Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Lingerfeldt Elementary in Gastonia, NC, calls itself "the best elementary school in North Carolina," regardless of the grades it gets from the NC school report card system. Many education advocates say the report card system unfairly stigmatizes schools in high-poverty areas. (Photo by Elaina James)

By Sinclair Holian

January 2, 2024

NC’s controversial school report card system has given Lingerfeldt Elementary in Gastonia, NC, failing grades. But the local school’s leadership isn’t buying it.

This story was created by student journalists at the UNC Media Hub.   

Gary Coke stood tall in the front office lobby at Lingerfeldt Elementary School, taking in the start of the 2023-2024 school year. The August day marked Coke’s first as Lingerfeldt’s new principal — the fresh face of the operation in a wrinkle-free suit. 

A man entered the lobby, and oblivious that he was addressing the new principal, he issued Coke a warning. “Oh, these kids are wild,” Coke remembers him claiming. “Before you know it they’re destroying the building. They’re going to be fighting.” 

Coke took in the message with his signature sense of calm. Then he disappeared, on a mission to gather the letters for the marquee sign at Lingerfeldt’s entrance. Armed with his alphabet, he marched outside. Letter by letter, he pieced together a new message for Lingerfeldt: “LINGERFELDT IS THE BEST ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IN NORTH CAROLINA.”

Lingerfeldt Elementary School is failing — at least according to North Carolina School Report Cards, which scored Lingerfeldt an “F” for the 2022-2023 school year. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has designated Lingerfeldt “low-performing,” along with a total of 804 North Carolina schools — 32.4% of the state’s 2,484 schools. 

Related: How a ‘country boy’ from eastern NC came to lead one of NC’s fastest-growing cities. Click here to read. 

Nevertheless, Coke’s message has become the mantra of the school year. The sign still welcomes students every morning. Coke repeats the phrase in staff meetings, hallways and in every morning and afternoon P.A. announcement. 

Even with the odds stacked against the school, Coke is Lingerfeldt’s biggest believer. Facing a legacy of low-performing status, he’s determined that his school will be a place that “believes we can make a difference.” 

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Principal Gary Coke greets the kids at Lingerfeldt Elementary in Gastonia, NC. (Photo by Elaina James)

“Praise Loudly”

Every weekday, Coke rises before the sun. He can’t arrive at Lingerfeldt any later than 6:50 a.m. — he needs to be prepared for his morning announcements at 7:37 a.m., sharp. 

“Good morning, teachers and staff and parents,” his voice rings clear over the P.A. system. “Welcome back to the best elementary school in North Carolina.”

This might be Coke’s first year as principal, but his work in Gaston County Schools — the 10th largest school district in North Carolina, located just west of Charlotte — started in 2005, as a teacher at York-Chester Middle School.  

His journey in education started even before that. Coke first became a teacher in his home country of Jamaica, where he started teaching in Montego Bay. He can still see the faces of his students and the details of his first classroom. “It was just perhaps one book in the classroom,” he recalled. “We had no computers in the classroom (and) we may have had an overhead projector.”

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Principal Gary Coke works in his office. He can be found at Lingerfeldt long after the school day has come to an end. (Photo by Elaina James)

Where resources lacked, effort was extraordinary. Education didn’t stop for anything — not even weekends. “I was available 24/7,” he said, often spending off-hours working one-on-one with students.  

After moving to America with his wife, Ingrid, he taught at three different middle schools before becoming an assistant principal at Southwest Middle School. Finally, in 2023, he stepped into his first job as principal. 

His education philosophy is built on values of positivity and hard work: “I avoid negativity in this building.” 

Coke’s daily rounds through Lingerfeldt’s campus make that clear. Coke plans to see all 424 of Lingerfeldt’s students at least three times a day. The ultimate goal is visibility, he said, and to model good behavior. “Plus,” he chuckled. “It’s good for my heart.”

Coke’s unshakable calm follows him through the halls. The students peer up at his tall frame to catch his eye, and his smile. His warm words are mostly whispered:

“Good job, rockstar.” 

