Robert Grimm arrived at North Charleston High School in 2011 with a crystal clear picture of the looming challenges facing a new principal. Literacy rates were lamentable, discipline problems ran rampant and an abysmal 43.5 percent of students graduated in four years. Another challenge, no less daunting: Sticking around long enough to see his improvement plan reach its fruition. North Charleston High School changed principals like the weather. Seven in 11 years had come and gone before him. “They called it, ‘The principal-killer school,’” says Grimm, a wry smile breaking across his narrow face framed beneath a close-cropped crew cut. “This is where they go to die.” In 2012, the Grim Reaper came knocking on Grimm’s door. Rated “at-risk” for three consecutive years, North Charleston was on the brink of closure. Grimm drove to Columbia, the state capital, to plead his case to the South Carolina Department of Education. Grimm didn’t think he said much, but whatever he said, they liked it. “I assured them that we would make progress,” says Grimm, who became the school’s first principal in more than a decade to last past two years. “It’s unfair to label the students without giving them an opportunity to have a leader who’s going to help them along the way.” True to his word, Grimm has been an impetus for change and improvement at North Charleston High School. With the help of dedicated teachers and diligent students, Grimm has helped students at the at-risk, perennially low-performing school achieve the highest learning gains in the Charleston County School District.
North Charleston High
The relatively small school in the historic district of North Charleston in the past three years has outperformed all six high schools in the city. Grimm credits the school’s success mostly to setting benchmarks, analyzing data, recognizing and focusing on at-risk issues. Grimm welcomed the help from Pensacola-based Studer Education in his efforts to improve the school. Janet Pilcher, Studer Education senior executive, said she worked with Grimm while providing training to School District leaders. She’s been impressed that Grimm, in his four years as principal, has improved scores on Studer Education’s employee engagement survey from an average of 3.50 to 4.15 out of a 5. “He recognized talent, rewarded high performance and set high expectations for all teachers to follow,” Pilcher said. “He has recruited a team of teachers who have great passion and do worthwhile work.” Grimm said he uses the feedback to make adjustments at North Charleston. “It’s not all positive, but I’m constantly striving to get better scores because it makes them happy,” Grimm says. “If the teachers are happy, I’m doing a good job.” Most of all, he cites the importance of hiring and retaining great teachers. Working in education is a special calling that requires ordinary people willing to go extraordinarily above and beyond the call of duty. At North Charleston that means meeting students’ needs before school, after school, visiting their homes or trying to find a place for them to call home. Sometimes it means getting a child a hot meal or warm clothing. Or Christmas presents and Thanksgiving dinners. The school has a federally funded afternoon, after-school dinner program for students who may be hungry or homeless. There are tutors for students who needed more help in certain areas. On occasion, teachers have pooled money to buy a suit for a child to attend a family member’s funeral. “Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if they need something on the bottom of the triangle in order to be successful on the top, we provide whatever is on the bottom,” Grimm says. One of the most important things a principal can do, Grimm says, is hire and retain the best teachers to do the best job possible to inspire, engage and embrace students who need someone to show them along the way. Tony Eady is among his finest, Grimm says. Eady is one of the few teachers Grimm kept on staff when he took over as principal. [sidebar] Tale of two Charlestons
