10/04/09 — Diploma hunter: A new coach at Goldsboro High

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Diploma hunter: A new coach at Goldsboro High

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 4, 2009 2:00 AM

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Goldsboro High School graduation coach Barbara Wilkins, right, talks with student Darryl Lane in her office.

Barbara Wilkins knows she looks different from the majority of the students she is hoping to convince to stay in school at Goldsboro High School.

And the self-described "little old white woman" knows her new job as graduation coach will be highly scrutinized in the days ahead.

So, she said, she is ready to get to work.

The controversial position was created to improve graduation rates at the school. Funded equally by the city and county, Mrs. Wilkins is considered an employee of Commun-ities in Schools.

Still, the 30-year education veteran, retired from Wayne County Public Schools, pursued the job without a second thought.

"I read about it on the front page of the paper," she said. "I thought, 'Boy, they really do need that' and told my husband, 'I want that job. That's got my name all over it' because as a principal, I never got to really do what I really wanted to do with my kids. You go into teaching because you want to make a difference.

"I would like to think I made a difference, but I wouldn't have that one-on-one that I really wanted and that was the whole reason I went to school. I wanted to be a social worker, and in some ways in education, you are a social worker."

Her husband, Billy, while supportive, cautioned her about the decision.

"He said, 'You want to do that? Well, Barbara, that's a huge challenge. You know you're going to be under a microscope,'" she said. "I said, 'I have been under a microscope for many years.'"

After undergoing additional training for the position, it was time to set up her office, which initially consisted of just a desk and chair. A week later, she is still settling in, awaiting a phone and computer. A rug and a couple of chairs from home are adding a homey touch for now.

While the role of graduation coach is to start early in guiding students toward completion of their high school education, at the outset it's about making sure the current class of seniors earns a diploma next spring. To that end, 26 students have been identified as being in the most danger of not passing.

"I think there's a lot more than 26," Mrs. Wilkins said. "Every time I walk down the hall, there's somebody that wants to talk to me. I know we're going to be judged on numbers and it's a numbers game and about accountability, and I'm used to that," she said. "I'm going to do the best I can with the 26, but I also can't turn my back when (others) come to me and ask for things."

Mrs. Wilkins has been speaking to English classes at the school to introduce herself and to connect with the students.

"I tell them about me and why I'm here. At the very beginning of every class, it's very reserved, kind of like, 'Why are you here?' Because I'm different from them," she said. "As we move along, they really seem to warm up a lot. We laugh, and we do a lot of different things."

Despite the obvious differences -- black versus white, younger versus older -- Mrs. Wilkins aims to establish common ground. First of all, she tells them, she is also a graduate of Goldsboro High School, Class of 1970.

"I was the first Cougar class that graduated," she said. "I talk to them about Dillard. We had about 600 in my graduating class. I helped vote for the name 'Cougars.'"

She also taught at North Drive Elementary School for seven years, when it was still a brand new school, followed by 13 years at Carver Heights Elementary,.

Her career also included two years at Northwest Ele-mentary, four at Brogden Primary, four years as principal at Norwayne Middle, plus stints at Wayne Early/Middle College and Fremont Elementary.

"I want them to know that I'm not just somebody they plucked from somewhere else," she said. "I really do know more about them than they think I do. I worked 20 out of my 30 years in the city schools."

Some of what she does is cover the basics, like good manners, attitude and res-pect.

She also distributes a survey, allowing students to share what they like or don't like about school, what they think some of the problems are and why students don't learn.

"I'll stand up there and say, 'This is what you all are telling me' after reading what they like least about this school -- 'how disruptive the kids are, I wish that kids would come to school to learn and not act out, don't like it when kids talk back.' This is what I say to them, 'I don't know any of you in here, but if I were you, I would want to know that these kids are feeling this way.'"

She likens her new job to that of a coach -- or a Sunday school teacher.

"I tell the students, 'I will do anything I can to help you. You just need to let me know what you need. My job is to find the resources to help you have the tools you need. I have found you this morning in this classroom. Now it's your turn and your responsibility to find me if you need me," she said.

And they are finding her. She writes hall passes for students to visit her office, while teachers seek her out with their own challenges.

"A teacher came down to tell me about the worst kids in her classroom, like one who wouldn't tuck his shirt in and laughs whenever she talks to him. She wanted me to talk to him," Mrs. Wilkins said. "I asked him, 'Why are you doing this every day? Are you telling me that it's not worth it for you to graduate because of your shirt tail?'"

During the discussion, she learned that the student was bored, often finishing his work in class and having nothing to do. Discovering that he enjoys reading, especially mysteries, she offered to bring him some books she had at home, if he would stop by her office after lunch.

The student borrowed one of the books.

Later, the same teacher paid her a return visit and shared, "'I don't know what you said to him, but he's a different student.'"

"The bottom line is, these kids are so hungry for some attention, they're going to do anything for attention," Mrs. Wilkins said.

But first, she wants to not only get more resources for the students, but to introduce them to options they already have.

"They're not aware of what they already have here," she said. "We have talked about Gateway and having Com-munities in Schools buy tokens so they know they have transportation for them after school."

She has also approached Friends of the Library about a possible donation of books not sold at the upcoming book sale.

Sudie Davis, executive director for Communities in Schools, said the community could also participate in that assignment.

"Our wish list, some of the needs we have identified, would be paperback and hardback books, money to buy bus tokens for transportation, tutors and mentors," she said.

"We're trying to get peer tutors to stay and work with any student," Mrs. Wilkins added. "I have got more kids that need tutors than tutors right now."

That's exactly why CIS became involved in the first place, said Mrs. Davis, who helped write the grant for initial funding.

"Part of the reason the position came to CIS is the vast network that I have built over the years," she said. "Barbara also is from here, and she has her network. I truly believe the schools cannot do it alone."

It's a daunting task, Mrs. Wilkins said.

"You could have 100 of me in this position and you wouldn't be able to get to everybody," she said. "But I do think the key to some of this, I don't need to promise something that I'm not going to deliver and if I say I'm going to do something, by golly, I better do it. Trust is a big issue with these kids."

And while her job can be boiled down to one basic outcome -- making sure students stay in school, then walk across the stage to receive their high school diploma "at the right time" and not a second or third year later -- it is so much more than that.

"Success for me is hearing what the teacher told me about the kid that walked out of here and what he did, for the student coming back tomorrow and telling me he's going to graduate. Success for the school system will be the numbers and how many graduate," she said. "I'm hoping that I'm going to make the school system feel good about what they have done here."