Thomas Jefferson Middle School: Home of the fallen Patriots

Tabitha Awoniyi

It was roughly 7:04 in the morning, and the sun had just come up. The way the light flew across the earth woke the residents of Poplar Level Rd. Filth piled up on the concrete, and the smell of grease tickled noses as busy sirens filled the atmosphere. Located in the center of it all was a middle school that resembled something more, like an abandoned factory. Graffiti covered the walls of the main entrance, and a white lady in her mid 30s stood there, ringing the buzzer, with coffee in one hand, books stacked in the other, with a warm grin on her face.

Ms. Ransdell is a 34-year-old woman who works as a teacher at what is now one of the lowest performing schools in the district—but not according to Ms. Ransdell. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she said, after taking a sip of her coffee. “That’s all we hear nowadays, and the statistics don’t mean a thing. TJ has broken the charts before. And we’ll do it again.” She walked upstairs to the second floor, past the word COMMUNICATIONS, spread across the dirty, chipped walls. She stopped at the second door on the right, lightly wiggled the doorknob. The lock on her door had been broken for weeks. In her classroom, shiny silver and gold plates glowed the room. Some read Best News Package, Most Likely to Be an Award Winning News Station, Best Videography, Best Filmography, 1st place, Rising Star….She sat at her desk, and the same warm grin lit her pale face. “Our Patriots are troopers.”

When Thomas Jefferson middle school was a high school in 1964, it gathered an accumulated attendance average of 93.0%, with a state average from 1185 schools of 94.5%. But once their rates, such as the dropout rate, neared the state average of 4.2% in 1981, the Board of Education decided to make Thomas Jefferson a middle school. Hopes were not high for the Patriots until the Communications Magnet Program opened a few years later, and their percentages began to show for the good. Now Ms. Ransdell, her sister, Ms. Denton, and her sister-in-law, Ms. Mattingly, spend over 9 hours a day juggling over 120 students, in order to keep their Newspaper, Broadcast, and Yearbook productions running. 

“It feels like I’ve been doing this almost all my life,” Ms. Ransdell said, “and I honestly cannot see myself doing anything else.”

And that may be because working in the Communications field was all she ever did. After graduating from high school, Ms. Ransdell began an internship at WHAS11, hoping that later, a job opportunity might come.  When positions were closing, she decided that teaching people what she had hoped to do would bring more joy and more money to her life. Two years later, she ended up at her desk at TJ, surrounded by towers of accomplishments.

“There’s something about Communications that keeps these kids interested. The rush of being a part of a Newscast, the creativity of designing a yearbook—these things make TJ shine in such a dark place. And that’s why we call them patriots. Through every discouragement, they just kept going,” Ms. Ransdell said, hiding her eyes in the sleeve of her shirt.

“Oh, Ms. Ransdell…” Yasmin Martinez (11), a former student of hers, said. “She was my favorite. She had such a positive attitude about everything. She wasn’t one of those teachers who watched you do work and expected you to fail. She worked with you. In fact, I wouldn’t of even called her my teacher. She was my friend.”

And year after year, the levels of achievement and success showed throughout Jefferson County Public schools and beyond.  After receiving numerous awards for its Communications program (including placements in High school competitions), Thomas Jefferson Middle School has done its very best to uphold its reputation as the only middle school in the county with a promising Communications Program. But after several teachers left for retirement, ‘loss of interest’, and ‘unnecessary arguments regarding the staff,’ in 2010, Thomas Jefferson Middle School  and the rest of the Patriots slid downhill, taking their awards and recognitions with them.

In only two years, the Patriots have gone from dominantly Proficient middle school, with a KCCT score of 59% to dominantly Novice— a Proficiency score of 30%.

“With TJ located in such a terrible neighborhood,” Ms. Denton said, “many people expect the school to be just as bad. But for  many, many years, we have proved several of them wrong. We have hardworking students who wanted nothing but to make a name for themselves, and there we tried our very best to be strong, driven teachers who were willing to help.” Mrs. Denton took a long pause as she stared at the ceiling. Her next couple words came out in soft, incomprehensive whispers. “Only God knows what happened throughout the years—but I think people have to understand that without the support of ‘their county,’ the troops will linger.” Ms. Denton was called to do an errand down the call. “Excuse me,” she says.  

Just in the last year, Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s cumulative test scores have dropped 10%. It has also undergone give weapon-related incidents, eight lock downs, and over 15 suspensions for school fights. In response, partners helping to sponsor their Communications Program have sent ‘warnings,’ whether or not their funding would continue. Enrollment of incoming 6th graders has decreased as well.

Through all this, Ms. Ransdell sat at her desk. Eyeliner ran down her cheeks. “We have survived for so long..” she said. “We were turning the charts, leaving people in awe. And now everyone should expect the Communications Program to be gone in a few years. They’re shutting us down.” Ms. Ransdell was called to do an errand down the Communications hallway. “The Patriots are no longer willing to fight,” she said as she went. 

It was now 2:30 in the afternoon, dismissal time for the students. The middle schoolers were told to leave the building in a single file line as they were escorted to their busses by police officers. With shirts neatly tucked in and blank expressions on their faces, the troops march out of school, their safe place, and walked out onto Poplar Level Rd.