“Love you buddy. Work hard. Read books.” 

“I know you’ll be successful. Don’t stop trying, my dear.” 

His “daily workout” is hosted in a Pre-K classroom. His professional formality falls away as he dances the “Body Bop” with a flock of 4-year-olds. When he shakes his long limbs, the class erupts in a chorus of giggles.

The encouragement isn’t just for the children. Coke takes care to praise the staff. After observing a fourth-grade math lesson, he gave the teachers a boost. “It’s great things you’re doing,” he whispered. “Listen, you guys are the best teachers in the world, so I do not expect anything less.”

“The message I share with the staff, and communicate every single day is we always narrate the positives,” Coke said. “We praise loudly, and we correct sweetly and softly.”

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Coke dances the “Body Bop” with a Pre-K class. He said dancing with the children every day has helped build their trust. (Photo by Elaina James)

Building Supports 

For all his positivity, Coke isn’t naive about the challenges his school faces. Lingerfeldt is a Title 1 school — a designation based on poverty levels that allows schools to receive federal funding. According to North Carolina School Report Cards, 81.6% of Lingerfeldt’s students are economically disadvantaged.

Vice principal Angie Molla has spent her entire career working at Title 1 schools in Gaston County. It’s her first year as a vice principal, but she’s familiar with the layered challenges of economic disadvantage in education. “Poverty is stressful,” she said, “and so that all bleeds into everything else.” 

Molla describes her students at Lingerfeldt as outgoing, friendly and sweet. “They like to know that you really care about them,” she said. But it’s inevitable that children bring their personal trauma to school — and when they lack language to express their feelings, stress manifests in behavior. 

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Kindergarten teacher Sharon Williams said teaching at Lingerfeldt is a calling. “I just love it,” she said. “It’s like a thrill to me.” (Photo by Elaina James)

Addressing the root of that behavior is a major part of Morgan Cassady’s job. Cassady is one of Lingerfeldt’s two counselors. Her work week includes teaching social-emotional learning classes, which help students develop life skills like confidence, self-care and conflict management.

The job fills Cassady with joy — she said she gets “about 2 million” hugs each day. But it can be painful to watch students grapple with stressors beyond their years. 

“What they don’t really understand is happening to them a lot of anxiety. It’s a lot of acting out because they don’t know what to do, or how to handle their emotions,” she said. “So that’s part where we come in. And we’re trying to work with them and make sure they have the support that they need so that they are able to be present in the classroom.”

One key support: nutrition. Lingerfeldt provides most of its students free or reduced breakfast and lunch — a factor research shows is critical to academic success. Another: clean clothes. Lingerfeldt has a clothing closet, hygiene kits and its own washer and dryer to help children who arrive at school in dirty clothing. 

Overall, Cassady said that Lingerfeldt offers a source of stability in its students’ often unstable day-to-day lives. “They get two meals a day, they have teachers that love them and they see all their friends,” she said. “I feel like they know that we’re one big family and that we really love and support them.”

Uphill Battle: Proficiency vs. Growth 

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

The data wall tracks every student’s growth throughout the school year. “It’s quite motivating to take one of those data cards that has a student’s face on it, and move it from being a red student to a yellow student,” Katrina Ashleman said, “because that means they’re growing.” (Photo by Elaina James)

Maintaining that stable environment weighs on Coke as he strategizes another important goal for the school year: moving Lingerfeldt out of “low-performing” status. It’s an uphill battle — since 2014, the school hasn’t surpassed a “D” grade. And the past two academic years, Lingerfeldt failed to meet academic growth.

Dr. Ethan Hutt is an associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill. His recently-published book, “Off the Mark,” explains how the American education system’s assessment technologies — grading, ranking and rating — can have unintended negative consequences on student and educator behavior, undermine learning and increase inequality. 

Passed by the North Carolina Assembly in 2013, the state’s school accountability model determines schools’ overall letter grade with a formula: 80% based on standardized test scores, and 20% based on student academic growth, or whether student performance grew relative to expectations. 

