Charles Carroll Middle students sing the stories they see in the news

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 7:31 PM

Middle school is an unlikely launching pad to musical superstardom, but a group of politically aware students at Charles Carroll Middle School might have rocketed ahead of the competition.

A music video they wrote and recorded about the life of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor so impressed her that she visited the Prince George's County school in April. They recently released another video about the passage of the health-care bill, and they're working on one about Oprah Winfrey.

In the health-care video, students in green polo shirts and khakis dance through the school's hallways - one wears medical scrubs and has a stethoscope around her neck - and sing lines that include, "Politicians in conflict, there are too many people who are sick" and "I've seen people ill, patients overbilled, people uninsured in poverty, that's for real." In one scene, a girl playing a doctor refuses to attend to a sick person until she is paid a stack of dollar bills.

At a school where almost four out of five students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and the student body is about evenly divided between African Americans and Hispanics, both videos spoke to personal experiences.

"I have asthma, and six years ago I had a major attack that almost killed me," said Gerardo Herrera, 13, an eighth-grader at the school in New Carrollton. His family didn't have health insurance. "It took a long time to pay off the bill," he said, and he is in favor of anything that makes it easier to obtain coverage.

Now Gerardo wants to do a music video about immigration reform.

Students said that Sotomayor, who grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, N.Y., and made it to Princeton and Yale, was an inspiring example for them.

In the music video about her ascent to the Supreme Court, students sang, "I told the world my story, Puerto Rican, poor, in the Bronx . . . now every time you see me vote, say what's up."

Before the Supreme Court justice visited the school, students researched her life and prepared questions.

"I asked her how does she overcome all that she'd been through," said James Grier, 13. "She was speechless for a minute . . . then she said, 'Courage. Some people might try to knock you down, but you have to get back up.' "

The students were brought together by a school counselor, William Clay, who produced the video and wrote lyrics with the students' input.

Clay, who arrived at the school last year, said that he had worried that students didn't have enough opportunities to mix and get to know each other. "I wanted to help bridge the gap between African American and Latino kids, as far as getting along together," he said.

Each three-minute video took about a month of planning and 20 hours of shooting, he said.

The program is another attempt to help Charles Carroll Middle School break from years of poor academic performance. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick talked about taking over the school in 1998 and again in 2006, although she decided against it both times.

The school's principal, Eric Wood, arrived in 2005 and pushed hard to remake the school's culture. He instituted uniforms, addressed disciplinary issues and brightened the school by fixing lights.

Test scores have risen every year since, although just half the students were proficient this year in math. In reading, 71 percent were proficient. Because the scores fell below state standards and Charles Carroll Middle receives federal money earmarked for high concentrations of poverty, Prince George's was required to allow students to transfer to better-performing middle schools. Wood said that adding sixth grade - previously the school was seventh and eighth - more than made up the difference. Enrollment is up to 850 students, from about 740 last year.

The students' wish for the health-care video? Sonia Sotomayor created high expectations: Charles Carroll Middle hopes for a visit from a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company