The state’s third-largest city, North Charleston ranks just behind neighboring Historic Charleston, about a 20-minute drive away. With a population of 105,000, the demographics are almost evenly split: 48 percent white and 45 percent black. The median household income is $37,716. One of the country’s oldest cities, Historic Charleston was founded in 1670 and is known for it Southern charm, antebellum homes, distinctive neighborhoods and historic tourist sites. It remains one of the largest ports on the East Coast. Its economy relies heavily on tourism. More than 4 million people visit Charleston each year, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S. If Historic Charleston is the place to visit and play, North Charleston is the place to work, shop and stay. While the two cities have things in common, including history and a name, North Charleston is the economic hub, leading the county in economic and industrial development. Incorporated in 1972, North Charleston is an old military, distinctively blue-collar town. It is home to the old Charleston Navy Base, Naval Weapons Station, Air Force Base, International Airport and dozens of businesses and industries with the name Charleston in it. North Charleston’s favorite son is Art Shell, former NFL coach, Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion with the Oakland Raiders. The closing of the navy base and other downsizing drove the economy down and crime up. The economy has rebounded in recent years with the arrival of shipping and manufacturing, including the new Boeing plant and a Tanger Outlet Center. The area boasts one of the highest retail sales figures in the state. [/sidebar]
Using the data to get better
The first Student Concern Specialist in the district, Eady has worn many hats in his 22 years at North Charleston. Among the skeptics when Grimm became principal, Eady says he watched the school change for the better. “I’ve been here a long time, at its worst and at its best,” says Eady, explaining his job as the “eyes and ears for the principal.” “Mr. Grimm has moved that standard way up, and he holds everybody accountability, making sure you involve yourself with the kids.” For Grimm, it’s all about his students, each day, every day. He wants to know where they live and how they live. Whatever he can do to help them succeed in school and in life, he wants to try to do it, he says. Part of that requires tracking students through databases that provide a profile to track academic progress and proficiency, as well as finding any deficiencies or detriments that could hinder their chance of succeeding. A former math teacher, Grimm crunches numbers and tears data apart. Teachers examine every student in every class to find out where students live, how they live and the best approach to help them learn and improve. “We’re constantly searching for new and improved ways to assist kids,” Grimm says. “If what we’re doing, we stay stagnant, then we stop doing it and try something different. We’re constantly striving to get better.”
The numbers — and the rest of the story
Despite the immense challenges, Grimm refused to make excuses. He doesn’t want anyone else to use the racial and economic disparity gap as an excuse to accept low performance and underachievement in schools. “Don’t tell me that students can’t learn because every student can learn,” says Grimm. “It’s our responsibility to find out how they learn, what we can do differently, and then to do it.” Whatever they are doing, it’s been working. Since 2011:
- The End-of-Course rate soared from 26 percent to 66 percent.
- The High School Assessment Program rate — until this year a requirement for graduation — increased from 48 percent to 61 percent.
- The enrollment in Advanced Placement courses went up nearly 12 percent, to 22.7 percent. The median high school average is 15.3 percent. Attendance is more than 96 percent.
- Suspensions are almost non-existent, at 1.1 percent.
The improvements are more than statistics. It’s about changing a culture of failure and showing that schools that serve at-risk, disadvantaged students can make the grade and strive for success. While the graduation rate in 2014 remained relatively low at 54 percent, it’s up 10.5 percent points since 2011. Those numbers, Grimm says, are deceptive because many of the students who come in as freshmen transfer to other schools in the district or the country, but the state still counts them against the school graduation totals. The school has been rated At-Risk for more than decade. Even that can be misleading, Grimm says. North Charleston missed moving up to Below Average by one student’s test scores. If four students had earned a passing grade, the school’s rating would have climbed to Average. “The way the state calculates grades puts us at a significant and unfair disadvantage,” Grimm says. “We have to overcome some barriers that other schools don’t have to overcome.” Grimm was well aware of the obstacles before he took the helm as principal. North Charleston High School had a bad reputation. Most of it, frankly, was true.
