People had warned Robert Grimm to watch out when he took over as principal at North Charleston High School this summer. Behavior problems were rampant, literacy rates were in the tubes, and only 42 percent of students were graduating in four years. But nothing prepared him for what he saw in the hallway after lunch on Aug. 19, his fourth day on the job.
Zanarick Dixon, a star running back on the football team whom Grimm describes as "built like a small mountain," was crossing paths with a group of students from the trainable mentally disabled program. Standing out of the line of sight, Grimm watched as the students raised their hands for high fives from Big Z, who touched every hand on the way by, except for one, which he doubled back to catch. "I wanted to hug him," he says. "I just said, 'You are a phenomenal young man.' "
"If you listen to the outside perception, we don't have anybody like that here," says Grimm, the eighth principal at the high school in 11 years. He has his work cut out for him in turning around one of the poorest-performing schools in one of the poorest-performing states in the nation. But when he talks about the school, he likes to focus on the positives.
"It's not like you feel unsafe or the kids are ruffians," he says. "There's truly no difference between a student here and a student at Wando."
One problem Grimm faces is that some North Charleston parents, having lost faith in the school, have pulled their students out to send them to Wando High School, which boasts a four-year graduation rate roughly twice that of NCHS. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, every school receives Adequate Yearly Progress goals representing significant gains on end-of-course test scores. If a school fails to meet AYP two years in a row, parents are allowed to send their kids elsewhere in the district.
The school has a bad reputation, and some community members don't have much faith in Grimm, either. In June, Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott became the most vocal critic of Superintendent Nancy McGinley's decision to put Grimm at the helm of the predominately African-American school. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey held a press conference to throw his support behind the new principal, but Scott said phooey.
"You don't bring in a general practitioner to do brain surgery," she said. Scott, who has grandchildren in the district, was critical of Grimm's lack of experience as a high school principal.
Another early doubter was Michael Miller, who has no children in the school but has volunteered there as a mentor every week for the past three years. McGinley had asked Miller, who owns the Michael & Co. barber shop in West Ashley, to be on the Blue Ribbon Task Force that interviewed all 11 candidates for the open position when previous Principal Juanita Middleton left to become the interim director of Early Head Start. Miller says he would have liked to see more information about the candidates' records at previous schools, especially when it came to turning around struggling schools in high-poverty areas with large minority populations. The task force never got that information, and McGinley made the executive decision to move Grimm to the high school from C.E. Williams Middle School, where he had been the principal since 2008.
The district has placed him under the supervision of Associate Superintendent James Winbush, a move that some community members saw as a vote of no confidence. Grimm downplays the arrangement, saying that he would expect to be under close observation while working in such a critical position.
When it comes to leadership experience at tough schools, Grimm points to his previous assistant principal jobs in the Charlotte area at Hopewell High School and Ranson Middle School, starting in 2004. "That place was rambunctious as well," he says of Hopewell. "We'd spend all day Monday dealing with problems that had erupted in the neighborhoods over the weekend." Those problems included one student who was arrested on campus for a murder charge, he says.
At NCHS, Grimm worries less about crime and more about getting this year's crop of freshmen to graduate on time. He is also focused on bringing up students' scores on standardized tests, especially for reading. A 2009 study showed that 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the school were reading on a fourth-grade or lower level, according to their eighth-grade language arts tests. "A community shouldn't accept that," he says. (One significant difference between Grimm's last high school and this one: When he was assistant principal at Hopewell in 2006, 85 percent of students scored at or above grade level on the English I exam, compared with only 60 percent at NCHS in the most recent results from the 2009-2010 academic year.)
Grimm says he will focus much of his effort on the ninth-grade academy, which cloisters freshmen away from upperclassmen on a single hallway. His goal is to have 100 percent of this year's ninth-graders graduate on time in 2015. He also says he's sticking around.
"I don't have any desire to be anything other than the principal at North Charleston High School," he says.
And one more thing: He isn't going to suspend students for minor offenses like uniform violations, because, he says, "What are they going to do at home?"
In the course of an hour on a Monday morning, Grimm sees two students in his office. One just had an altercation with another student and is in for his third discipline referral of the day. He waxes apologetic at first, saying, "Man, I just blew up" — to which Grimm interjects, "First of all, don't call me 'Man.'" But the student leaves the office boasting, "I don't need this school. I'm gangsta."
The second is JaRonna Singleton, one of the top 10 students in the senior class. She has served on the junior and senior student boards, joined the National Honor Society, and played a number of positions on the volleyball and basketball teams. Grimm is her third high school principal.
Singleton sees many of the school's problems as the result of bad attitudes.
"First, it has to fall back on your home," she says. Then, "it basically falls back on whether you're going to put forth the effort or you're going to come to school and do nothing."
Grimm flashes a grin when Singleton leaves the room. "That's the majority of the kids right there," he says. He is by no means oblivious to the criticisms that were aimed at him before he set foot in the school, and he says he cannot begrudge anyone who advocates on behalf of the students. He does not take Dot Scott's criticisms personally, nor Michael Miller's.
"He was skeptical, but you know what? I'll prove myself," Grimm says.
As for Miller, he has reconciled himself to McGinley's choice of principal at the home of the Cougars.
"Mr. Grimm knows that initially he wasn't our choice, but neither was anybody that we saw," Miller says. "I just basically called him and told him I hope he realized it was never personal with me coming out and speaking against him. He's the captain of the ship, and now we're moving forward."