The founder of the only military-style charter school for grades six through 12 in North Carolina says Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy is a “second chance school” for students who have struggled academically or behaviorally in traditional settings.
“I’m not ever going to turn them away,” said school founder Col. Carl Lloyd. “Give me what nobody else wants and we’re going to turn them into rock stars.”
Students come from Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Hoke and Robeson counties. In the 2018-2019 school year, only 9% of those entering the sixth grade tested at their grade level, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. That means that the vast majority of students have arrived at PBLA without the reading and math skills required by the state for their age group.
Partly as a result, Lloyd argues that NCDPI has continually given PBLA failing grades on its annual school report card. “I wear that report card on my chest,” he said. “It’s an F, and I hate it.”
NCDPI’s annual report card is based on student academic growth — measured by End-of-Course (EOC) and End-of-Grade (EOG) tests — and school performance — measured by attendance, digital learning, per pupil expenditure and use of funds.
Lloyd believes that measuring academic growth of the students and the school is more complicated than the information conveyed on the school report card. “I do not believe a test can measure what a person does,” he said.
Lloyd argues that there are other factors that influence test scores, including home life and family finances. More than 72% of PBLA students are economically disadvantaged, according to NCDPI.
For example, one student’s testing ability fluctuates due to situations outside of school. “I can tell when things are not going well at home by her test scores,” Lloyd said. “When she’s in that stable environment, she’s going to walk in here and get a four no problem, three if she’s bored.”
The highest score on an EOG test is five.
The low number of students at PBLA also limits the school’s margin of error on the school report card, according to Lloyd. “If there are only 10 sixth graders, that means six of them have to pass,” he said. “If you’re at a school with 100 sixth graders, you’ve got more of a chance.”
Overall, Lloyd is proud of each student, regardless of the school’s report card. “That score doesn’t define who they are as cadets [students] and what they do for this community,” he said. “Kids will tell you that this place changed their lives.”
‘It’s a lifestyle’
Military-style education changed Lloyd’s life too. While studying at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he worked at Oak Ridge Military Academy in Guilford County. “It was supposed to be a summer job,” he said. “It turned into 20 years.”
Since then, Lloyd has been the first African American to hold the title of commandant of cadets at two military academies — Oak Ridge Military Academy and Millersburg Military Academy in Kentucky. He also holds that title today at Paul Brown Leadership Academy.
In 2010, Lloyd was working at a military academy in Wisconsin when he heard that North Carolina had changed the law to allow more than 100 charter schools in the state. At that moment, he thought, “If I could figure out how to bring this to Bladen County, it could help so many kids.”
He contacted his uncle, Rufus Lloyd, who is mayor pro tem of Elizabethtown and a former educator, to help start a focus group and eventually apply for a charter. Lloyd opened the school in 2013.
“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Rufus Lloyd said. “If they were experiencing problems within the public schools, then it would be a good place for parents to take their kids to get some personal attention, good discipline.” Rufus Lloyd is especially proud that this opportunity is available not only for children of Bladen County, but also those in Columbus, Cumberland, Hoke and Robeson counties.
PBLA has worked to instill a hard work ethic and good moral character in its cadets. “We try to teach them to embrace the benefits of military structure, morality and discipline,” Lloyd said. “You take it with you wherever you go.”
To accomplish this, the school eliminates what Lloyd sees as distractions by requiring a uniform and a certain haircut. Students must also learn school history, memorize military songs, say sir and ma’am, stand at attention and understand the military system.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Lloyd said.
New students, also known as recruits, have 30 days to figure out the rules. Then, they have to ask for recommendations from a teacher and an older classmate before becoming a recruit first class. A month later, they must get another recommendation and keep their grades up in order to move to cadet status, which affords them privileges like a snack bar.
Not every student, however, earns the title of cadet. “We don’t believe in here everybody’s a winner; we don’t believe in not keeping score because it might hurt somebody’s feelings,” Lloyd said. “Once you become a cadet, it can never be taken away from you, no matter how much trouble you get in.”
The cadets can then move up in rank until graduation. The last cadet to walk the stage to get their diploma is the highest-ranking cadet of that year, which is a big honor, according to Lloyd.
Approximately 44 cadets have graduated from PBLA since 2016, and only 5% have decided to pursue a career in the military. “Considering less than 1% of the American population serves, we’re pretty proud of that,” Lloyd said.
