All 37 students in Ron Clark's Harlem classroom tested below grade level. All of them had discipline problems.
But Clark so believed that his students could be successful that he held them to standards beyond their expected ability. By the end of the year those formerly low-performing students tested better than some Advanced Placement students on tests.
"Teachers have more power than they realize," Clark said. "They set the tone for their classroom. They set the tone for the whole school."
Clark will be the speaker to launch the Hamilton County school system's Innovation Zone, a communitywide effort to improve test scores at five low-performing schools. The school district received some $10 million in federal funds to be distributed over three years to support the project.
The Innovation Zone, or iZone, includes five Hamilton County schools that the state identified in the lowest 5 percent of achievement. Those schools are Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.
"I hope I fire them [teachers] up and get them to think differently," Clark said.
Clark is a teacher, author and founder of Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, which offers education for students as well as teachers. He was the subject of the 2006 TV movie "The Ron Clark Story" starring Matthew Perry.
Clark will speak at the Brainerd BX at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Some 700 educators, representatives of nonprofit groups, business owners and parents are scheduled to attend.
The $10 million will be distributed over three years, but the goal is to see gains on test scores within one year. The money will be used to give the five schools extended school days and help them recruit the best teachers.
LaFrederick Thirkill, principal of Orchard Knob Elementary School, said his teachers and staff started seeing academic progress in their students before the iZone began. And they're even more excited to see the accomplishments they may make with more resources.
"We are excited to have some extra resources to help us continue to increase student achievement," Thirkill said. "Although we know that money does not raise student achievement, but best practices from a highly skilled teaching staff."
Clark has shown that students, even those who struggle with poverty, can do well in school.
He makes assignments hard and lets his students know he expects them to meet the challenges.
"It's about passion, excitement, making it hands-on and bringing it to life," he said.
On Point, a local nonprofit group, is helping to pay for Clark's visit.
"The iZone is an opportunity for the community to wrap around schools and to ensure kids have what they need," said Lesley Scearce, On Point president and executive director. "This is critical because we believe it takes all of us together to improve our schools."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-757-6431.