over Scantron after Scantron. By the end of the day, I was absolutely certain of three things: 1) I had quite possibly one of the worst visual migraines that I had ever experienced, 2) the teachers needed all of the assistance they could get, and 3) the engine of GCP was fueled by concentrated hard work.
Part V: The Carolinian Sky’s The Limit?
The first day helped me develop more perspective on GCP, and really understand that there was no magic behind any of it. As the week went on, I became more involved in the GCP high school, which helped to further shape my perspective. I grew to look forward to each day, since it was refreshing to have new tasks to look forward to, and especially to hear resounding gratitude from all of the teachers. What struck me was how incredibly friendly the GCP community was. Students and teachers alike would greet the interns in the hallway, many of whom would thank us with grateful smiles. Although high school is a time many people try to move on from, at GCP, I rediscovered the joys of high school. My time at GCP also helped me remember how grateful I am for the solid high school experience that I had, and just how important it was in molding me as a person. After helping out in a World History class and teaching a Spanish class with another intern, I was inspired to see that with the right guidance, these students enjoyed learning. The GCP high school students were different from their primary grade school counterparts in that they had become more jaded to the long hours and strict rules, and were more difficult to direct within the classroom. Additionally, some of them had only recently entered the GCP program from another high school, so were behind in the curriculum. When I sat in on a Public Speaking class in the high school, I was surprised when, during a discussion, students expressed their discontent at having such long days and the rigor of the curriculum. However, when students were asked about their overall feelings about GCP, most expressed a subtle appreciation; some explicitly stated that they knew they were better off at GCP than at any of the other high schools, where fights and apathetic teachers were commonplace. Of the students I met, one stuck out to me the most—Matthew. Anyone who believed he was an average Joe for his down-to-earth manner of dressing and thick Southern accent was sorely mistaken. Matthew was one of the most brilliant students that I had met at GCP, not to mention the sweetest and most humble. His name was constantly written on boards in recognition of acing exams, and he was always the one with inquisitive, probing questions in class. I was humbled by his earnest work ethic, Southern sincerity, and unassuming aptitude. Matthew was a living, breathing example of the KIPP model, and he was proof that students from rural areas, too, could show that the sky is the limit.
Part VI: How GCP Rocked Me (Like a Southbound Train)
Ultimately, my spring break experience in North Carolina at GCP was one I would not have traded for any cruise, Cancun excursion, or island adventure. Sure, with any of the latter options I may have come back with prodigious tan lines and fabulous stories, but I would not have come back changed like I did after my Branch Out trip. Volunteering at GCP helped me rediscover core values within myself, in addition to acquiring a renewed appreciation for passionate educators. Was GCP the perfect education model? No. There were certainly issues that needed to be addressed, ranging from the suitability of the strict student policies, to the attrition rates of teachers, but overall, GCP provided a safe, conducive environment for the pursuit of knowledge, which is more than many schools in the country can say. My purpose in writing this piece is to show that it is possible for someone whose major has nothing to do with education (read: Kinesiology & Health Sciences) to become passionate about education. I hope to be able to bring this newfound simmering passion to local projects in Williamsburg, like the Head Start program, which emphasizes the same key values as the KIPP primary school program, which is to promote literacy at an early age. At the very least, I can help spread the word about the magnitude of a sound childhood education, and the lasting impact of an impassioned educator. The problem of education inequality and a need for the reformation of the public school system are very real, but with borrowed words from The Goo Goo Dolls: “And you ask me what I want this year / And I try to make this kind and clear /Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.” Yes, the road ahead for education reform is winding and rough, but with projects like KIPP and students like Matthew, I truly believe better days are ahead.
by Angela Tran