Monday, April 30, 2001

Taft students try to make the grade

English students face critical semester exams

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Taft High students return in January from winter break, a message is posted on the West End school's outdoor sign: “Happy New Year. Mentors Needed.”

Finding an enjoyable activity - such as choir - can help at-risk students try harder to stay in school.
Students begin make-or-break English
A mentor can be a lifeline to a young person struggling to find success. See how you can help.
        Old concerns also carry over into the new year for 16-year-old Johnny Watson and others in teacher Sandy Houck's second-bell English class. They failed freshman English a year ago. But they can earn two years' credit if they pass common exams and complete their reading and writing portfolios by the end of the school year.

        Making the grade isn't easy for these students. Like teens in other poor-performing urban schools, many struggle to get to class while dealing with the devastating effects of poverty.

        Now, as the second-quarter grading period winds down, a dreaded portfolio requirement — an explanatory speech — looms in Ms. Houck's class.

        It will be their last exam of the quarter. Their English credit depends on it.

        She walks around the room, handing out a sheet of paper that lists the speech guidelines.

        Ms. Houck doesn't notice Johnny push the paper off his desk.

        Suspensions and truancy caused this sullen 16-year-old from Price Hill to fail his freshman year. Then during the summer he rang up curfew and marijuana charges.

        But through the fall and early winter, a juvenile probation officer, Lori Brumbaugh, had a profound impact. She was someone he could talk to, someone who encouraged and challenged him. As a result, Johnny's attitude toward school improved. He displayed an inner resilience that helped him persevere.

        The new year will put that resilience to the test. Johnny is no longer on probation, and no longer sees Ms. Brumbaugh.

        For many at-risk youth, hopelessness overwhelms inner resilience. Layers of poverty — joblessness, single-parent homes, abuse and crime — wear young people down emotionally. Eventually they are stripped of the basic confidence that their effort will be rewarded.

        The struggle affects students at Taft High, which draws from an area where 75 percent of families live below the poverty level. It explains, at least in part, why Taft and many struggling urban schools graduate less than half of those who enter high school.

        Roger Collins is a University of Cincinnati professor of education who has a doctorate in clinical psychology. He understands how motivation wanes in many at-risk students, such as those in Ms. Houck's class.

        In a stable, responsive home, he says, a child grows up believing he can influence his environment so that his needs are met. But a child who grows up in a poor, unstable home often finds that his needs go unmet no matter what he does.

        The result, Dr. Collins says, is the child “begins to believe he can't necessarily influence the world, and that a lot of the world's impact is beyond his control.” In school, such students quit trying.

        That inner sense of futility often is reinforced by what young people in poor communities encounter outside school, Dr. Collins says. They see talented people who have been unable to capitalize on their skills. And yet, teachers tell students they'll be successful if they try hard and use their abilities to their fullest.

        “As a kid without adult guidance, I've got to put this together in my head. What am I supposed to make of this?” For some students, Dr. Collins says, the notion of “try hard and you'll make it” ia myth.

        In Room 217, Johnny's speech guidelines lie on the floor for several seconds. “How did that get there?” Ms. Houck says. She reaches down, picks up the paper, and puts it back on his desk.

        Johnny glumly stares ahead, saying nothing.

Choir provides a place to reach for success

        Through January, Johnny continues to go to school. One reason is choir.

        “The people in there, they're cool,” he says. “They ain't like the people who run around real loud and stupid. I can't stand that. I used to be like that. I don't see no use for it.

        “We sing joyful music. I like the gospel music a lot.”

        During seventh bell one day, 10 students, including Johnny, stand around a piano; music teacher Jacqueline E. Carr sits at the keyboard. Several other teens in chairs refuse to participate.

        “I'm not singin' for this school,” one boy says.

        “Not singing for this school?” Ms. Carr says, incredulously. “Don't have time for it,” she snaps, and her fingers hit the piano keys for the first of several spirituals.

        Johnny, the only bass, keeps his eyes riveted to Ms. Carr's face, following her directions. “If you don't put the bounce into it, it's not a Negro spiritual,” she says of You Gotta Have Religion. After the rehearsal, sitting at a desk, Johnny pores over sheet music and sings softly to himself.

        “He's good,” Ms. Carr says later. “Johnny will learn his part all by himself and carry his part over three tenors.”

        Finding an enjoyable activity at school provides “holding power” that keeps at-risk students in classes, says Will J. Jordan, associate director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University.

        But often when students get in trouble, Dr. Jordan says, “the first thing schools do is remove holding power. ... So kids have only their medicine, and no dessert.”

        Basketball's holding power over two students in Ms. Houck's second-bell class, Eugene Thomas and Brian Gentry, is evident. Both play on Taft's junior varsity basketball team. Both were benched at least part of the past two seasons because of poor grades. And both worked harder in the classroom to regain eligibility.

