Is a Top School Forcing Out Low-Performing Students?

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Davis Turner for TIME

Jasmine Boulware was forced to leave Myers Park High School in February 2005 because the school did not believe she was performing well. She was subsequently told that she could not return.

Things were not going well for Jasmine Boulware during her first year at prestigious Myers Park High School in Charlotte, N.C. The 16-year-old freshman had racked up several disciplinary suspensions, mainly for disruptive behavior. So when the assistant principal called her into his office in February, 2005, she anticipated another reprimand. Instead, she was told that her days at Myers Park were over. "He said I wasn't learning anything, wasn't going to learn anything and only wanted to hang out with my friends," Jasmine recalls. "He told me there was no place for students like me at Myers Park." Jasmine's mother, Kelly Kennedy, says she reluctantly allowed her daughter to withdraw, but only after being told that Jasmine could return to Myers Park in the fall.

But when Jasmine tried to re-enroll the following September, she was turned away, according to her mother. Kennedy pleaded her daughter's case to then-principal Bill Anderson but says he was unmoved, citing the teenager's past disciplinary problems and excessive absenteeism. It was only when Kennedy went directly to the Charlotte Mecklenburg district office that she learned the school had no legal basis to exclude Jasmine. Suspecting a pattern of forcing out minority students, Kennedy told school district officials that she intended to refer the matter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congressional Black Caucus. Jasmine was back in school within the week.

Jasmine is not the only struggling student who claims to have been pushed out or encouraged to leave Myers Park High. Another Myers Park mother, Susan Arnette, claims when she and her daughter Brianna Govan were living in a homeless shelter, Brianna was frequently late or absent. Anderson forced her to leave school, saying she was "not Myers Park material." Documents obtained by TIME and interviews with former students, parents and school employees strongly suggest that Myers Park had an unofficial policy of ridding itself of underperforming students during Anderson's tenure from 2002 to 2005 and perhaps beyond, by using tactics including listing dropouts as out-of-state transfers. The school district is currently investigating the matter. Anderson did not respond to requests for an interview, but denied any wrongdoing in an e-mail: "My philosophy was to make all decisions in the best interests of the students we served." Anderson now consults to the school district and heads a dropout prevention program — an ironic choice, if the allegations prove to be correct.

With expansive tree-lined streets and stately million-dollar homes, Myers Park is one of Charlotte's most desirable addresses. Its superb high school, which offers the International Baccalaureate program and a rich menu of Advanced Placement classes, is a big part of its appeal. The school serves 3,000 students, 66% of them white, 22% black and 4% hispanic. North Carolina designated it a School of Distinction; Lloyd Wimberley, who headed the school from 1996 to 2002, was named North Carolina Principal of the Year in 2002; and the school has consistently ranked in the top 20 on Newsweek magazine's list of best high schools in the country.

However, like many other high-flying schools with a substantial minority and low-income population, Myers Park has been under increasing pressure to close the achievement gap between students that are white and black, rich and poor. In 2006, only 51% of its black students performed at levels III/IV — proficient and above — on state exams, compared with 90% of white. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools that fail to close such a gap are declared "failing schools" — no matter how well the majority are doing — and can face a loss of federal Title 1 funding for low-income students.

In the current era of school accountability, there are other pressures to keep scores uniformly high. State test scores are routinely published in news accounts and have a considerable influence on local property values. In addition, many states and cities offer financial incentives for teachers and principals at schools that score high. "Principals are desperate to provide good news and reassure their communities that they are in good shape," says former principal Wimberley.

In this atmosphere, there's a big incentive for schools to artificially inflate their achievement data. Earlier this year, an investigation found that scores on state tests at the elite Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, N.J., had been manipulated. Investigators concluded that there was "enormous pressure" from the superintendent on down "to generate high test scores."

North Carolina and Charlotte offer monetary incentives of up to $1500 to teachers and even larger bonuses for principals whose schools meet or exceed certain performance criteria. Among those criteria are high school graduation rates, a factor that should, in theory, encourage schools to keep kids in school, not push underachievers out. But school documents obtained by TIME suggest that Myers Park found a way around this: reporting that students who had dropped out had instead transferred out of the district.

Jasmine Boulware, for instance, was listed as an out-of-state transfer — even though her two siblings still attended the high school. At least two dozen students officially listed as transfers were found by TIME to still be living in the district. Among them was Andrew Dreher, a white student who voluntarily dropped out in 10th grade, never left Charlotte and is currently working at a fast food restaurant.

The school district is investigating whether the inaccurate records reflect a pattern of deception or sloppy paperwork. "We have uncovered some legitimate questions as to how some information has been handled," says Nora Carr, chief communications officer for the district.

A former Myers Park counselor, who asked not to be identified, says that during Anderson's three-year tenure at the school, it was an open secret that underperforming and/or problem students were pressured to leave or told they could not return after disciplinary suspensions. "We all saw the push-out going on," she recalls. "It was almost a joke. In front of the faculty of 150, Anderson would say 'get your attendances in. If the students have excessive absences, we can get rid of them and send them to the school of far, far away.'" The school of far, far away, she explains, was a euphemism for getting rid of problem students.

"This is an easy way to deal with a difficult problem," says Wimberley, who became a district assistant superintendent after leaving Myers Park. "They want to get certain kids out because if they're struggling or not attending class, they're going to score low on the tests and blow their whole average." In the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District, he notes, "the principal's evaluation is heavily weighted to student performance and achievement."

Anderson denies both the charge and the alleged motivation: "To suggest that my staff and I conspired to push students out of school to ensure higher test scores is a theory that is without merit," he said in an e-mail. "As a school community Myers Park works diligently to help all students succeed."

That may be, but Lloyd Wimberley sees a sad irony in the way current national pressures to close achievement gaps can actually work against the neediest students. "No Child Left Behind has resulted in increased resentment toward at-risk and exceptional-needs kids," he says. "It's sad that legislation intended to improve the outcome for these kids is backfiring."

Jasmine Boulware, now 18, appears to be one of those kids. Six weeks after returning to Myers Park in September 2005, she had fallen hopelessly behind. Frustrated and unable to get the kind of help she needed, she voluntarily dropped out and became pregnant shortly thereafter. "I want to get my GED or something, but I don't know how to go about it," she says. In the meantime, Jasmine spends her days in her mom's apartment, watching television, chatting on the phone with friends and caring for her infant daughter, Kaiyaree.