By Katie Herrera
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Wilkerson Middle School has been recognized by the Alabama Department of Education as a "Torchbearer School" for the second year in a row. Governor Bob Riley started the program in 2004 to reward schools that are high-poverty but also high-performing.
Wilkerson Middle was one of six schools chosen across the state for the 2010 award, and it's the only one from the Birmingham area. Principal Constance Burnes says her secret is finding unique ways to motivate the students to want to learn.
"I was actually ready to come back to school, because I missed all my teachers and stuff," said Tavariz Brown, a 7th grader.
Brown's attitude is not always the attitude of students heading back to school after summer break. But at Wilkerson, it is common.
The students at Wilkerson are eager to learn. Raised hands and open ears are found in every classroom. Burnes believes it's because the students have a say in how they learn.
"You work with the students to find out ‘What do you like to do? How do you like to learn? What do you suggest we do at school in order to get you excited and motivated about learning?' So we involve the teacher and the student here at school," explained Burnes.
For many of the students, extracurricular activities play a big role in motivation at Wilkerson. There are drama and dance classes, clubs, an outdoor classroom and a game room!
"With students you just can't let them come to school every day and just go to class, sit down, do a lesson and go home. When you bring in extracurricular activities or extra programs, I think it gives them a chance to venture out, see what's going on and involve the student," said Burnes.
In one club, Growing Kings, a community member comes in to work with students on respect and aspirations. For 7th grader Cedric Howard, he said, "I changed my behavior, and I started making better grades." Howard is now an A-B Honor Roll student.
The outdoor classroom is an addition, actually built by students. Brown says that's his favorite spot. "We have a weather station, where we can study the weather. We have a reading station, where we can just go outside and read. And we have a pond, where we're trying to do a working ecosystem with all the animals. So we can attract dragonflies and frogs and turtles," said Brown.
But for most students, the top-of-the-line game room is the top motivation. Students can earn a trip to the game room by scoring high on tests or behaving in the classroom. It's packed with everything from a Play Station 3, to PACMAN, to airhockey.
"It makes me want to get 4's on my tests a lot. So when testing time comes, I know I have to study a lot when I go home," said 7th grader Circe Baskin.
But whatever the motivation, it's working. To qualify for the Torchbearer award, 80% of students must score Level III or Level IV on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test. And 65% of students must score 5-9 on Stanford 10 reading and math tests.
"That's our goal here, is to make sure that when our students go out, they can compete with anybody," said Burnes.
Burnes says the school is constantly looking for new ways to motivate the students. The money from Wilkerson's 2009 Torchbearer award paid for the game room and outdoor classroom.
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