        But while such activities might boost self-esteem, they are only one piece of the puzzle of success for at-risk students.

        Research shows “very little relationship between self-esteem and (academic) achievement, which usually shocks the heck out of people,” UC's Dr. Collins says. So, success in activities such as choir may not carry over to classrooms such as English.

        On a day when Ms. Houck's students are writing their speeches, Johnny is more dour than usual. He struggles with a question: “three words that best describe me.”

        “What kind of young man is Johnny Watson?” Ms. Houck says.

        Johnny ponders this a moment. A year ago, the answer might have been different. A year ago, he tells Ms. Houck, he didn't do a speech because he was suspended.

        “You're a much better person this year,” Ms. Houck says, her hopeful remark aimed at a boy she knows has ability.

        Johnny mutters, “I still don't want to do it.”

        The speech isn't the only presentation he must make. Ms. Carr has chosen him to write and deliver the introduction for the Taft piano recital.

        The day of the recital, the small choir room is packed with parents, youth advocates, administrators and ministers. Johnny walks to the middle of the room. In practice, the words came out in a stutter. But this time, even Johnny is surprised at how smoothly they flow.

        “Good morning,” he says, “and welcome to the Robert A. Taft High School student recital. We have a treat in store for you this morning, so sit back and enjoy the piano music performed by Ms. Carr's music students. Without further adieu, let's begin the program.”

        He walks away, relieved. And proud.

        “He was so good,” Ms. Carr says later. “Johnny was the one I could depend on, over all the seniors or anybody else in here.”

Semester grade hangs on a final speech

        When the last week of the quarter arrives and explanatory speeches are due, Ms. Houck repeats what her students already know. “If you do not give a speech for me,” she says, “I cannot give you credit for English.”

        More than a speech grade is at stake. If they fail freshman English a second time, they'll likely never catch up.

        Ms. Houck reminds them of their other obligations: independent reading, and various writing assignments. “You cannot get around this. These are requirements.”

        She takes attendance. Only 12 of 21 enrolled students are present this day. “A lot of these people,” she says, “are not going to be getting credit.”

        Author Jonathan Kozol has encountered similar scenarios while writing about poor urban students for more than 30 years.

        “I'll bet most of them had very strong motivation when they were in second grade,” he says. “The reason you don't see that glow in their eyes anymore, or their willingness to collaborate with teachers in winning victories for themselves, is because the dream died when they were 10 years old.

        “When the physical conditions of life — housing, foster parentage, homelessness — are overwhelming, kids simply come to school exhausted. They fall asleep in school. ... Emotionally, they pay an even higher price. Their sense of good faith in the American dream is eroded.”

        In Room 217, Ms. Houck closes the door. “All right, who's ready?”

        Nobody wants to be first.

        “Let me tell you something,” she says. “I hated giving speeches in high school. I won't penalize you for nervousness, unless you get up here and act totally goofy. So who's ready to go?”

        Ms. Houck takes a seat in the center of the room. The first girl to break the ice does a fine job, describing herself as “independent, smart, well-dressed.”

        Vivianna Price, six weeks shy of her 16th birthday, is next.

        “I'm scared,” she says.

        “You will do fine,” Ms. Houck says.

        Eleven months earlier, Vivianna stood on a classroom window ledge, threatening suicide. She battled severe mood swings all last year until being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and getting treatment.

        “I'm scared, Ms. Houck.”

        “Vivianna, you will do fine.”

        Much of last year, Taft's student assistance coordinator, Delores Thomas, was her steadying influence. In moments of crisis, Vivianna ran to her. But she's not running now.

        “I can't do this, Ms. Houck. I can't do this.”

        She looks down at the note cards in her hands.


        “Good morning,” Ms. Houck says, “my name is Vivianna Price. ... ”

        Vivianna takes the cue.

        “Hi, my name is Vivianna Price.” She speeds through the speech. “I have one sister, three brothers. ... I live in Price Hill on McPherson. The only thing I hate up there is the drugs.”

        When it's over, she quickly walks to her seat with a look of relief.

        At first, no one volunteers to go next.

        “It's done,” Yolanda Battles, who is eight months pregnant, says of her speech. “I just don't want to read it.”

        She's stalling until exam makeup day.

        Then everyone sees Johnny Watson stand. The quiet, sometimes brooding boy who pushed the assignment off his desk when handed to him, who told Ms. Houck he didn't want to do it, who was suspended last year when speeches were delivered, who sometimes smiles in choir but never in English ... is suddenly up walking to the front of the class.

        “Good morning. My name is Johnny Watson.”

        He says he was born in Miami. Says he has lived in Winton Terrace, Mount Airy and, now, Autumn Woods, a Price Hill apartment complex. He's making good eye contact.

