DURHAM — Frankee Bullocks time at Lowes Grove Middle School in Durham gave her an academic support group of mentors she admired, she said, and on Saturday the Fidelity Investments operations analyst returned to her alma mater to pay her experience forward.
Bullock, who attended the sixth- through eighth-grade school from 1992 to 1995, joined about 200 volunteers as they restored a historic schoolhouse on Lowes Grove grounds with a fresh coat of bright red paint, pulled weeds and built new track bleachers. Fidelity employees, employee family members, and a handful of teachers and students took part in the makeover project, which is in its third year.
When you are in a healthy, beautiful environment, it changes how you feel, Bullock said. I was excited to get involved. The work that we have done has made an improvement since I went here.
Fidelity Investments has similar school improvement sites in each of its 10 national regions, said Leslie Walden, public affairs director for Fidelitys North Carolina region. Lowes Grove Middle was chosen as the companys North Carolina partner because it is near Fidelitys Research Triangle Park offices, she said, and because of its need.
A school on the rise
When Principal Kathy Kirkpatrick came to Lowes Grove Middle five years ago, the school was grappling with poor test scores, gang violence and limited resources but with the help of Fidelity and other community groups, thats changing.
Lowes Grove receives financial assistance because it has a high number or percentage of poor children. Of the schools 640 students in 2010-2011, 75 percent were eligible for free lunches, and an additional 1.6 percent eligible for reduced-price lunches, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.
When you work in a school thats high-needs like ours, there is not a lot of physical and monetary support from parents, Kirkpatrick said, explaining that many of the students families are living paycheck to paycheck. We are a school thats on the move. Seeing that 250 people care, seeing their school in the news in a positive way, that makes a difference.
Three years ago, Fidelity donated 100 computers to the school, which had 26 at the time, and last year, every student at the school was provided with an iPad during school hours through a federal Race to the Top grant, Kirkpatrick said. Groups including the Durham Eagles and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also have engaged students through events and outreach in recent years, and she said those and other efforts have had a visible impact.
The number of Lowes Grove students who tested at or above grade level rose to 41 percent in 2010-2011 from 28 percent when Kirkpatrick started in 2007, according to N.C. School Report Card data. Math has seen even better improvements, climbing to about 66 percent passing scores from 35 percent.
Those improvements beat those seen in the district and state they mark a 71 percent composite improvement, compared with a 29 percent improvement in the district and about 20 percent for the state. Scores still lag behind state averages by nearly 30 percentage points in reading and 17 in math, though. Events like Saturdays are crucial to inspire students and continue improvement, Kirkpatrick said.
Improving Lowes Grove
M.J. Muhammad, a sixth-grader at Lowes Grove and one of a handful of student volunteers who attended Saturdays work day, plans to play football for the school next year and he spent his Saturday helping build the bleachers where fans will one day sit to cheer him on.
Last week on Wednesday, we had a game and people had to sit on the floor, he said. I didnt think that was nice, or cool. We really needed bleachers and the track needed to be cleaned.
Muhammad hopes to one day attend N.C. Central University or UNC-Chapel Hill, take the GRE and obtain a masters in science or engineering, plans he says he settled on in fourth grade. He said he was proud to make Lowes Grove look better, because he thinks it improves the schools environment.
Clean, healthy school environments lead to better student performance, according to an archived information topic page on the U.S. Department of Education website. Michael du Laney, a sixth-grade social studies teacher who has participated in the Fidelity event each of the past three years, said he has seen the makeovers improvements improve student experiences.
Volunteers previously built an outdoor amphitheater that his classes use regularly, he said, and his room looks out on a collection of wooden benches and planters called a reading garden that volunteers built Saturday.
Having a space like that where the kids arent stuck in the classroom is great, he said. This is their school, and they can be proud that they go here.