How the students see it
Enrollment at North Charleston High has dropped from about 1,300 in 2002 to 485 this year. The cost to run the school has remained about the same, from $7.29 million then to $7 million now. Coming from mostly low-income neighborhoods, many of the students face astronomical odds before entering the school building. Some go hungry. Few get proper dental and medical care. Too many are transient, bouncing from home to home. If they aren’t lucky enough to find a family or friend’s couch, they end up sleeping on floors or in cars. Another problem Grimm faced was keeping students from leaving the school. Some North Charleston parents lost faith in the school. They pulled their children out to send them to Wando High School, which boasts a graduation rate of 88 percent. Even though his parents were against it, Noah Johnson transferred to North Charleston High from a larger school two years ago. Taking courses in AP calculus and macroeconomics, Johnson has a 3.7 grade-point average. Johnson said he would rank his teachers among the best in the country, stressing that the courses are rigorous and challenging. “I love this school,” says Johnson, a senior, who is on his way to college to become a mechanical engineer. “It has made me a better person. Not everything people say is true.” Senior Nykeil Miller came to the school as a freshman. Miller used to play hooky, fight and stay in trouble. She’s witnessed the school’s meteoric rise and improvements in academics and discipline under Grimm’s leadership. ”He took an interest in me personally and turned me around,” says Miller, who will graduate with her freshman class on time and wants to become a digital graphic designer. “Coming in, Mr. Grimm started changing the whole school.” [sidebar] Race, poverty and school scores
Across the country, in school districts not much different than those in Escambia and Charleston counties, race and income are prevailing indicators for their success or failure. Escambia County School District’s overall graduation rate has risen from 56 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in 2014. Less than half of the district’s African-American students graduate in four years. In Charleston County School District the graduation rate since 2007 has increased from 61 percent to about 80 percent in 2014. During the same period, the overall graduation for African-American students rose from 60 percent to 72 percent. The Charleston district moved up from the previous year’s ranking of “good,” to score “excellent” on the state report card released in November. The district’s growth rate also increased from average to good. The education department’s annual report cards, as part of its accountability system, rate schools and districts from At-Risk to Excellent. It usually is axiomatic that schools that serve mostly low-income, disadvantaged students receive lower grades in statewide accountability measures. Despite desegregation and efforts to seek diversity, blacks and whites in the Lowcountry, still live mostly apart, because of choice or long-existing income disparities. Most public schools serve the neighborhoods around them. Areas of North Charleston are mostly black; so are those schools. Of nearly 500 students at North Charleston High School, 95 percent are African American, mostly from low-income families. Nearby Academic Magnet High School is 99 percent white, mostly from middle-income and affluent families. Serving mostly low-income, predominately minority students poses greater challenges to schools. Unstable and transient families make it even more difficult to keep students in school and keep track of those who leave. North Charleston High School is no exception. In the first quarter this year, North Charleston lost about 100 students, Grimm says.
Smart hires are key
An important part of the transformation took place before Grimm walked through the door. It started with hiring the right teachers with the right attitude and temperament to deal with at-risk students with baggage and burdens to carry, Grimm says. He essentially turned over 90 percent of the staff on his watch. Part of the interviewing process involves asking poignant questions to feel out the candidate and determine if they fit in with his mission and goal. Every person he picks, from the data clerk on up, he puts the students in mind, Grimm says. He dismisses what he calls “pat” answers, when candidates talk about impoverished families, learning disabilities, peer pressure or trying to make a difference. He wants teachers who understand the dynamics they face and will work to find solutions, instead of pointing out problems. “If they don’t give me, ‘Sometimes it’s my fault as a teacher, I’m not reaching the students, I’ve not established a relationship with the students, I’ve not given them what they need in order to feel safe and secure in my classroom, I’ve not tried 50 different teaching strategies,’ then I don’t consider them,” he says. “Because, more often than not, it is our fault.” Miasha Wilder knew she was the right person for the job when Grimm hired her out of college three years ago. A guidance counselor with a master’s degree, Wilder grew up in a struggling, low-income household and attended Title I schools where most of the students were eligible for subsidized lunches. “If I can, you can,” are words framed on the wall in her office. “He hired me because I had the energy and passion and the desire to help them become better students and people,” Wilder says.
