Mount Pleasant Standard Based Middle School in West Tampa is an A school for 2009-2010. This achievement puts Mount Pleasant in an elite group, one of 2,013 public schools statewide that will receive part of Florida's $122.5 million in "special recognition money" for earning an A. • Many people are surprised, some incredulous. After all, the school seems to have a lot of insurmountable barriers: It was founded just seven years ago; 99 percent of its students are black; 97 percent qualify for the National School Breakfast/Lunch Program; many come on the first day of school four grade levels behind; it has only nine teachers; it rents its small building from a church; and at North Rome Avenue and Spruce Street, it is in one of Tampa's poorest black neighborhoods.
Mount Pleasant is not a religious school. It is a charter school. As such, it is public and operates independently.
For the school to earn an A, students made significant learning gains in reading, writing and math and met federal requirements for adequate yearly progress, known as AYP. Under No Child Left Behind, a school makes AYP if it achieves the minimum levels of improvement determined by the state on academic performance and other accountability measures.
While outsiders are surprised by the school's achievement, its principal, teachers, staff, parents and trustees are not. I visited the school last week and learned why it earned an A.
As you walk into the simple building, you are greeted by photographs, artwork and readings celebrating the lives of African-American heroes. You feel a self-conscious pride that is intended to inspire, nurture and instruct.
Yolonda Waitress has been the principal for most of the school's short history. Her philosophy and vision embody everything good about Mount Pleasant, known as "Home of the Diamonds."
"One of the things that make Mount Pleasant very successful is that we do not accept excuses from the children," she said. "We tell the children, 'You can. There's no such thing as you can't. If we're here teaching you, then you can do it. And if you're going to remain at Mount Pleasant, you will do it.' I strongly believe in making children accountable for their own success. We can teach them. We can instruct them. We can lecture them. We can hug them. We can do all these things. But we definitely have to make them accountable and want to succeed.
"In spite of any of our students' circumstances at home, I honestly believe that if you can reach the inner child to make them want to be successful for themselves, you can override any kind of environment they're in. We try to develop the whole child. No matter who's in your life — your mom, your dad, your brother and sister — the bottom line is you're accountable for yourself."
Randolph Kinsey, chairman of the board, said Mount Pleasant avoids one of the major pitfalls of public school instruction in Florida.
"We don't teach FCAT," he said. "We don't worry about FCAT. Teach the children. Teach your subject matter. Teach your lessons. If you teach the kids, they will pass the FCAT. One thing we ask our teachers to do, however, is to make some of their test questions in the format used on the FCAT. We want our children to get used to the format of the questions."
From its inception, Mount Pleasant has focused on teaching the children to read well. The faculty believes that reading well anchors every facet of the school's pedagogy. They are right. The inability to read well is the most serious problem black students struggle with in traditional public schools.
As part of its philosophy of teaching and caring for the "whole child," Mount Pleasant encourages everyone to promote the positive. Negative words, gestures and behavior are not permitted. The mission is to correct and uplift children.
The dress code also is part of the whole child concept. All students wear uniforms, not as punishment but as a tool to help them focus on their studies.
Afterschool and in-home tutoring, mentoring and counseling are available through a program called Connect-the-Dots.
Carolyn Hepburn Collins, a board member and chairman of the human relations department, also helps with the food program, a component of the whole child effort.
She said all children get free breakfast and lunch for two main reasons. First, when all students get free meals, those who cannot afford to pay are not stigmatized. Second, it is good science.
"We feed them well," she said. "We know that statistics and history long have shown that a kid who is well-nourished can perform better. So we don't depend on what parents are going to do at home or if the kid would have to bring a brown bag."
The school is working to get 100 percent parental involvement, which is seen as a key to long-term success. To that end, the school has begun, among other projects, a resource center where parents can get help with personal tasks such as writing resumes, filling out job applications or photocopying.
"They're free to come in any time," Waitress said.
I spoke with two parents, Mellodie Mullins and Jana Barbery. They regret one thing: Their kids cannot attend Mount Pleasant for high school.