Who’s a nerd at R.L. Austin?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Mr. Brown's fifth-grade class at R.L. Austin Elementary School take a couple of seconds away from learning to answer the question: who's a nerd? Fifth graders at the Georgiana primary school are called nerds to indicate intelligence and responsibility. Nerds are given jobs around campus and are held accountable for those jobs being completed. Keeping the status of nerd, however, is a challenge these young people face every day. A nerd who lets his or her grades fall, or displays conduct problems, can be suspended or even removed from nerd status permanently.

Photo by Derek Brown

The nerds have taken revenge at R.L. Austin Elementary School and things will never be the same. Less than a year ago the primary school in Georgiana was on academic caution status, but through the efforts of the nerds, the school has received an all-clear from the state this year, and continues to reach for higher academic standards.

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R.L. Austin Principal Alton Abrams has taken a unique approach to getting his kids interested in their education. To Abrams, a child with a healthy self-esteem makes a better student, and self-worth is what being a nerd is all about.

"Over the years I have noticed that if kids identified themselves as being smart is was almost like a disgrace," Abrams said. "At one time it was not socially acceptable to be smart, and those kids who could excel usually wouldn't because their friends couldn't."

Abrams said when he became principal at R.L. Austin about two years ago he identified the students' self image as one of the major hurdles in

their development. If he could get them to be proud of being smart, Abrams said, and help them learn that each student is responsible for his or her own future, then the whole school would benefit.

"That's where the idea of the nerds came from," Abrams said. "It started out as computer nerds because these kids are living in a computer age and we wanted them to identify with something positive.

"Later is was shortened to just nerds' and we try to make them feel good about being nerds," he continued.

Becoming a nerd is easy, all one has to do is reach the fifth grade. However, keeping the status is a challenge that all fifth-graders must work at daily.

"Along with being a nerd comes responsibility," Abrams said. "And if one of my nerds doesn't want to live up to that responsibility then he will lose his chance for a while."

Being a nerd is a privilege, not to be abused, and Abrams said that peer pressure goes a long way toward keeping the nerds on track.

"Every nerd has a job and it is their responsibility to not only do that job, but also to find someone else to teach it to," he said. "So one nerd will do a certain job for two weeks, teach it to another student, and then turn that job over to the student they trained."

Abrams said the tasks range from raising the flag in the morning or making daily announcements, to working on the school's closed circuit television program, but, he said, each student takes his or her task as seriously as the next.

"If I want to know who raised the flag this morning or who filled the pencil machine, I have to ask. I don't even know who is doing these things I just know they get done," he said. "By putting the responsibility in the hands of the students, they make sure things happen and take pride in getting things done."

The responsibility of being a nerd follows them to academics. In each classroom, an assignment board tells students what work they will be responsible for that week. Another board lists homework, and it is up to each nerd to keep up. No one needs to hold the hand of a nerd, Abrams explained, a nerd should be smart enough to do it on his own. When nerd duties pull a student out of class, they still have to make sure they do the required work.

Fifth-grade teachers Marshall Brown, Lisa Peavy and Lynn Nelson work with the nerds one-on-one to make sure each is living up to his or her potential. Brown, who teaches math and exploration, helped develop the classroom honor system based on his experience as an instructor in the military. Brown says that a student who knows what is expected and is held accountable will work harder. The approach is paying off in test scores.

Brown said the assignment and homework boards make it easier for students to keep up and for parents to get involved in their child's studies.

"If a parent needs to see what their child is working on then all they need to do is come and look at the board," Brown said. "The students are responsible for writing down the assignments and making sure they are completed on time." Brown said the job of the teacher then becomes one of support, expertise and enthusiasm. The learning becomes the responsibility of the student.

Lisa Peavy works closely with the nerds not only in the classroom, but also with the school's morning and afternoon closed circuit television shows. She says the program gives students something to work for and increases their desire to learn. Teaching something to one's peers, Peavy says, enforces the learning process.

"When you see a student who has been working the camera for a couple of weeks teach another student how to use it, you really get a sense of how well they know what they are

doing," she said.

Principal Abrams said the program teaches the nerds time management and gives them motivation to work harder.

"Everyone takes pride in what they do and tries to do the best job he can," he said. "No one wants to be singled out or be the one who let everybody else down."

The nerds are involved in every almost every program at the school. They man the computer lab, compete on math and geography teams, produce the WRLA morning show, assist with the accelerated reader program, assist in the library, work in the office and maintain a number of other responsibilities outside of their normal class work. However, maintaining good grades and good conduct are a nerd's primary tasks. A nerd that lets his studies slip, or violates the school's code of conduct, is relieved of his responsibilities for a little while. This, Abrams says, serves as a reminder that being a nerd is a privilege that must be earned.

"We don't have problems here we have corrections," he said. "When a difficulty arises we make the correction and then we don't experience that difficulty again."

Abrams said all fifth-graders at R.L. Austin take the responsibility of being a nerd seriously, look after each other and keep conduct problems few and minor.

"Peer pressure takes care of it," he said.

Butler County Board of Education Superintendent Mike Reed recognizes the benefit the nerds have brought to R.L. Austin. He said Abrams' and his teachers' involvement with the students has been the number-one reason why the school achieved the academic-clear status this year.

"They have instituted a lot of programs that deal with a student's self worth and self esteem and have begun to get the parents more involved," Reed said. "They have literally turned that school around."

Reed said the results have been higher test scores, better grades and fewer disciplinary problems.

"Research shows that any time you can get kids more involved in their education and help them succeed then disciplinary problems decrease," Reed said. "I think they're doing a great job."

To Principal Abrams it's all in a days work. The respect he has earned and the dignity he has given the nerds is evident whenever he calls one out of class.

"Come here nerd," he called catching the attention of a passing fifth-grader. "Tell this man what your job is."

"Help with the accelerated reading program," said nerd Terry Owens with confidence.

"Thank you," he said to Terry as he waved him back to class. "Bye nerd," he called as the student turned and shuffled down the hall.