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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

Numbers Don’t Tell Our Real Story

By Antonio Guilford

The author and three of his students shared this with the crowd that gathered at the State Capitol for the Put Kids First rally in April:

The school where I teach, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, is just about a mile from here, but it’s also a world away from where we stand today. Over 90 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch, we’re 100 percent Title I, and many of our students live in the low-income developments that surround our school. Most of our students are African-American.

Our school is barely accredited based on the scores our students get on the piles of standardized tests they have to take. Virginia considers us nearly failing. But I want to tell you that we do have successes. Our teachers are teaching with passion and our students are learning, despite what the state report card says.

Our teachers work hard to help students overcome situations that are often difficult to escape. People expect less from our students because of their zip code. But when we have students who come to school every day, work hard, and learn—we’re succeeding. We may not be hitting the moving target demanded by the Virginia Department of Education, but when we are making progress we should be celebrated, not punished. The process to remove almost all our teachers has begun. All that’s done is lower the morale in our building for both our teachers and our students. 

As teachers, we should have all of the resources we need to help our kids, but we do not. I am tired of hearing that we can’t get the things we need because the budget has been cut.

We have safety issues: drive-by shootings that leave windows cracked or with bullet holes and a ratio of 1 security guard per 148 students.

We have resource issues: a high percentage of students with special needs and cognitive disabilities but not enough qualified teachers to work with them.

Our safety and economic challenges contribute to disciplinary issues: Many infractions, because of the inflexibility of our school district’s code of conduct, leave teachers with no choice but to respond with serious alternative interventions.

The students at MLK deserve better, but some of them don’t even know it. But, as their teacher, I know it! I can’t stand by while the “soft bigotry of low expectations” continues to lead some of them into the school-to-prison pipeline.

The man for whom our school is named had a dream for the world. Today, we need to dream for many of our students until they learn to dream for themselves. Here’s how three current MLK students feel, in their own words:

“I serve as the President of the Student Government Association and I am more than a test score. I represent my school well and I am proud of the area in which I live. With the right mindset and the proper learning materials, we can score higher on our Virginia SOLs and rank higher in the state reports for middle schools. My school is judged negatively because of its surrounding communities and our test scores. The media blames the teachers and say they’re not teaching. Most of the time they can’t teach because other students won’t allow them to. It hurts to know that’s how my school is known in the state. We want to be known for accomplishments, not disappointments.”  ~Charleston Freeman

“I serve as the Vice President of the Student Government Association. Don’t judge my school as failing, because there are many success stories at MLK. I am one of them. In my three years here I have learned to become a better gentleman, be organized and to use good study habits, which assisted me in maintaining my 3.5 GPA. To me, that’s success. I am an eighth-drader taking ninth grade science courses. That’s success. I am in honors math and represent my school’s student body at all events inside and outside of school with Mr. Guilford.” ~Corvell Poag

“I am a proud student at Martin Luther King Middle School and my safety and learning environment should matter. I have always felt school to be a safe place and a place I can go and feel comfortable, but when the school district is unable to fund the things our building needs to keep my friends and I safe, then we are not keeping children in mind. Putting Kids first is just the start of something that used to be but no longer exist.”  ~Muhammad Brothers

Guilford, a member of the Richmond Education Association, is an exceptional education teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School.


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