Hutt doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the school grading system. “There’s a lot of reasons why we want the public to know how their schools are doing and we want to make that information transparent,” Hutt said.

But, he said, the grading system fails to adequately account for the inequalities that schools like Lingerfeldt face. “The fact that school performance basically perfectly matches onto other social inequalities should tell us that however good that school is, it’s just not enough to overcome the social inequality in our society,” Hutt said.  

Katrina Ashleman is an instructional support coach at Lingerfeldt. With 26 years of education experience in Gaston County, she is responsible for analyzing student performance data to help guide school-wide instruction.

Nearly an entire wall in Ashleman’s office is taken up by the faces of Lingerfeldt’s students, represented with their photo on a data card. Every student is placed in a color zone indicating their proficiency level in reading and math: red for not proficient, yellow for “bubble kids” on the cusp of proficiency and blue for students proficient and exceeding proficiency. Across the grade levels, most students are in the red and yellow zones, with just a handful making it into the blue category.

Economic inequality appears early in childhood education. “The vast majority of the achievement gap that we see in schools appears right at the beginning, we see it in kindergarten,” Hutt said. “Students come in behind. And they basically never close the gap. And schools don’t have the resources or the capacity to close those gaps.”

Since student proficiency rates on standardized tests overwhelmingly determine the school’s overall grade, Ashleman said student and teacher growth at Lingerfeldt is consistently overshadowed. 

“It should be flipped. It should be 80% growth and 20% proficiency. And if they would flip it, you wouldn’t have as many ‘F’ schools,” she said. “Personally, in my educator mind, I see if we would look more and focus more on growth, then we could actually see where the fruits of our labor are going.”

Is “Above and Beyond” Enough? 

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Molly Burch, Taylor Calabro, Gary Coke, Morgan Cassady and Angie Molla pose with members of Hope For Gaston, one of Lingerfeldt’s community partners, who donated socks for students in need. (Photo by Elaina James)

To Coke, the grading formula isn’t an accurate reflection of the work his staff puts in, and the intelligence of his students. “The numbers don’t define the great things that we’re doing,” he said. “We have teachers who are going to go above and beyond to ensure that we’re going to be successful.”

But being labeled with an “F” grade year after year takes an emotional toll on teachers and staff. 

“(Teachers) see the grade, and it is so disproportionate and so out of line with what they feel like they’re doing in the school, and the kind of quality care and attention and education they’re giving their kids,” Hutt said.

For Melanie Curtis, a first grade teacher, this school year marks the end of a four-year teaching journey at Lingerfeldt. She started working at the school during the Covid pandemic, teaching fifth grade in a hybrid format. This year, she said her young students are still working to adjust to a normal educational environment.

“Students that were in kindergarten last year, who the couple years prior, had very little preschool experience from what I can gather, came to school just not prepared,” she said. “They don’t know what they need to know socially or academically.”

Sharon Williams, a kindergarten teacher, has been working at Lingerfeldt for 19 years. At a school that struggles with high teacher turnover, she’s Lingerfeldt’s longest-standing educator. “I think you’d have to be special to work here,” she said. “I don’t think just anyone can come and work here. I think when you come, I do think it’s a calling.” 

Over the years, Williams has observed that most of her kindergarten students at Lingerfelt enter school already behind proficiency standards. “It’s upsetting,” she said. “And I’m constantly racking my brains out: What can I do more to get them to be where they need to be?”

In the classroom, she emphasizes growth; when students improve by even a single point, she makes sure they feel celebrated. “I just want them to be excited,” she said. “I tell them it’s like climbing a ladder.” 

Still, Williams feels heartbroken when her effort, and the efforts of her students and colleagues, isn’t enough to break out of Lingerfeldt’s low-performing designation. 

Curtis feels the same. With state testing looming in the months ahead, she battles a deeply personal question: Am I doing enough? 

“I try to tell people all the time — and I should take my own advice — if you’ve done your personal best, it’s enough,” Curtis said. “But then again, there are times where I think, ‘Is it?’” 