Other students have enrolled at North Carolina A&T, University of North Carolina Pembroke, Fayetteville State University and Virginia Military Institute.
Approximately 75% of PBLA students graduate high school within four years, according to NCDPI. Bladen County schools have an average graduation rate within four years of 91.6%, and schools across the state have an average graduation rate of 86.5%.
Pandemic highlights issues related to internet access, food
Graduation at PBLA usually involves much fanfare at PBLA. In 2020, the school had to drastically pare it back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually, all cadets, alumni and family members attend to celebrate the outgoing class of students. This past year, each cadet had only a few tickets to give to loved ones.
Graduation wasn’t the only aspect of school that changed due to the pandemic. Cadets across the school’s five counties went home, forcing PBLA to institute virtual learning and disciplinary practices. Still, each day cadets had to show up to class via their newly acquired Chromebooks dressed in their uniforms and groomed to the school’s standards. “We made it work as much as possible,” Lloyd said.
Internal access, however, was a real problem among students, according to Lloyd. Before the pandemic, NCDPI reported that there was one electronic device at the school per four students. The state average was one device per student. With the help of COVID-19 relief funds, PBLA was able to provide each student with their own Chromebook and is working to have two Chromebooks per student — one at home and one at school.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it proved difficult to get students online. Some parents couldn’t pay their energy bills, and other times there were internet outages.
“When everybody in the state logged in, it was like The Matrix or The Terminator,” Lloyd said. “Everything started crashing, and people were losing their minds.”
Since then, virtual learning has become more commonplace, and the school has learned how to communicate with parents about internet issues. With students living all across a very rural region of the state, PBLA expected internet access to be a challenge. It did not, however, expect food to be an issue.
Since its inception, PBLA has reserved a significant portion of its budget for providing breakfast and lunch for all students. Because PBLA had not been partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide these meals, its students were not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“That was a big hit in the chin for us,” Lloyd said. “We thought we were doing the right thing by buying food all of these years, and then I felt like the kids were punched.”
Lloyd still doesn’t understand why PBLA’s students couldn’t use SNAP, calling it a “disheartening” reality.
“I’m not buying 130 pounds of chicken sticks for myself,” he said.
Lloyd is especially thankful to Bladen County Schools, which allowed PBLA students to pick up meals at their bus stops. “Some kids didn’t want to tell us there was no food,” he said.
PBLA now partners with USDA to provide its students with meals twice a day.
To help support their families financially, some PBLA students needed to find jobs. “I want them to work,” Lloyd said. “To me, work is honorable.”
There were some students, however, whose jobs became a priority over school. In such cases, Lloyd would often call the supervisor to ensure that the student was still logging onto class every day. Many students who worked to support their families last year have returned to school full time.
In-person instruction resumed mid-April. PBLA usually has 180 to 215 students each year. During the pandemic, that number dropped to 121.
‘Good, quality kids’
One student at PBLA who still works is 12th-grader Eric Williams. He has a job at a seafood restaurant and must miss some work each week to attend his last math class. “I’ve been doing really good with my job and managing my school,” he said.
Williams had also previously enrolled in PBLA’s dual program with Bladen Community College to become an electrician.
“I wanted to do more than just sit around and do nothing all day,” he said. “I wanted to learn more, develop more of what I could do.”
Williams came to PBLA four years ago to become more disciplined. He believes that he has been successful at achieving that goal.
He’s still ready to graduate. “If it wasn’t for that class, I could really start working extra hours at my job to have enough money when I graduate to actually do something,” he said.
Seventh grader Jamar Cobb also came to PBLA to become more disciplined. “When you get in trouble at a public school, they send you home,” he said. “When you get in trouble here, they have you do something, like chores.”
Disciplinary actions include verbal counseling, Saturday study hall, walking with a rifle for hours, doing yard work and hiking with a 25- to 45-pound rucksack.
Cobb, who came to PBLA during the pandemic, prefers in-person instruction. “You do something wrong, you get the discipline for it,” he said. “When I’m at home, it’s not the same.”
Tenth grader Jacquelin Lule-Cruz, who also transferred to the military academy within the last year, agreed that virtual learning was difficult.
