Perhaps the secret to Dutchman Creek Middle School’s success lies in an observation that a team of evaluators made while visiting the campus this fall: “Students seemed really happy to be at that school.”
Or maybe it’s the Rock Hill middle school’s faculty, staff and families, who take an approach of all hands on deck.
It’s both and more, according to those evaluators, who on Tuesday named Dutchman Creek a School to Watch. The national award is given to middle schools that not only foster academic achievement, but create a support system for children at a time when peer pressure, confusion and hormones make life awkward.
“Their school motto is customer service,” said Linda Allen, executive director of the S.C. Middle School Association and S.C. Schools to Watch Program. “That was just evident in everything we saw. The care and love they have for the students is evident throughout the school. You walk in and just get a good feeling about what is going on there.”
The team of evaluators interviewed staff, students and parents. They toured the campus, studied achievement data and visited every class at least twice. Allen dropped by Dutchman Creek on Tuesday to give Principal Norris Williams the news.
“I’ve been on cloud nine today,” Williams said.
South Middle in Lancaster also was named a School to Watch on Tuesday and Indian Land Middle, which won the award in 2010, was re-designated.
That brings the number of South Carolina Schools to Watch to 13.
Castle Heights Middle in Rock Hill won in 2011.
The award was created by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.
Williams has been principal at Dutchman Creek since it opened in 2008.
The school’s rating on the annual state report card has in that time jumped from Average to Excellent, the highest level, in both categories, which are measured by student test scores. The school has been rated double-excellent for the last two years.
Principals who see similar success might attribute it to a bevy of tutoring programs and study initiatives.
Williams is different.
“We take that philosophy that some people take at theme parks,” he said.
That means air hockey tables and arcade basketball hoops in the atrium, video games in the commons area, dress-up days with silly outfits and Santa Claus hats – “anything that will get a student to say, ‘You know what, I want to go to school,’” Williams said.
Teachers work in teams, planning lessons and sharing strategies. Parents are kept in the loop with daily emails detailing the work their children are assigned and what school events are coming up.
“We finally caught on to the fact that kids don’t take things home or talk to their parents,” Williams said.
There are a variety of activities on campus, including Club 212 for boys and Club 180 for girls. Both focus on developing positive character traits and life skills. Guest speakers come in to share advice and experiences with the clubs. A banker this fall taught the 212 boys about financial literacy.
On Fridays, a platoon of volunteer dads joins the school’s 23 male teachers and spread out across campus to lead character lessons.
“Our vision was to have a male role model in every one of our classes on Fridays,” Williams said.
Dutchman Creek students each get a Gator Card with the school’s alligator mascot on it. It works like a credit card, but instead of money, students earn credit for good grades. Those credits buy them gaming time on Nintendo Wiis in the commons area.
They can also cash the credits in for free admission to sporting and school events, lunch with the principal and academic achievement parties.
“We work very hard to keep our faculty, students and families very happy,” Williams said. “When they’re happy, it’s not hard to get them to do extra stuff at school.”
After Williams announced the award to students and teachers Tuesday, a boy asked him how big a deal it is to be a School to Watch.
“I said, ‘This is the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for middle schools,’” Williams said.
The boy replied: “That’s really big.”
Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072