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A Dream, Hard Work, and Belief

by Carl Hoffman

It's "Roundup" time at the David School in Floyd County, Kentucky. Fifty high school students sit around picnic tables in the small wood-paneled room of a dilapidated former coal company commissary.

"We've got two more days of school [before summer vacation]," announces principal Marty Green. "We need to stay focused. And we need to recognize a few folks. Two of our teachers are moving on next year, and I'll miss them greatly. They've helped us be better. They've sacrificed a lot because they could be making more money elsewhere. But they share a commitment that it doesn't matter what a building looks like, but what it does. It's not what you are, but what you do. So I want to award them 'Pride' T-shirts."

Green hands out two T-shirts with "David Pride" written across the front, and the room erupts with cheering and clapping.

"Okay," continues Green, "our thought for the day is: 'We're proud of our school and it's getting better.' We have gotten better this year. So let's go learn something!"

Every morning of every school day Green pumps them up just like that, part of the private, nonprofit David School's relentless push to motivate kids who either have dropped out or were in danger of dropping out from their public high schools in this rugged part of eastern Kentucky, a state that ranks 50th in adult literacy nationwide. Operating with a shoestring budget ("Always a dollar short and a day late," jokes David's founder and executive director, Danny Greene) and a cadre of highly committed teachers and volunteers, the David School has been chipping away for 22 years at a dropout rate that hovers at 50 percent in Floyd County. "These kids have been labeled as no-counts," says Green, when the students have filed off to class. "But we think they're the brightest kids around. We just have to make them believe that. When they do, the sky's the limit. They excel."

Excel they do. James Johnson was nearly sixteen when he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to care for his ailing grandmother. He thought he'd never go back. Some two years later he showed up at the David School. He could barely read. Now he is an 18-year-old freshman, an algebra whiz who can hardly get enough. "The work is hard, but I love it," he says.

When 16-year-old Jonathan Shepherd enrolled, he could barely read and write. "I hated high school, and I only went two days a week," he says. In one year the David School's reading specialist, Sister Mary Myron Stork, a gentle, gray-haired nun who has volunteered at the school for 10 years, has brought his reading up four levels. "I love Mary Myron," says Shepherd. "She is a great teacher."

"I wouldn't trade anything for my memories of the David School," says Cynthia Whitaker, who graduated in January 1996. After floundering at her high school, Whitaker "got back on track" at the David School and just completed her first semester at Prestonsburg Community College, studying premed. "The school gave me a chance and helped me work toward my goals," she says.

Like most high school students, David's 50 students in grades nine through 12 take classes in math, English, science, and social studies. But the similarities end there. The David School combines academic programs with vocational education in an environment meant to nurture and support its students, 95 percent of whom live below the poverty line and many of whom have learning disabilities. "We're not a simple alternative to public education," says Danny Greene. "We're for those kids who have dropped out and don't have the resources to get a second chance anywhere else."

No Greater Purpose

ARC alternate Kevin Goldsmith, director of intergovernmental relations for Kentucky's Office of the Governor, agrees. "The David School works to provide at-risk students in Appalachia the opportunity to grow and prosper along with their peers in other regions. I can't think of a greater purpose than to give them a chance to succeed."

All students are enrolled in job-specific classes in six areas: service-station management and basic auto mechanics, classes in which take place at the David-owned Ashland service station; carpentry; apartment maintenance; computer training; and child care. Hands-on learning is emphasized; grades and scores are not. But that doesn't mean performance doesn't matter. Indeed, the opposite is true: students are not allowed to progress from one subject to another until they prove their mastery of it. "Our students take English, math, science—that's all the same," says Marty Green, "but the way we present the material is different. Instead of getting caught up in numbers, we ask, 'What do you know and how well can you show it?' "

So conscious is the David School of the importance of not just having an education, but being able to do something with it after graduation, that it has recently instituted what it calls the Success Bound program into its curriculum, with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Students are required to meet with their teachers and counselors and set goals—every ten days, every month, every semester. Then they are bombarded with opportunities, from job fairs to visits from representatives of colleges. "Every student is in the Success Bound program," says Green. "Every student who walks into the building will be successful. That belief is integrated throughout every single day. They have to tell us what they are going to do, and do it."

In its relentless search for success the school has instituted the rule that students may not get their diplomas until they can prove that they either have a well-paying job lined up or are enrolled in college or vocational training. "You can't be self-reliant on $6 an hour," says Green, "and too many students would graduate and then wander; they'd find themselves on welfare and we'd feel like we failed. Now, they may drop out after a few weeks of college, and we can't do anything about that. But at least they will have been accountable for a brief period in their lives."

