Keep an eye on Castle Heights Middle School.
It is a school, said South Carolina Middle School Association Director Linda Allen, that is striving to reach all students and pushing them to achieve.
The result is that the Rock Hill school has been named a 2011 School to Watch.
Since the national program came to South Carolina in 2005, 11 of the state's 250 middle schools have earned a Schools to Watch award.
In January, six education experts spent two days evaluating Castle Heights - interviewing staff, students and parents, touring the campus, studying achievement data, and visiting every class twice.
Principal Kelly Kane and her staff said the award validates an approach they have been refining for years.
"The idea is you're always pushing," Kane said. "You're trying to be as excellent as possible in as many areas as possible. It's not easy. We have to set up a program that's going to serve middle school kids, because they're fun and they're weird. They're not elementary and they're not high school. We have to set up a program just for them."
Castle Heights aims to engage the adolescent mind and make students feel comfortable during a time in life that can be scary and confusing.
Several times a year, character education lessons focus on anti-bullying skills, how to be a good friend and setting goals. Before school, students can play sports, work in computer labs or take part in activities.
Each grade has a guidance counselor and an assistant principal who move from sixth to eighth grade with the students. That results in familiarity and trust, said Assistant Principal Richard Ball.
"Our goal is that every child in this building has someone to turn to if they need someone," Instructional Coach Becky Strickland said.
Several things stood out to examiners:
"There are lots of opportunities for students to be successful," Allen said.
Sixth-graders, for instance, get a taste of all elective classes, including band, strings, chorus, art, home arts, Spanish and physical education. They spend six weeks in each elective before moving on.
The program exposes underprivileged students to activities they might not otherwise have a chance to try, Strickland said. Some discover talents. Sixth-graders with an interest in chorus, band or strings can choose to spend longer in one of those electives.
During daily enrichment periods teachers help students improve specific skills. Struggling students get extra help while more advanced students get pushed harder.
When Kaniya Potts fell behind in her sixth-grade advanced math class, she was tutored. Since Kaniya is strong in language arts, she was asked to help another student struggling in that subject.
"Not only did it boost her self-esteem," her mother Bertha Potts said, "the approach that they took got her where she needed to be at a quicker pace."
Teachers collaborate across subjects and grades.
They meet several times a week to compare notes, plan lessons and tests. They analyze student work and design ways to help those struggling.
"If we find something that was effective, we'll share it with each other," eighth-grade math teacher Rebecca Oliver said. "We are not afraid to try new things."
The eighth-grade math teachers are so in sync that when one is absent from school, the other teachers bring the absent teacher's students into their lessons.
"The kids do not miss instruction this way," math teacher Milan Klipa said. "That's the plus of it all."
Special needs students aren't left out.
While it's common for students with disabilities to attend separate classes, Castle Heights students with special needs attend English class like any other student, only that class has a second teacher who gives them extra attention. The practice is called co-teaching.
The program benefits every student, Assistant Principal Carie Hucks said, because co-teachers work with any student who needs help. Sometimes the classroom teacher and co-teacher tag team lessons, with one teacher at the front of the room trading comments with the other teacher who maneuvers among the desks.
"It's helpful," seventh-grader Armani Grier-Evans said. "When you write notes, they explain it to you and show you how to do it. They're influencing me to be a teacher."
Special needs students' standardized test scores have been rising. Between 2009 and 2010 seventh-graders with disabilities improved in every area tested, according to state records.
Some gains were dramatic. In 2009, 25 percent of disabled seventh-graders passed the state English test. The following year, 50 percent passed.
"There's wide open acceptance of everybody and a determination that everyone is going to do well," Kane said. "I don't know to the decimal what we have of this, that and the other - ethnic, special ed, free and reduced lunch, but I don't care. We're here to serve all kids."
More than 800 students attend Castle Heights, three miles southeast of downtown.
In three years, a team will return to the school to see if the momentum is still going and consider renewing Castle Height's Schools to Watch designation.
That could be a challenge.
In the last two years, the school has lost a drama teacher, a special needs teacher, a career counselor and four core teachers because of budget cuts. More cuts are possible.
Kane said she's concerned, but not daunted.
"The challenge is to keep being clever," she said.
She points to how the staff reacted to losing the drama teacher, which eliminated the course.
The teachers took the theater sets, costumes and accessories and created a drama room that English teachers use for lessons on Shakespeare and other theater.
It's not the same as having a drama class, Kane said. But, "if you're not getting something done one way, well, we'll do it another way."
Goldie McGee wasn't sure what to think when her daughter Brianna, a seventh-grader, talked about how much fun she had at school.
"She has tons of silly, fun stories from class," McGee said. "At first I was shocked. I thought they were not even working." But then she saw how well Brianna did academically. The silly stories triggered learning, McGee said.
"Our teachers are very good at having fun and doing work at the same time," she said. "I can really see those teachers reaching that age group."
Schools to watch
South Carolina is one of 19 states in the Schools to Watch network, sponsored by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. The organization aims to improve middle school education nationwide.
With guidance from the National Forum, each state runs its own Schools to Watch program.
The program wants schools to:
Challenge all students to use their minds well.
Be sensitive to the developmental challenges of early adolescence.
Be democratic and fair, providing every student with high-quality teachers, resources and supports.
Schools can apply annually to be considered for an award. Evaluators read the applications and decide whether to send a team of observers.
There's no guarantee of a winner, said Phyllis Pendarvis, an S.C. Schools to Watch committee member. If no school rises to expectations, then none is named. Castle Heights is one of five South Carolina middle schools to receive the award this year, the most schools named in a year since the program came to the state. Generally six to nine schools apply every year.