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Rising to the Challenge

NATURAL TEACHER: Williston Middle School’s Sabrina Hill-Black won the 2011-12 Teacher of the Year Award. Courtesy photo

“Why so many grim faces today?” Sabrina Hill-Black asked a group of upset students.

“Last period’s test was really hard, and we weren’t prepared for it to be so tough,” they replied.

“Sounds like we need a Socratic seminar to address this test,” she noted.

“You would make a lesson out of this!”

This could be a typical discussion in the Williston Middle School classroom of Ms. Hill-Black, last year’s Teacher of the Year and this year’s Striving to Achieve Excellence Coordinator (STAE) and seventh-grade teacher.

A native Wilmingtonian and New Hanover County teacher since 1994, Hill-Black is excited about the STAE program. Its mission statement is to “prepare students for the rigors of post-secondary education while increasing student achievement and developing overall success through empowerment.”

Youth in the academic middle (2-3.5 GPA) must apply to be accepted into the program. These students are expected to:

• Commit to STAE and put forth 100 percent effort in all academic classes.
• Attend school daily and have no major discipline issues.
• Communicate with all teachers and monitor academic progress.
• Seek academic or social support as needed.
• Take personal responsibility for learning and behavior.
• Have the desire to attend post-secondary education.

“I like teaching,” Hill-Black said. “I like the middle-school child. STAE helps the student who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Our whole purpose is to help a child as early as sixth grade change his thinking from that of an average student to one who performs better in the core curriculum and is capable of completing college.”
Teachers and the occasional tutors of STAE use the inquiry method. They don’t give answers to questions. They ask students questions that require critical thinking and lead them to answer their own questions. Students are encouraged to tutor one another and learn in a collaborative manner.

“Kids come back to me years later and say how helping others learn paved the way for their own success in the classroom,” Hill-Black said. “There are many teachable moments. We become like a family and talk about the problems of the day. I may say, ‘We’re not going to try to solve this right now, but we are going to go home and write about how a change in our behavior could turn this around.’ If you’re creating lessons that help students understand how important they are to you, you’ve got them. They have become stakeholders in their own education. Very, very important.”

Hill-Black requires a communication process between teacher and student and teacher and parent/guardian. If parents and guardians expect success from their children, they must stay involved.

Every school has a web site and pages for every teacher. On these pages, teachers post student assignments, due dates for projects, and pictures of what is going on in class. Parents can review their child’s grades on a daily basis.

“If a student is bothered and is not comfortable speaking to the teacher, direct him to the guidance counselor,” Hill-Black said. “If he will not speak to anyone about his problem, the parent is wise to advocate for his welfare. The first few weeks of school are especially important.”

Usually teachers initiate team-building activities in order to gauge the comfort levels of students. It is important for students to get involved in extra-curricular activities, such as chorus, orchestra and band. At Williston students may opt to join Battle of the Books, Science Olympiad, Odyssey of the Mind or their favorite sport.

Hill-Black’s peers have honored her for building student relationships within the Williston community and for going that extra mile in her teaching efforts. One stellar example is her role as liaison between her students and the Youth Entrepreneurship Program at UNCW Cameron School of Business. To find these students, Hill-Black visited neighborhoods, churches, Boys and Girls Club and the Martin Luther King Center. Over this summer students attended a one-week camp, learned about campus life, learned about the admission process, and designed individual business board games that were kept secret until the end of the week.

Thanks to the success of that program, this coming school year, reps from UNCW will present Youth Entrepreneurship programs (check out Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page and his PBS documentary “These Kids Mean Business”) throughout the middle schools and high schools of New Hanover County.

Hill-Black, parents and friends worked the concession stands at Legion Stadium for the Wilmington Tigers football team. The proceeds helped fund student field trips, such as visits to North Carolina Central University, Duke and a Durham-based architectural firm. Her students’ favorite field trip was to Carolina Farmin’ grocery store.

“I made little booklets for each student,” she said. “Students had to interview someone from each department. They had to weigh their produce and convert it from pounds to ounces. They had to go through the store and design a meal based on the four food groups. They had to calculate the cost of their lunch. We ate ice cream as we walked back to the school. The kids said it was the best field trip ever.”

Langston Hughes wrote a short story, “Thank You, Ma’m starring Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.” “My students tell me I remind them of her,” Hill-Black says. “Why? ‘Because you don’t take no stuff!’ But I don’t yell, ever. I simply make it very clear that I have high expectations of them and believe they can rise to meet them.”

Every school morning, Hill-Black stands on Williston’s steps and greets each student with a warm hello to help him or her feel welcome no matter what’s going on at home. “I give parents my cell phone, home phone and the number here at school,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’ll treat your child the way I’d want my own to be treated.’”

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  1. florence j. warren

    August 24, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Congratulations to Encore for featuring this talented, intelligent young lady. She needs to be cloned!!

  2. Charlotte Zurcher

    September 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    Such a beautiful soul and fabulous teacher. I’ve had the honor of being her coworker and she taught my son for 3 years. Wish our schools had more like her.

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