By Terrence McCoy
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But the place wasn't immune to the cultural turmoil of the time. "They could bus us in, but they couldn't force the races to mingle," says Robert, a black 1970 graduate who wouldn't give his last name for fear of ostracizing former classmates. "Most of those white kids hadn't had much experience with black people, and a lot of them didn't show much interest in giving us a chance."
The school was known for excellence both in the classroom and on the athletic field. In years before academic performance was distilled as statistic, glowing student testimonials and national contest winners told the story. Between 1974 and 1980, Carol City students won four prestigious National Merit Scholarships, including three National Achievement Scholarships, which are reserved for African-Americans. The state liked to herald the diverse school: On his first day as governor in 1979, Bob Graham taught a student government class there.
And Carol City athletes made the campus a magnet for big-time scouts. Top sports were wrestling and basketball. Then there was the Chiefs' marching band, which no longer gyrates to Jefferson Airplane but is still often referred to as the "soul" of Carol City High.
Eventually white flight transformed the surrounding neighborhoods, and with them the student demographic. Miami Gardens was seen by black middle-class families as an attractive refuge from the Third-World streets of Overtown and Liberty City. By the mid-'80s, more than three-quarters of the school was black. As the years passed, that proportion grew.
The athletic department maintained its fame for diligent coaching and talented kids. The Chiefs' strongest suit is football, and they won three state championships in that sport from 1996 to 2003. They've produced scads of college talent and more than a dozen big-league athletes in the three major sports, from University of Miami hero and NFL defensive tackle Lester Williams (class of 1978) to major-league outfielder Danny Tartabull (1980) to pro wide receiver sibling phenoms Santana and Sinorice Moss (1996 and 2001).
But Carol City's stellar academic reputation was less enduring. In 1981, the school was branded "deficient" after fewer than 70 percent of its students passed a basic skills achievement test. Then there were straight D ratings from 1998 through 2006. A John Hopkins study labeled the school a "dropout factory" for its 53 percent graduation rate. In 1986, ten faculty members, including three teachers, were busted for drug use or property theft.
Many students insist the stats don't tell the story. "Most of the teachers are really excellent and very caring," says Latoya Bentley, a 2006 graduate.
"It's a ghetto place," counters 20-year-old Robert Williams. He briefly attended Carol City before transferring to Miami Central High, another troubled school. "The building, the teachers, the kids — it's got this real ghetto atmosphere."
As Miami Gardens' property tax revenues plummeted to the third-lowest in the county, residents blamed the projects filling the neighborhood — and directly surrounding the school — for importing a culture of drugs and crime. The controversial stance was made official in 2007 when Mayor Shirley Gibson vowed her city would allow no more low-income housing developments.
Carol City High also draws students from Opa-locka, which in 2004 had the most violent crimes per capita of any city in the nation. A Miami Herald study showed the 33054 area — effectively Carol City High's student pool — to be the most dangerous zip code in the county for teenagers.
But in 2006, a familial closeness still defined the school. And Carol City High students — until they graduated or dropped out, at least — seemed safe from the violence that had gripped the surrounding area.
One glance at Paul Moore's classroom reveals he is a different type of teacher. Images of black heroes adorn the walls: Barack Obama, Malcolm X, and Rick Ross are tacked alongside clipped news articles about close-to-home subjects such as the Miami Edison in-school "riot" of 2007. On the whiteboard, written in Moore's neatly boxy script, is the dictum of the day: "The National Bureau of Economic Research and Young Jeezy agree: We're in a recession."
It's a reference to the title of the rapper's latest album. "I probably know more about hip-hop than the average white person," says Moore, a six-foot-five Massachusetts native and former union organizer. "If it's a piece of music that I know speaks to students, I'll make sure I familiarize myself with it."
In the 26 years he has taught social studies at Carol City High, his style has evolved to accommodate an intimacy with his pupils. He has eschewed textbooks in favor of daily personal essays. Class discussions are freewheeling and pertinent to his students' lives.
In this classroom — he taught three of the boys who would later be murdered — and around the school, Moore came to know the class of 2006. "There was something special about those students," the usually unsentimental teacher says. "There was a core of high achievers and ambitious kids."
But he noticed something else among his students as the class neared its final year: a morbid familiarity with the high-powered tools of violence. He recalls a Carol City teenager named Ashley telling him of the newest trend among her peers: posing with assault rifles and machine guns at house parties. He scrolled a few of his students' MySpace pages and was horrified by photos of boys nonchalantly hoisting the heavy weapons.