        “The best thing about where I live is nothing,” he says. “The worst thing, I got little kids running around on scooters, chasing me.”

        Several classmates giggle.

        “I'm curious, artistic, and not honest,” he says, and they chuckle again.

        “In the future, I'd like to be an architect or in construction.”

        The speech lasts one minute, 15 seconds. Several classmates applaud as he returns to his desk by the chalk board.

        He sits down. And for just an instant, Johnny smiles.

More students slip away as year progresses

        When a new semester begins in late January, Vivianna Price glances around Room 217. “Our class gets smaller and smaller each day, you know that Ms. Houck?” she says. Twenty students are now enrolled, but only five are here.

        Attendance at Taft tends to follow a pattern, administrators say. It's high at the beginning of the school year, when students start with a clean slate and optimism reigns.

        After the first semester, attendance drops. Students who have failed the first half of the year no longer see the point in coming.

        “It comes down to, they've got to want to,” says Helen Rindsberg, a Taft assistant principal. “It's the poverty that limits our kids' views of what's possible. Poverty limits the adult context they have.”

        But in some students, even those surrounded by failure, an inner resilience still burns.

        After choir one day, Johnny says he still sometimes thinks about dropping out, “but I'm not going to do it. I want to go to college, that's the only reason I'm staying in.”

        The first week of the new semester Ms. Houck tells Johnny he's passed the ninth-grade English common exam. Johnny's somber expression doesn't change.

        Still undone are writing portfolio assignments he must complete to get credit for freshman English.

Johnny disappointed, chooses not to give up

        At 2 p.m. on a gray, damp Valentine's Day, students briefly drop by their home rooms to pick up first semester report cards.

        In Room 309, teacher Lynn Philpot has written her “thought for the day” on the chalk board: “People can fail many times but they are not a failure until they begin to blame someone else.”

        She hands Johnny his grades.

        He looks at the paper and shakes his head. For five months he has been coming to class regularly. For five months in English he's read short stories and plays, written papers, tried to keep up. In this instant, none of it seems to matter.

        “I don't appreciate this,” he says quietly. “I gotta talk to Ms. Houck.”

        At the 2:10 dismissal bell, he bolts out of the room, down a flight of stairs, and into Room 217.

        “Ms. Houck, we gotta talk,” he says, with urgency. Another student leaves the room.

        “My first-quarter grade you said you were gonna change,” he says, his voice rising. “I got a lock down because of this grade last time. Why'd you do that to me? Why'd you do that, Ms. Houck?”

        Johnny lays the paper on her desk. It shows three Bs. One C. One A, in choir. But his English grades — for first quarter, second-quarter midterm, second quarter, and first semester — are a string of Ds.

        Unflustered, Ms. Houck says he still has too many missing assignments. She opens her grade book to the first quarter. “What did you ever do with your goals for the year?”

        He never turned in that paper. A persuasive writing paper is also missing.

        “Now, I'm looking at second quarter,” Ms. Houck says. She points out several more missing papers.

        “Johnny, I know you get the stuff started. Is there any night you can stay after school, or come in at lunch time, and we can go over this?”

        She writes a note on his report card: “Grades will change — Johnny has some missing assignments he's working on.”

        Johnny walks out of the room, crumples the paper in his hand, and tosses it into a trash can.

        He walks to his bus stop, feeling overwhelmed. Unlike last year, he's coming to school regularly. But catching up is difficult. Last year's failures, a result of suspensions and truancy, seem daunting. How will he earn two years of English credits in one year? He still has independent reading to do. And other assignments keep coming.

        “It's too much,” he says.

        At places like Taft High, success sometimes must be measured in small increments: earning a D that last year was an F; arguing with a teacher but not cursing her; doing an assignment that might have been ignored.

        A few modest accomplishments are no guarantee of ultimate success. But string enough small victories together, and there is hope.

        For Johnny Watson, hope is like a flickering candle. A year ago, it was nearly extinguished. But it burns brighter with each victory: coming to school almost every day. Completing probation. Finding his niche in choir. Delivering an important English speech.

        Now the question becomes: Will these successes be enough to sustain in Johnny a belief that hard work will be rewarded, that education is the way to a better life?

        This night, on sheets of white lined paper, Johnny starts writing.

        “Last year I did poorly,” he begins. “My grades were at an F average. My conduct was simply unruly. I had a bad attitude and did not feel like doing any of my work. ... I did not want to listen to what any of my teachers told me to do, simply because I felt that everything I did and said was right, when all along I was wrong. ... ”

        In 2 1/2 pages of neat script, he outlines his goals:

        Do his school work.

        Avoid arguing with teachers.

        Participate in choir.

        He finds joy in singing, and something more.

        In choir, Johnny writes, “I can find people who are serious about their education. That's a place where I need to be.”


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