The task was arduous. About 3 out of 4 East Hall Middle students are economically disadvantaged. More than 12 percent do not speak English as a first language. And more than 13 percent have special needs, whereas most schools have a roughly 10 percent special needs population.
The school was put under close watch by the state Department of Education. And administrators implemented tutoring programs after school and on Saturdays. The programs helped special needs students and English language learners to catch up in school and even get ahead.
Then finally, the school met AYP in 2008, and then again in 2009 - earning its removal from the dreaded "Needs Improvement" list.
East Hall Middle School Principal Kevin Bales, who came on board in 2006, was thrilled.
"Behind getting married and having children, that would probably rank in my top ten accomplishments," Bales said, adding that students and teachers rose to the challenge. "For years, the staff had been told ‘We're not good enough, we're not good enough,' and then to be able to announce to the faculty that we made AYP, that was a highlight of a lifetime."
Candace Wilbanks, who has been teaching math at East Hall Middle for 15 years, was one of the hand full of teachers who spent their Saturday mornings last fall previewing course material with struggling students.
She said teachers were overjoyed when they heard the school made AYP two years in a row.
"A lot of us really just cried with tears of joy because we were just so proud of the kids and of our community," she said. "... It was a win for everybody."
"It just reaffirmed that we're heading in the right direction," said East Hall Middle sixth grade math teacher Michelle Stallions, who also taught Saturday school. "We're doing the right things. We're meeting all kids' needs and we're really pushing."
Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said administrators directed more resources to the school, including its own special needs coordinator. Schofield said because the 900-student school failed to meet federal standards in the past, it weighed the whole 26,000-student system down in No Child Left Behind evaluations.
Bales said the school received nearly $300,000 in federal funding last year to purchase needed teaching materials and to pay teachers for extra hours in an effort to boost student achievement.
The funds were put to use in the Saturday and after school programs, and to busing students to Saturday school last fall.
"I'm extremely proud of EHMS. They've worked hard," Schofield said. "They've taken a beating over the years and they deserve a moment in the sun. They've worked hard over the years and they've gotten themselves off that list and they've performed extremely well. But it doesn't change how I feel about NCLB."
Schofield and Bales said they believe it is important for struggling students to get the help they need, but many fall into multiple subgroups, such as being economically disadvantaged in addition to being English language learners, which means some students "count too much" under the federal mandate. And Schofield continues to say the mandate ignores the system's most able learners.
"What is unfortunate, and again, it's one of those consequences that I don't think anybody gave a lot of thought to, is the question of if we're going to spend all of our focus and time on these kids, what kids aren't we spending time focusing on and pushing resources to? What programs aren't happening? Are they fine arts or foreign languages? All these things that aren't measured by these low-level tests, tend to be minimized," Schofield said.
Despite his qualms with No Child Left Behind, Bales said he's confident teachers and students can keep up the momentum.
"It is a success story. It is a direct result of what happens when you put kids first. To have put in the work and to see the excitement when you get scores back and tell students they passed, it's very rewarding," he said. "... But this is not a success story about passing the CRCT. It's a success story about teachers going the extra mile to help their students have success in the future."
So how did teachers get these challenged students to perform? And why did they sacrifice their afternoons and Saturdays to do it?
Valery Bates, an eighth grade language arts teacher at East Hall Middle, said when students voluntarily showed up, it was because they were eager to learn more and pass the state's high stakes Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
Teachers were motivated by their students' hunger for knowledge, she said.
"I think the teachers were so determined to do what was necessary. ... We knew they were capable of it. We were just as determined as they were to make it happen," she said.
"So much of our success in that has been in showing our students their role in this. ... Students have taken it and run with it." Bales said.
He said educators built upon students' natural competitive streak, and fueled their desire for academic success by jump starting the CRCT week with a teacher-student basketball game.
"We told students if you can learn how to dribble and shoot or learn how to play an instrument, you can learn algebra and geometry," Bales said. "It goes back to our students - they wanted this. ... Most kids, they want to have success. They don't want to fail."
To overcome student apathy - a common obstacle in middle school students, Bales said - teachers asked students to dedicate their CRCT performance to a family member, a teacher, a friend or a girlfriend or boyfriend.
"I went through the bag of dedications that we had after they were all written out and I cried. Some of them were so sweet," Bates said. "It was hard not to be touched by some of the things they said: ‘My mom because she believes in me' or ‘My dad because he works hard for us.' It was just tear jerking."
Teachers said even on Saturday mornings, students showed up with a smile and a good attitude. Bates said that extra one-on-one attention helped the same students who were used to being afraid to raise their hands in class to feel more confident.
"It empowers them and motivated them to take charge of other own learning," she said. "For once, some of these kids were able to feel like the top dog in the classroom. It lit a spark in them to learn more. As a teacher, to see that spark lit, it's very rewarding, it kind of keeps you going."
Three years ago when East Hall Middle began hosting Saturday school, about 20 kids regularly showed up, Bales said. But last year, when buses began picking students up for class on Saturday mornings, about 80 kids filled seats.
"They wanted to learn," Wilbanks said. "These kids felt that little push of success and they wanted to come. We were amazed, too, that we had kids come every Saturday and want to learn."
Maria Barrientos, mother of East Hall Middle eighth-grader Brandon Barrientos, said it wasn't hard for her to get her son up and at ‘em on Saturday mornings. She said Brandon - an English language learner - was making great strides in his studies due to the sixth school day.
"It was him (who wanted to go), it wasn't me," she said. "He got himself up in the morning without an alarm. He never missed a Saturday because he liked it. He was happy."
Wilbanks said the school has hit the ground running this fall to keep its newfound status and to continue helping students succeed.
"We always knew that we were doing awesome and our kids were awesome," she said. "But now the world knows how wonderful our kids are."