When students enroll, their parents make a commitment to be involved in school activities. Students who are behind in math and reading take remedial classes, often one-on-one with a teacher. No classes have more than ten students. Between 8:30 a.m., when they walk in the door, and 3:00 p.m., when they leave, students are bombarded with encouragement, praise, and help by the staff, which meets to discuss, in depth, the progress of ten students every week. "Here, the teachers are like your family," says Alicia Houston, a 16-year-old sophomore from nearby Prestonsburg. "If we need help we can always count on someone. In my old school I made bad grades, and I never even failed. Here, I don't even goof off. If I don't know how to do something I'll stay after school or they'll come to my house. We'll get it done one way or another."

Teachers Never Quit

"At my old school all we did was sit in our chairs and take up space," says Jeffrey Terry, a 16-year-old freshman who admits to compiling a slew of Ds and Fs in his public high school. "If you didn't understand what the teacher explained, then you'd just get left behind. Here the teachers got me pumped again. They never quit about anything. If a student falls behind, they help him. Here my grades just shot up; it's amazing what the school has done for me in so little time."

"This is the most intensive teaching that anyone can do," admits shop teacher Tom Bormes, a retired Air Force colonial and ex-fighter pilot who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. "I leave here every night completely exhausted."

The David School's motivating force is Danny Greene, a New Yorker who came to the area during his college spring break in 1968. Others did their time, burned out, or went home, but not Danny Greene. "I was here for two weeks, and it was an awakening," he says. That fall he left Fordham University, enrolled in Prestonsburg Community College, and began working with a priest providing emergency food and clothing to local people in need. They started a youth program aimed at keeping kids in school, but soon conceded that the program's benefits were too temporary. Greene returned to New York, where he spent a year and a half looking at vocational programs and hustling money. "What really caught my eye," he remembers, "was a school outside Harlem that had bought a gas station. And back in David, Kentucky, there was this abandoned property with a service station."

In 1973 Greene and two volunteers returned to Kentucky. In the tiny coal company town of David they took a five-year lease on the company's abandoned commissary and movie theater, which included a service station down the road. "We had $50 in our pockets," remembers Greene. "The building was a disaster—it didn't even have a working toilet." Still, it was a golden time, during which Greene built his dream of combining academics with practical, hands-on learning. He enrolled ten kids who had dropped out and "lived in tar paper shacks." Greene and his two colleagues taught classes in the morning, shared a quick lunch of peanut butter sandwiches with the kids, and in the afternoon worked on the building together. "When we taught math and English we were talking about what we'd build in the afternoon. It was exhilarating," Greene says.

Throughout the years, the Appalachian Regional Commission provided crucial financial support.

Dream School

Today, the David School and the town of David have come a long way. In 1975 the school helped the town buy itself from its former coal company owners. The school operates an adult literacy program and a family preschool program, which requires parents, most of whom live in the area, to participate in preschool activities and further their own education. And, when classes resume in the fall of 1996, the David School will occupy a brand-new million-dollar building on 200 acres donated by the town. A light, airy place, it was designed and built in part by the students themselves and funded with $962,000 in contributions, $150,000 from ARC. "Originally we went to the ARC, and asked for $150,000 to build a four-classroom, one-story building. But when the ARC said yes, that suddenly led to a lot of other foundation grants, and since we had over 100 kids on our waiting list, we said, 'Let's build our dream school.' "

Donations poured in. A certified electrician from Chicago wired the building for free. American Standard donated the plumbing. Mills Pride provided cabinet doors and components, and Tom Bormes's shop class built custom cabinets for every room. Nearly all the building materials were free, including insulation and ceramic tiles. "When this is all done we'll have spent less than $1 million on a building valued at $2 million," says Greene. When the new school year begins, enrollment will climb to 100. The building will be different, but the mission will remain the same. "It's not the building, but the teachers and the philosophy," says Greene.

It's evening now, on the next-to-last day of classes before summer vacation. Moms, dads, and siblings wearing ties and dresses drift into the commissary's stuffy gymnasium. Tonight is graduation, the last in the old building. "A DREAM, HARD WORK, AND BELIEF" shouts a poster on a wall dotted with gold stars. Forty-nine adults are receiving their General Equivalency Degrees through the David School's adult education programs, and three full-time students are graduating. There will be songs, invocations, and a speech. Awards will be distributed, and of course, diplomas awarded.

"These are three people who turned their lives around, and that's huge," says Marty Green before taking his place at the podium. "We know these three inside out. Together we made a commitment, and they changed their lives. If we had 100 or just one we'd still put on the same extravagant ceremony. It's the person we're celebrating at the David School, and no one gets lost in a number."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.