Florida Keys News
Monday, October 21, 2013
Diversity is a plus at Marathon Middle High School

Of the three main high schools in Monroe County only Marathon Middle High School, located in the geographic center of the Keys, incorporates the area middle school into its campus - and overall school zeitgeist.

Throw in the Middle Keys campus of Florida Keys Community College, and MMHS can boast a building offering sixth grade, through post-secondary education.

"It provides us with our own feeder pattern," said MMHS Principal Hammond Gracy. "We try to encourage our students to seek out their own academic levels, and because we have sixth- through 12-grade under one roof, we're able to get the younger kids into advanced placement in the higher grades. It's one of our strengths. The last thing I want to do is undereducate a student."

The school's vision statement asserts that "Marathon Middle High School will provide a world class education and the requisite skills necessary for our children to be a success in the global community."

The school's mission statement claims that "Our mission is to maximize student learning in a safe and orderly environment."

Both statements touch on ideals near and dear to Gracy's heart, both as an educator, and parent to school-age children. The principal has an "open door" policy, that results in many students dropping by to ask for his advice on a variety of subjects.

A photo on the wall of Gracy's office depicts the first school in Marathon, circa 1928. That small shack has given way to a number of area institutions, but none are as central to the education process as MMHS, which counts about 256 middle school, and 383 high school students, the total school population is 639.

That number includes all three of Gracy's own daughters. Twins Abby and Annie are in 8th grade while Hannah is in high school.

"Having my kids attend my school is a bit of a challenge in itself," said Gracy with a laugh. "Though I imagine it's probably tougher on them than on me."

Gracy hails from north Florida and has 36 years of experience in Florida schools, four of them as principal of MMHS. Before moving to the Keys, Gracy was principal of a Jacksonville-area high school with over 2,000 students, but while he sees the advantages of hosting the middle and high schools at the same location, he's not convinced that bigger is necessarily better.

"As high schools go, all three of the so-called 'big' ones in the Keys are actually pretty small," Gracy said. "But I feel that the academics here are as good as anywhere. Since I've been here we've had a National Merit Scholar, Marina Kay Wiatt, and our valedictorian, last year, Taylor Konrath is now at Duke University. For a school this size, we really have great academic and extracurricular programs."

In addition the school as recognized on the 2013 Advanced Placement Scholars' Report for having 16 AP scholars. This award recognized high school students who have demonstrated college-level achievement through AP courses and exams.

"This is an outstanding accomplishment for such a small school," Gracy said.

Over the last eight years, the school has been either an A or B rated school. In 2012-13, MMHS was ranked a B. The school serves students from Ramrod Key in the south, to Mile Marker 70, though an open enrolment policy means that any students who wish to attend, MMHS, can. Six school buses bring students to school.

During a tour of the campus student enthusiasm for learning, as well as the esprit de corps, is evident.

Homecoming just around the corner, and this year's theme is "Decades." All over the school, numerous students are dressed up in appropriate garb, including "Pink Ladies" jackets for the girls, and "greaser" leather jackets, jeans, and Converse sneakers, for the boys.

"I'm pretty sure that our Homecoming Parade is the only one in the country that occupies a major highway," Gracy said. "It's a pretty big deal for us."

In keeping with the "Decades" theme, the theater department is gearing up for its Nov. 16 production of "A Night On Broadway." The show will feature snippets from such classics as "Hairspray," "Chicago," "Mama Mia," "Wicked," and, of course, "Grease."

Last year's production of "The Little Mermaid" was a huge success, and two veterans of that presentation, Xavier McKnight and Aliyah Simms are taking a lead role in bringing "Broadway" to the school, by producing and directing the show.

"I think it's really great that we students are given the freedom to put on a student-run," Simms said. "Most schools don't allow you that kind of opportunity."

Gracy agreed that the school's theatrical productions are a cause for celebration.

"We have a very dynamic drama program," Gracy said. "We had over 40 cast members in 'The Little Mermaid.' It's definitely one of the strengths of our school."

McKnight and Simms aren't just theater buffs, the pair are also in the running for Homecoming King and Queen.

Every student in the high school grades is encouraged to cast a vote in that contest, which pits four Queen and five King candidates against each other.

To that end, Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin has been visiting the school lately, to help students learn about the voting process, by way of the same voting machines used in county elections.

"You have to give young people the power if you want to change America," Griffin said during one such visit. "We're trying to get them used to the idea of casting ballots.

The 41 certified educators at the school are also trying to get the students used to the idea of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.)

"Lately we've been working hard to get the kids interested in the Florida Astronaut Challenge," said Alison Heyl, who teaches tenth- through 12th-grade mathematics. "I also do my best to push engineering in my calculus class. I spend a bit of time talking about real world applications for these studies, as well as letting my students know about scholarship opportunities in these fields."

That encouragement is paying off.

Twelfth grade student Chris Portillo has lately been leaning towards a career in biology.

"I'm interested in doing something that involves working with sharks," Portillo said during a break in Carrollyn Cox's biology class. "I like the idea of working with baby sharks, catching them, and feeding them. It seems like it could be a fun career."

About half of MMHS's students speak Spanish as a first language. Thanks to language teacher Katherine Mayan, the school is also able to offer these Spanish speakers algebra instruction in their mother tongue. "It's another strength of ours," Gracy said. "The ability to teach students in their first languages shows the kind of dynamism that we're shooting for here."

Over at the middle school building, the oldest in the complex, eighth-grade students Kelsey Micire, Leslie Rodriguez, and Mia Bruno, are sitting in the hallway, helping each other brush up on their Spring Board curriculum. The school was the first in the district to use the curriculum, according to Gacy.

Inside the classroom, language arts teacher Tracey McDonald is canvassing her students on what they like best about their school.

Among the answers she receives are "class personalities," the schools sports programmes, and the fact that "teachers actually care about how well you do."

McDonald herself is full of school spirit.

"My students are full of potential," she said. "They're intelligent and have the ability to soar, and they're working really hard to get there."

As the parent of three MMHS students, Gracy obviously agrees.

"I'm very proud of my students and my teachers," Gracy said. "I have no hesitation about putting my own kids in any of these classes, and that's my standard. I want every class, every program to be good enough for them."


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