“At home, you’re around things that you do daily,” she said. “With your family members, sometimes you don’t have a quiet place.” This made it hard for Lule-Cruz to concentrate, but she still thought she was able to learn the concepts taught in class.
To Lule-Cruz, the ability to learn, even during a pandemic, meant that the PBLA teachers cared. “They actually make sure you get the concept; they don’t just slap something on the paper,” she said. “They actually try to help you.”
Justin McAllister, an 11th grader who has been at PBLA for six years, can personally attest to this individualized attention. “Maybe due to the small student body, there’s a more personal, family-type feel here,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to, you still can feel that people care.”
That sense of affection extends beyond the school’s walls to include community service, according to 10th grader Kalil Bellamy, who has attended PBLA for five years. “It’s an opportunity to just give back and help,” he said. Bellamy plans to join the military upon graduation.
Overall, Lloyd was proud of these cadets and the rest of his students. “We produce good, quality kids. When they leave here, they become contributing members of society,” he said. “I would put my best kid against any kid at one of these other schools.”
PBLA is the only school in Bladen County to receive an F for the 2018-2019 school year, according to NCDPI. It is one of eight schools in the Sandhills Region — which includes Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson and Scotland counties — and one of 12 charter schools across the state to get an F on its report card.
In response, NCDPI gave PBLA more than $61,000 in 2019 to fund school improvement plans that will help the school boost its performance.
PBLA’s improvement plan has four areas of focus: instructional excellence and alignment, leadership capacity, professional capacity, and families and community. The school has defined benchmarks for each of these four areas. For example, the school is working toward assessing each student’s academic growth three times a year, creating an improvement team to review the effectiveness of certain decisions, incentivizing teachers to acquire higher degrees, and meeting with guardians twice a year to discuss socio-emotional development outside of the classroom.
As a result, PBLA met NCDPI’s standards for growth for the 2018-2019 academic year. NCDPI bases growth measurements on student achievement in reading and math, as well as changes in performance gaps among racial and ethnic student subgroups. PBLA had previously not met growth standards since 2016.
“We rolled up our sleeves in 2019, and we made growth,” Lloyd said. “We would’ve liked to have exceeded growth, but we didn’t.”
To continue to meet growth standards and maybe even exceed them, Lloyd has involved the students at PBLA. “We’re trying to get the kids to understand the significance of testing,” he said.
Each year the school meets its growth target, Lloyd adds a banner with the school’s crest at the school’s entrance. Cadets also wear pins, which are replicas of the banners, on their uniforms. If the school does not meet its growth target, cadets must take their pins off. “Let’s keep the pin,” Lloyd said.
To keep growing, PBLA also received a $500,000 Innovative Partnership Grant (IPG) from NCDPI to help move PBLA out of the category of the lowest performing schools.
Lisa Swinson, who manages the program at PBLA, has used this funding for several projects: creating a parent committee, purchasing furniture and technology to aid with teaching, forming professional learning groups, partnering with the community, and buying laundry equipment for cadets to discreetly clean their uniforms.
“It’s been a culture change,” Swinson said.
One of the main focuses of the IPG program has been meeting “religiously” once a week for professional development. “We talk about data, we talk about strategies, and we talk about the social and emotional pieces students need,” Swinson said. “I think that has really been the component that has taken us to another level.” These meetings allow teachers to craft individualized education plans to ensure that all students meet proficiency standards.
For one such professional development meeting, teachers read an article about motivating the unmotivated students and have since “adopted” certain students to help inspire them to succeed academically and socially.
“You just have to really pull out all of your tricks to figure out how to motivate them,” Swinson said. “Some they’re still trying to figure out.”
The pandemic has especially affected students’ motivation. “That drive, that go-get has gone,” Lloyd said. “I think we’ve got to try to get it back for some.”
Lloyd’s drive to improve PBLA’s standing inthe state, however, hasn’t waned. “I live for the time when we not only make growth, we exceed growth,” he said. “We are going to do our best to fix it.”
Even though Lloyd isn’t proud of the school’s report card, he does believe PBLA offers a unique experience for students to find their “true and full potential.”
Lloyd isn’t the only one who holds that belief. Parents of the school’s students feel the same way. Many of them turned down other school options and instead decided to put their children on buses as early as 5 a.m. to come to PBLA.
“I think we’re doing something right,” Lloyd said.