Teachers who embrace the calling
North Charleston High is a small school in a big building. Down the pristine, gleaming hallways, up the stairs, empty desks rest in dark classrooms, the result of dwindling enrollment over the past decade. Up the stairs on the third floor, a booming voice can be heard at the end of the quiet, empty hallway. Inside a classroom, history teacher Anthony Ludwig scoots back and forth, up and down the aisle between desks, reading a document from the Destruction of Maine, an American battleship that exploded in the Havana harbor in 1898. Pictures of presidents past and present, history makers, world maps, and laminated newspaper articles of historic news events are plastered on the walls. Ludwig pauses at a student’s desk, leans in close to drive home a point in the lesson. “What happened? Who did they talk to?” he asks the student, with a thick Northern accent. He crouches to check an answer, before dashing to the front of the class to continue his lecture. Eyes and ears follow every step. “These students are unbelievably talented, but kids have to be told that,” says Ludwig, a Philadelphia native, who has been at the school four years. He went to college north of Charleston in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He applied at more than 70 schools in 11 states before Mr. Grimm found a rare talent. “He’s one of my best teachers,” Grimm says. “He relates to students, and they are smart enough to see that he cares about them as humans.” Ludwig recalled during his first week of teaching when a student was giving him some grief. He threatened to call the boy’s parents. “He said, ‘Both of my parents are locked up, so what you gonna do?’” Another student had just had a baby with no parent at home to help out. “It’s heartbreaking,” Ludwig says. “It’s tough to get kids to understand the South American War and they didn’t get any sleep the night before. “I do whatever it takes to get it done,” he says. “As long as I’m needed and making a difference, I will be here.”
Grimm gives high marks to his teachers for helping the school shed its nasty reputation. Hallways, once filled with boisterous disruptions, now give way to order and restraint. Eady recollects a different place at a different time a few years ago. His job was to keep the students moving between classes. It was bedlam, Eady says, as the mass of students rushed through the hall, pushing, shoving and fighting. All he could do was helplessly stand against the wall and watch. “For a couple of years, I was around here doing nothing, just standing here watching them tear this school to the ground,” Eady says. “Mr. Grimm came in, got his people in place and turned things around.” Eady says the principal is hands-on, in the hallways and in the classrooms. He doesn’t sit behind a desk giving directions. “The key to being a good leader is that everybody knows that you’re a leader, but you don’t have to announce it,” says Eady. “He jokes and has a good time, but we all know when it’s time for business.” When the bell rings, a gaggle of students hustle from their class for lunch. Grimm grabs his two-way radio and steps out of his dimly light office into the bright lights of the hallway, twirling a keychain that dangled from his faded jeans beneath his tan sport coat. Gregarious and affable, he makes his way through the school’s cavernous cafeteria, shaking hands and slapping high fives like a politician on a stump. He offers a smile, a laugh or a pat on the back for almost every student in his path. He rattles off questions about issues at home as often as he probes for answers about school. “How’s your father?” asks Grimm, stopping a student in the hallway. “Why didn’t you tell me he was in the hospital?” “Rom-u-lus!” says Grimm, bumping fists and laughing with the gangly sophomore. “The coolest name I’ve ever heard!” A crooked smile breaks on Romulus Townes’ face. He relishes the attention and being a part of the school family. “He’s not the type who acts like he runs the school,” says Townes. “He acts like family. I don’t see him as a principal.” Like many of his classmates, Townes hasn’t lived on Easy Street. He arrived in Charleston a few years ago from the rough-and-tumble city life of Atlanta. He’s bounced from place to place, living with one member of the family to the another. He has lived in group homes most of his 15 years, a wounded teenager, searching for someone to trust, some place to call home. “If I need something, I can always count come to them,” Townes says. “They’ve helped me in more ways than one.” It is students like Townes that Grimm has in mind when he looks for a teacher. They need to be ready as a nurse, a counselor, a psychologist and a friend, he says. “I let them know that they are going be more than just a teacher,” Grimm says. “If you’re not comfortable doing that, then don’t come, because you’re not doing me any good. And if you’re not doing me any good, you’re not serving the children.”
‘Prove you care’
In the fourth and final year of his contract, Grimm wants to continue his plan and reach higher goals. He wants a graduation rate of 100 percent. He’s focusing on raising scores on standardized test. The At-Risk rating is not acceptable. Grimm admits that the first couple of years were rough. He had to prove to the students, their parents and the community that he wasn’t just some new guy on the block seeking a paycheck and a pension. “They don’t care unless you prove you care,” Grimm says. “We’re going to get better and better, and hopefully the next person can continue to do good work.”