Local Students Struggle To Make The Grade

By Jeff Tang

(LOUISVILLE) -- The controversial "No Child Left Behind" policy attempts to hold public schools accountable by requiring them to pass a series of standardized tests each year. Southern Leadership Academy has failed to meet those requirements for the past five years. WAVE 3's Jeff Tang followed the students and teachers throughout the year as they prepared for the tests that could decide their future.

Southern Leadership Academy is one of a handful of schools across the country in the same position. But it's still a place where kids learn to dream big dreams.

Nechelle Walker wants to be a lawyer.

Harley Coghill dreams of playing professional basketball.

Amber Toles hopes to play guitar in a band.

Southern Leadership Academy, a middle school on Taylor Blvd. in Louisville, is a place where educators are inspired. "I love to teach here," says seventh grade science teacher Milita Chilton. "I love the kids here, if I didn't love the kids I wouldn't be here."

It is a place where children's laughter is topped only by that of their own principal -- Anita Jones' laugh is famous around the school.

Yet, somehow, the federal government calls Southern Leadership Academy a failure.

"It is a crisis situation," says Dr. Jones. "Every day, we come in here there is a sense of urgency."

For the fifth year in a row, Southern didn't pass a series of requirements set by the "No Child Left Behind" act. If it doesn't score well enough on standardized tests this year, the school could be taken over by the state, and its teachers could be laid off.

"It is nerve wracking this year. "We know if the scores go down again there are consequences that will occur," Chilton says.

And there will be talk, too, that the school, its teachers and students, simply weren't good enough.

"The kids hear, 'oh, you're the worst school, you have the worst scores," remarks Chilton, adding: "That makes me mad, really mad, when I hear people, because they don't know. They really don't know. I think a lot of people have given up on us."

So from day one, the school set its sights on making the grade. "That's my goal: make those kids know they want to do well on that test," Chilton says.

Because state supervisors have changed the school's curriculum, Chilton must change the way she teaches. Experiments and labs, once a classroom favorite, have taken a backseat this year as the test fast approaches.

"There are a lot of things you can't do that you used to do that is frustrating," says Chilton, who has been teaching at Southern for nine years. "We're really under the gun this year."

Over the next few months, the pressure wears on the students, too.

"I'm almost afraid that we're to the point that when we get to the CATS test, we've tested them so much they won't apply themselves because all we do is test, test, test, test," says Chilton.

The good news: the school's hard work seems to be paying off at just the right time. The students' practice test scores were up substantially, and Chilton believes this years seventh graders have progressed faster than last year's.

"We're reviewing everything we've studied for the cats test they're really putting it to us this year," says Tolles, an eighth grader.

On a Tuesday morning in April, the hallways at Southern -- normally so full of life -- echoed only the sound of concentration.

Eventually, Dr. Jones hopes her school's test scores will prove to everyone what she's always known about her students. "I need for the rest of the folks to know those kids are just as capable as anyone else."

And now Southern Leadership Academy must wait five months to show that they are good enough, regardless of past test scores.

"Come September we'll get into celebration mode," says Jones with an ear-to-ear smile. "We know we're gonna make those points." Then came the famous laugh.

No matter what the outcome on the CATS tests, Dr. Jones says the district currently has no plans to close the school or lay off teachers. However, if the school does fail for a sixth year, a plan has been drafted that would increase the amount of state supervision over teachers and administrators.

Online Reporter: Jeff Tang

Online Producer: Michael Dever