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A Culture of Caring: Education the MLK Way

How do you get kids from a historically “hard” neighborhood to care about education? You care about them. That leads to an environment where every student knows they’re safe to be themselves and that’s when learning happens. That’s the kind of culture the leadership team at Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College (MLK) has built over the past three years, and continues to build every day.

When we recently visited MLK to talk with Principal Kimberly Grayson and her two deans of students, Jason Murdock and Derek Hawkins, it was easy to see that their approach to education goes beyond the classroom and always considers the Whole Child.

“We treat these children like they’re our very own, encouraging the students all the time,” said Hawkins when asked why they have such great relationships with the kids. It’s something all three leaders stress as a core part of their philosophy. The proof is plastered on the walls of Grayson’s office in the form of student photos. One particularly fond memory sits prominently on her bookshelf—it’s a picture of a young man they call Chucco.

Chucco isn’t his real name, but that’s what he’s known as in his neighborhood. The MLK graduate grew up in a home where gang life was the only life. Outside of MLK, he had to put on the gang persona just to get by, but he was safe to be himself and discover his passions while at school. “We allowed Chucco to be Chucco, but we had an agreement that there was no gang stuff here,” said Hawkins. “We were able to bring something out of him that he had all the time but was afraid to show. He was a great artist, so he designed some of our athletic and club shirts, and he still comes by today.” In fact, he had recently stopped by to show off his new low-rider.

During our walk around the school, the genuine care for students showed true. Students regularly approached the school leaders to trade high fives and fist bumps, and fill them in on the latest family happenings. Those small displays of trust matter. “If you don’t have the culture built, instruction won’t happen anyway,” explained Grayson.

On top of truly caring about the kids, MLK offers programs that address students’ needs outside of the classroom so they can be successful in the classroom. The school’s “52 to 80” program aims to help young men learn to be young professionals. The school looks first to restorative justice techniques to solve behavioral issues, rather than handing out harsh punishments that could derail a student’s learning and turn a childhood mistake into a big life problem. “Some of these kids have tough, tough lives,” Hawkins reminds, “and, making mistakes is part of growing.”

Those are just a couple examples of what they offer students, but it doesn’t stop with the kids. “The other thing is to include our parents and community,” said Murdock. He explained how the staff does porch visits with parents and checks in with local businesses before school starts in order to build a sense of community with the school’s neighbors. Their Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) program gives fathers an opportunity to volunteer at the school and role model for the kids. “It doesn’t matter who they are–anywhere from a doctor to someone working at a fast food restaurant–that day, they’re a superstar,” he said.

All of this genuine care and innovative thinking is leading to results. The current graduation rate at the early college is 95.5 percent (compared to 64.8 percent districtwide) and the suspension rate is below 3 percent. That’s a big change for a school with historically low achievement, and it’s something the students, teachers and leaders are all very proud of.

If you want to see what a school looks like when kids feel safe, supported and challenged, visit MLK. When you walk through the doors, you’ll feel a sense of community, you’ll truly believe that the young scholars walking the halls will be the leaders of tomorrow, and you’ll know it’s a place where each and every child is educated as a Whole Child.