Funding: The Bigger Picture 

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

A classroom at Lingerfeldt Elementary School in Gastonia, NC. (Photo by Elaina James)

The situation at Lingerfeldt is serious, but not unique. According to Hutt, low-performing Title 1 schools across the state face many of Lingerfeldt’s same struggles. “The problem is not just a lack of dedicated educators,” he said. “We have plenty of those. It’s a systemic problem.”

Hutt said “F” grades should be understood by the state as a call for help. “And unless the help comes,” he said, “it just creates a cycle of defeat and feeling demoralized about it.”

School funding has long been a source of tension across North Carolina. According to the Education Law Center’s 2022 “Making the Grade” report, the state ranked 50th in school funding effort, measured by the percentage of a state’s economic activity allocated to supporting its school system.

“We don’t get any extra funding being in our situation trying to come out of low-performing status,” Molla said. “That makes it hard to give (resources to) our kids that might have severe behaviors, or might be very far behind academically right now, and to get the people that we need in the building to give them the extra support that they need to actually be successful.”

At Lingerfeldt, the funding challenge has a compounding effect on the struggles the staff and students face in their effort to escape low-performing status. Limited funds make it difficult to bolster teacher salaries — a factor contributing to low teacher retention.

“Education should be the first thing that we want to give money to and support,” Ashleman said. “Because if we don’t, the future is kind of grim. Because when people decide to quit teaching, then what?”

Growing Greatness

Beyond the grade: How one ‘failing’ NC school defines success

Coke keeps notes and drawings from students on display in his office. (Photo by Elaina James)

Despite the clear challenges in the path to performance improvement, Coke never expresses doubt in his students and staff. One significant hurdle arrived in just the second week of school: a major leak that forced the building’s water and power to be shut off. 

Suddenly without lights and running water, a building filled with more than 400 students could have easily erupted into chaos. But according to Coke, you would never be able to tell that disaster had struck. Instruction continued while the issue was addressed, and children were released back home early in an orderly manner. “It was calm,” Coke said. “Very, very calm.”

From her first grade classroom, Curtis felt that calm, too. “I walked out of that day thinking, ‘Man, that is the spirit of Lingerfeldt right there,’” she reflected. “The most challenging situation where other schools probably would have crumbled, we rose up.”

“And that’s the thing that ‘F’ grade just does not capture, unfortunately,” she said.

As the months inch closer to the end of grade testing — and the scores that will ultimately determine their chance to rise from “F” to “D” — there’s a sense of cautious optimism. Little by little, Coke said he’s seen this year’s theme, “Growing Greatness,” being realized.

To Coke, incremental growth, no matter how small, matters most. “Success doesn’t mean you earn 100% on an assessment,” he said. “But success could simply mean that today you earn a zero. The following day, you’re gonna get a point five. Next day, 1%. Next day, 2%.” 

Just like during his years teaching in Jamaica, Coke’s school days still run long. He often remains at Lingerfeldt until the sun sets, then spends his nights up late, pondering anything that might inch Lingerfeldt’s percentages forward. 

The sacrifice, he insisted, is worth it, especially when he makes personal connections with his students. On “Career Day,” several students dressed as principals. “Mr. Coke, I want to be a principal,” he remembered several students saying. “And I want to be just like you.” 

Coke escaped to his office to wipe his tears. 

“​​Ask any student in our building,” Ashleman said. “They have no idea that we are an ‘F’ school. You ask any student in our building — we are the best elementary school in the state of North Carolina.”

Coke remembers his first day on the job, and the warning he received. The man he met that day was so certain about Lingerfeldt. “Their mindset was that this is a bad place,’” he said. 

He made sure to correct that mindset that day, establishing a mission he’s still committed to. “This school is the best elementary school in the state of North Carolina,” Coke told the man. “You know why? Because you and I are going to make a difference in the lives of these students.”


  • Sinclair Holian

    Sinclair Holian is a senior from Greensboro, NC, majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in writing stories focused on social justice issues, especially at the intersection of politics and identity.

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