A Texas school that received a failing grade from the state just a few years ago turned itself around with the help of a surprising suggestion from math teacher Thomas Mayfield: making music videos.
Mayfield has been teaching math at the Leadership Academy at Como Elementary, a school in a predominantly black neighborhood, for a year. In the neighborhood surrounding Como, the median family income is less than $19,000 and more than 94% of the students are economically disadvantaged.
"The reputation that is seen from outside doors would be high crime, low socioeconomic families. Single parent homes," Mayfield said.
"The kids can work and they could do for you and they could do for themselves, but you have to show that you're transparent and be able to connect with them on other levels outside of just being in the academic setting," Mayfield added.
For him, that meant connecting through music. "There was a song that we first started out with. Drake had a song… 'I know way too many numbers here right now that I didn't know back then.'" Mayfield said.
The students were surprised by his music knowledge. "'Mama, mama! He know about Drake! He know about Drake,'" he recalled the kids saying.
Before Mayfield came on board, the school was at rock bottom. Attendance was low, disciplinary action was high, and test scores were so bad that the school received an F rating from the state.
If ratings stayed low, the state of Texas could have taken over the school, said Principal Valencia Rhines, who added, "We were knockin' on that door."
Rhines was brought in to keep that from happening. "My mom was a single parent of four. I had a father who was in and out of prison most of my life. … I realize now that my mom would go to bed hungry so that we can eat," she said. "And so I'm able to understand where a lot of my kids come from. And, more importantly, I'm able to hold them accountable to not using any of those things as an excuse to not try to do better for yourself."
Recognizing the hardships her students faced, Rhines knew her students needed joy. That's why she hired Mayfield. Two of Mayfield's former students, Jailah Williams and Daniel Washington, said their teacher's approach to math is what made them want to come to school.
"Every day he would tell us, 'I've been through this. You can't get around with me like that,'" Williams said. "He makes learning very fun."
This year, Como received a B rating from the state. Principal Rhines also credits the school's transformation to adding an extra hour to each school day and offering families more after-school programs.
"It's not hard work," Mayfield said. "It's heart work. And I feel like you have to come from the heart in order to be able to do this job of teaching."