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The difference a new school and higher expectations can make

• Mary Laura Bragg

I taught a student at a Catholic high school – let’s call him James – who transferred in his junior year from the worst public high school in the district, using a corporate tax credit scholarship. His mom was single and worked for the state. She was worried to no end that James was heading down the wrong path both academically and socially.

After the first week, I saw her at school turning in some paperwork, and I asked her how James was doing. She said, “James is angry at me, but I’m doing great. I can’t believe you knew who I was, and took the time to ask me about my son.”

James wasn’t a good student. He didn’t take notes, didn’t read, and didn’t write well at all. He had very limited vocabulary. He was in my first period class, and was routinely late. He couldn’t believe that I made him sign in as tardy. He couldn’t believe I reported him absent when he skipped class. He was well behaved in class, and had great manners, but he told me that at his old school, he spent all day walking the halls.

He was a good football player – and couldn’t believe it when the athletic director put him on probation because he didn’t keep his grades up, causing him to miss a game. His mom made him attend the game and watch from the stands. She waved me over to sit with them, and told me that she was so grateful that we actually had rules – and enforced them. She said that in three years of high school she had never seen James bring books home until that year. She got tears in her eyes and said, “He hates me now, but he will love me for this later.”

The week before semester exams, James stayed after class and said, “Mrs. Bragg, is the school serious about giving exams next week? Because I have no idea how to study for an exam. I’ve never had to take one before.” I said that surely he had taken at least two exams in every class for the last three years. He said, “Nope, we just showed up at the right time and the teacher just ended up giving us whatever grade we had in the class.” I loved this kid – really loved him. He was clever, gave me lessons in slang (“Word of the day time, Mrs. Bragg!”), and was as smart as any kid in the class. But no one had ever told him that. So it was very, very hard for me to tell him that he would be taking an exam, and he would struggle with it. But I did, and I told him that I would stay after school with him every day to help him prepare for that exam. He was scared to death. He failed the exam.

During the last week of school that May, his mom was on campus, helping with a bake sale for the junior class prom. She said to me, “you know, I’ve spent more time at this school in 9 months than I ever spent at the other school in two years. I am so grateful for the faculty here. You care, you call and email me when you have concerns. Y’all have saved my son.”

James is now in college.

Anyone who says that choices for parents are bad for the education system should meet James’ mom. She’ll set you straight.

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at