They called themselves the bad kids, and few would disagree. They told stories of outbursts and cursing, of pouring rubber cement on a teacher’s chair and urinating out of a second-floor window.
Like “kid” they argued “bad” was a temporary state but one that could have hardened and stuck to them and turned them into words like “criminal,” “drug addict” or “dead.”
Earlier this month they stood before the Johnston County Board of Education arguing for the life of South Campus middle and high schools, which they said had saved theirs.
South Campus is the county’s school of last resorts, an alternative middle and high school under one roof. The school fulfills a state mandate that counties have a site dedicated to educating kids in lieu of long-term suspensions, meaning its student body is largely made up of kids whose behavior has pushed them out of their home school.
Earlier this year Johnston County announced a plan to close South Campus and replace it initially with on-campus sites at three traditional schools spaced out around the county.
Deputy Superintendent Eddie Price said the current South Campus model costs twice as much to educate students as traditional schools and can make its students feel isolated by removing them from their home schools.
He said South Campus might also violate state law by being disproportionately male and minority with a higher percentage of students with mental illness than other schools.
“This is more about addressing an obsolete system and process, not people,” Price said before a public hearing on South Campus’ fate. “We’re compelled to find the most effective and efficient means of educating each and all students. With this obligation, we feel our district needs to undergo a rebooting philosophy while creating a different model.”
At the April 6 public hearing, twice as many people showed up as were allowed in the school district’s meeting room, forcing many students, parents and community leaders to listen in from the hallway. Over two hours, more than a dozen speakers all urged the school board to keep South Campus open.
The speakers ranged from South Campus administrators and teachers to parents of past and current students to members of the county’s judicial and counseling communities. They didn’t tell sugar-coated stories of academic paradise, but messy ones of learning disabilities, violence and poverty. Teachers said the school isn’t anyone’s Plan A, but a safety net, maybe the last some kids will see.
South Campus middle school teacher Glenna Moore said a lot of kids come to the school after classroom struggles led to bad behavior.
“It’s a whole lot easier to be the bad kid in class than risk being called the dumb kid by those (middle school) students,” Moore said.
Mark Wellons said the school system is working on the wrong equation if it’s comparing the costs of South Campus to traditional schools.
“The staff of South Campus, it seems to me, can reach down in the gutter and pull someone up,” Wellons said. “Of course it costs more money. Anybody would know that. You’re taking what can’t make it nowhere else in the county and sending it to them and putting statistics up on your board that the data isn’t right. ‘We’ve got too many males, too many blacks, too many Hispanics.’ They only have what’s sent to them. They have no control over that.”
Three former South Campus students told the school board their stories would have had unhappy endings if not for the school. Today, one is a veteran and med student, one plans to open her own restaurant and catering company, and one is thankful to be alive.
Gabriel Carrillo said he spent seven years in the school, the longest of any student he believes, and is now a Duke medical student after serving a decade in the Navy and earning degrees from N.C. State and Duke.
“I found myself mixed up with the wrong crowd for the wrong reasons,” Carrillo said. “It was a dangerous spiral of descent, one that is all too familiar to kids like me and those who walk those halls at South Campus.”
Carrillo said he used to sleep through classes at South Campus until one day a teacher literally woke him up and humiliated him in class by saying he wouldn’t amount to anything. The next day he said that same teacher greeted him with a smile and said, “You ready to work?”
“I’m here all because South Campus teachers never gave up on me,” Carrillo said. “They held my feet to the fire at every chance they could. They offered me and kids like me a chance. I simply would not be here without South Campus. ... If you close those doors, you’ll close the last hope they have.”
Price said the school system could save $600,000 with its on-campus learning model and that students would have more flexibility for family and work obligations with the ability to take some classes remotely through video classrooms. He said the South Campus middle and high schools costs a combined $2.3 million annually in teacher salaries, with additional costs from having to bus students in from across the county.
School board members made no comments the night of the public hearing, other than to say they would take the evening’s comments into consideration.