A little extra attention, and a student is saved

Teachers, chess help teen find his talents By DEBBIE CENZIPER

Jarris McGhee-Bey could have easily become lost in North Carolina's public schools.

 He drifted through seventh grade failing classes. Schoolwork bored him. Teachers were strangers. He was repeatedly suspended for fighting. All symptoms, experts say, of a student who wants no part of school.

But at the end of the year at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Cochrane Middle School, he met a teacher named Spencer Singleton, who taught him how to play chess. And for Jarris McGhee-Bey, troubled student and potential dropout, everything changed. He became a model student.

 "I actually wanted to be in school," he says. "Before that, I could go to sleep in class for eight hours straight. I didn't care about school. Now, I wanted to pay attention. And all of the sudden, my grades went up."

 In schools across North Carolina, educators say troubled students too often go without the tutoring, counseling and academic programs that can help keep them in school. But some teachers find another way.

 A single connection, they say, can save a kid at risk of dropping out, a connection to a teacher or mentor, or to an activity that can spark an interest in school. Drama or debate. Band or poetry. Dance, computers, sports.

 "There are a lot of people in education who feel that if you provide a very good academic program, the rest is going to fall into place. There are some of us who don't think that's necessarily so," said Andy Farrow, president of the N.C. Dropout Prevention Association, and alcohol and drug defense and counseling coordinator in Cabarrus County Schools. "You've got to make those connections with kids.

 "The kids who drop out, nobody even knew they were there."

 Singleton remembers Jarris that year, bright but unfocused, a failing student who should have been making A's. He talked to Jarris' mother, who was involved in the PTA and worried that her son would fail the seventh grade. Singleton suggested the chess club could inspire Jarris. If he brought his grades up, he could join the school's chess team.

 At first, Jarris lost every game. At one competition, he agreed to a draw when he was one move from victory.

 But Jarris wanted to get better. He practiced Wednesdays with other players. And, in Singleton, he found a teacher who believed in him.

 "He says simple things and he actually looks like he means it," Jarris says about his teacher. "He bought a van just so he could take people to chess tournaments."

 In eighth grade, Jarris learned to play the French horn. Another teacher, Rick Holmes, also pushed Jarris in school. Holmes taught science, and Jarris says it was one of the only classes that interested him.

Holmes doesn't always teach the textbooks. He eats live yellow jackets to teach biology. He throws eggs against the wall to teach density.

Holmes didn't treat Jarris any differently after he was suspended in the seventh grade. Every time Jarris came back to class, Holmes acted as if he had never been gone.

 "I didn't hold it against him," Holmes says. "A lot of teachers will say, `Oh, you're a bad kid, and I don't want to deal with you.' But Jarris is not a bad kid. He needs to be stimulated and he needs to be pushed."

 Now, Jarris is a freshman at West Charlotte High School and a member of the school's award-winning chess team, as well as the marching band. Singleton transferred to West Charlotte, where he teaches social studies and coaches chess.

 Jarris' grades have slipped as he adjusts to high school, his mother said, but he's working to bring them up again. He's in some higher-level courses, too, and the work is more challenging.

Jarris talks about going to college. With all the conviction of a 14-year-old, he says he wants to become a television producer. Or maybe a crocodile hunter. Like the kind on TV.

 He looks back on those turbulent months in middle school and wonders what he would have done if he hadn't met Singleton or taken an interest in chess, if his mother hadn't pushed him, if his science teacher hadn't given him a second chance.

 "I would have failed," he says. "I'd probably still be at Cochrane right now."