Troubled Miami-Dade students finding success amid suspensions

Maxie Graham stood in a roomful of suspended students, kids in trouble for any number of things — fighting, talking back, bullying.

Graham — still built like the football lineman he once was and boasting a voice made for locker room speeches — seemed exactly the sort of teacher to persuade them to get back on track. He started with asking them all to memorize a poem.

“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul,” he boomed, quoting the last lines of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus.

It was a sampling of how the Miami-Dade County school system plans to meet its ambitious goal of eliminating out-of-school suspensions. It used to be that suspended students essentially got a vacation: they were sent home for weeks at a time, where they may be left unsupervised and often fell behind in their classwork.

This year, every student who gets suspended will be sent to an off-campus classroom like Graham’s. They’re called Success Centers, and after a pilot program last year, the school district has doubled the number of centers around the county to 10. It’s now mandatory for suspended students to attend.

The recidivism rate among students sent to the centers last year is less than one percent.

The results so far are promising. The recidivism rate among students sent to the centers last year is less than 1 percent. Broward County, which launched a similar program a few years ago, has also shown encouraging results.

School suspensions rarely show much success in changing student behavior. Quite the opposite: Being suspended from school — even just once — has been shown to lead to higher dropout rates and students are less likely to enroll in college.

The approach of the success center isn’t just on academics. There is more emphasis on values and teaching positive behaviors, combined with one-on-one instruction with hand-picked teachers like Graham.

“It’s about building character,” Graham said. “Once the kid gets character built in them, they will move to be more responsible.”

After playing football in college at Western Illinois, Graham, an All-American defensive tackle, tried out for the Chicago Bears in 1992. He didn’t make the team, but played briefly for the Tampa Bay Storm arena football team before getting cut.

Graham returned to home to Opa-locka, where his high school football coach got him a gig as a substitute teacher at North Miami Middle. He’s been in the classroom ever since — about 20 years.

He works hand-in-hand with two other teachers who float around the room, homing in on the kids who they think will most benefit from their approach.

Graham is firm but optimistic, giving pep talks all day. Another teacher, Jacqueline Merkerson, is equally firm but also patient and gravitates toward the girls. Teacher Ermine Pryce silently swoops to each student’s side, speaking in a voice so soft the kids have to lean in to listen.

“I applaud the instructors here because they really treat them with respect,” said Chantal Osborne, a district executive director. “They really try to dig deep.”

The day begins with breakfast. Then the students make their way to a classroom plastered with motivational posters. Written on the board is the reflection of the day. A quote from Frederick Douglass reads: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

They all scribble down their thoughts about the quote before having a group discussion.

“I know you all are going through some things and you all need to get better,” Merkerson begins. “How can you make better choices to better your life?”

These kinds of talks will permeate the whole school day, along with role-playing exercises designed to let kids step back from tense situations and think about constructive ways to respond. The students will fill out worksheets full of examples of conflicts kids typically face in school, and they’re asked to come up with ways they can react without getting into further trouble.

“It’s a balance. We’re trying to nurture and provide comfort. But let’s be honest: We don’t want them to come back,” said Luis Diaz, who heads the Success Centers for the Miami-Dade County school district.

The classes are small. At least two teachers provide plenty of one-on-one instruction and make sure students keep up with their classwork. A cast of counselors constantly meets with students to get to the root of their issues and even refer families to community agencies for more help.

“A lot of these kids are just born into situations that aren’t comparable to other kids,” Diaz said. “We’re here to help.”

“I believe that he got a good experience out of this, and I believe that it helped him where he doesn’t want to go to the program or get in trouble.”

Annette Johnson, parent

Annette Johnson’s son was sent to a Success Center this year after he was suspended for fighting at Norland Senior High. She was sold on the program as soon as she dropped off her son and was greeted by site coordinator Jesse Walker.

“I love his attitude. I felt like they have the right person over the kids,” Johnson said.

She isn’t sure what happened while her son was there. But after his first day, Johnson said her son, usually not one for homework, had a new-found motivation.

“That first day, when he came to the house he just started doing homework. And it was like, for almost two hours,” Johnson said. “I believe that he got a good experience out of this, and I believe that it helped him where he doesn’t want to go to the program or get in trouble.”

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga