There are no students at my school who enter 9th grade, stay four years, attend classes, excel, engage, and graduate as planned four years later. Not one. Not ever. The journey is filled with starts and stops, failures and more failures, fear, self-sabotage, and self-doubt. Generally, students come to us in 9th grade and hopefully they enter only two to three years below grade level in reading and math. Hopefully. Most enter 9th grade reading and doing math below a 5th grade level. But that’s not the bad part. They’ve been passed along in elementary school, learning from their experiences that good kids move on to the next grade, bad kids move on to the next grade, struggling students move on, and those who excel move on. Success is measured by compliance, not learning. So students enter 9th grade knowing, from all their lived experiences that showing up at school is what is needed to advance to the next grade; compliance, not learning is king. Add to this equation a healthy dose of inner city issues-be it poverty, trauma, loss, or violence, or maybe all at the same time. Then add a just a dash of puberty and the teenage sense of invincibility that comes with it, and we have ourselves the educational molotov cocktail entering our school doors on the first day of 9th grade. One hundred of those educational cocktails enter our doors in August.
Then the work begins. I use the term work, but it’s really a war. We fight daily for the hearts and minds of our students. We fight daily to plant the seeds, then to cultivate, and grow hopes and dreams for a positive and most importantly, a named future. We fight daily to shift from compliance to learning. We fight daily to teach skills. We fight daily to teach students to view themselves as learners. We fight daily to make our small school the eye of the storm so the violence of the neighborhood and the despair in the community can knock at our doors, but it cannot get inside. We fight daily to care about students, empathize with students, and teach students the tools to engage on their own as graduates with self-efficacy and agency.
I think of this fight as a cycle of Care, Empathy, and Engagement. Sometimes one leads to the other, and sometimes they are concurrent. Here’s a profile of three young men at different stages in this cycle.
D, T, and A
D enrolled at Design Lab in August of 2013. I don’t remember how many years below grade level he was when he arrived, but I know for sure he wasn’t close to reading or thinking, or problem solving on a 9th grade level.
T enrolled in August of 2014. Soon after his arrival, we lost our 9th grade history teacher and 9th grade English teacher for the year, and I couldn’t find certified replacements for months. T spent most of 9th grade taught by substitute teachers.
A enrolled in August of 2017. He came to our school because his sister graduated last year, and his mother believes we can get him to the finish line. A is on grade level as a reader. But he’s in and out of the juvenile detention center and he keeps on violating his parole.
D began stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down at our school soon after he arrived, but it took me awhile to figure it out. He played and laughed all the time, and by the end of first semester of 9th grade, he had failed every class. In February of 2014, as D continued to fail every course, I was able to purchase chromebooks for every student. We went from having six desktops in most classrooms, to a computer in everyone’s hands. I lacked systems and structures to manage the chromebooks and students started stealing them soon after I put them into use in classrooms. D continued to come to school every day, although he learned nothing.
Sometime in the spring, I figured out that D was the primary chromebook thief. I confronted him, scared him, and tricked him into admitting his crime by pretending I had more information than I really did. He had at least a dozen chromebooks at his home, and another bunch at a friend’s house. But he had sold many to a store that bought stolen goods from anyone willing to sell. He had sold enough computers to ensure a felony theft charge would follow him for the rest of his life. What to do? He had broken my trust. He had stolen from our school. And I intended to expel him and have him arrested to show the rest of my school what happened to computer thieves.
T spent most of 9th grade actually running through our hallways. His teachers couldn’t handle him, and he had a partner in crime who encouraged every bad behavior you can imagine, and many you can’t. T was either quiet in class or outrageously disruptive. When quiet, he spent most of his time, with his hood up to hide his headphones. He could tune out whatever the teacher was saying by listening to music. Depending on the course, he either failed quietly, or loudly. But he failed them all. He alternated between invisible with some teachers, and angrily cursing and yelling at others. T lives in a neighborhood where he must be in a gang to survive. There is no choice, and he started skipping school more than he attended school. Every time he returned we talked privately. I challenged him to either drop out or engage in school. I told him his circumstances outside of school could control, and ultimately end his life, or he could take charge of his own life and make something better. He never fully engaged; but he never left either. T has been coming to school, and trying to be a ghost for years.
In the first week of school this year, A cursed at a teacher. The teacher asked him a question, about whatever the learning was intended to be, and A’s very clear answer was “Fuck You.” When A got to me, I told him that how he talks to people matters, and our conversation degenerated from there pretty quickly. Within seconds, we were nose to nose, and A hadn’t threatened me yet, but he was ready to hit me. We were inches apart, and I whispered to him, “If you hit me, you might knock me down, but you will end up leaving this building in handcuffs. How do you win this?” I could see A thinking it through. He cursed at me to save face, and took a step back and sat down.
I brought D’s family in to my office to tell them he was being expelled. As I remember it, two uncles and his mother came to the meeting. One uncle said nothing-he just sat there filled with rage; either at me or D, it wasn’t clear. The other uncle talked about D as being the hope of the family. He was to be the first to graduate from high school. He was to be one of the only men to stay out of jail. He was the one who would make it; how could he have done this? And his mother sat quietly, seething. I hadn’t told them what my plan was, and before I could, D’s mother, in a voice filled with loss and anger said, “Kick him out of your school. Have him arrested. I’m done with him.” And then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her. I sent them away, without making a decision, and told them to come back the next day.
I didn’t expel him, and I didn’t call the police. I decided that what D needed most was care. If he were to fail, let him fail knowing that he did it to himself. Let him fail knowing that someone was there by his side, and his failure was his, and his alone. And maybe he wouldn’t fail. The uncles came back, and this time, I had my custodian, and my basketball coach/assistant custodian, with me. I told D he wasn’t expelled and I wouldn’t be calling the police. I told him he couldn’t transfer to another school, no matter what, and if he tried to, I would call the police about the chromebooks. And I told D he owed me a debt. He needed to volunteer to work at the end of each school day and during school vacations, including summer break to work off the monetary debt. But the debt could not, and would not be fully paid until he graduated from high school.
T was shot last year in a gang-related incident. I still don’t know the whole story, nor do I want to. But some people came to his house and shot at the windows. Subsequently, T ended up shot in the foot. I never heard the full story, but he stayed out of school for months. The cover story was he couldn’t walk, and that was partially true, but the real story was he and his mother feared that leaving his house would result in his death. So he stayed home. I tried to convince him to withdraw from school, so he could be in an online program, to have some chance of doing something school related in his absence. But his mother told me that withdrawing from our school meant he would never graduate. He was staying. No matter what.
I’ve suspended A over and over again in the first semester. He is so angry. His mother refuses to come in most days; she says he’s too difficult. He’s either in class for the entire period or kicked out within seconds of arrival. There’s rarely an in between. He’s failed every course in the first semester, and our testing to check for readiness or lack thereof for the state graduation tests, tells us he’s learned absolutely nothing in the first semester. His behavior before Winter Break got progressively worse, to the point where I called his probation officer four days in a row. Although I didn’t know it until we returned from break, A’s behavior in school, resulted in him spending a week in lock up at the Juvenile Detention Center over winter break. He blames me for his time in lock up.
D’s mother never stepped foot in our school again. He worked summers and vacations, and even when we told him he had worked enough, he asked to come back for more. The story isn’t a happy one after I let him stay. He gave up, over and over again, and someone always had to pick him back up again. First it was my custodian who became his mentor, and caregiver and taught him what hard work looked and felt like, and what it meant to take pride in a job well done. Then my assistant custodian/basketball coach took up the mantle and became his caregiver-teaching him resilience, toughness and to never give up. Later my Campus Coordinator taught D the content he needed to pass the last two state exams standing in his way. Her care and willingness to make time to teach D, when she clearly had no time to give, allowed him to cross the finish line. And I, I did what I do. I was the eye of the storm, offering care when none was warranted. I cared by being angry for D, and occasionally angry with D. I cared by offering him a glimpse of what the future could hold. I empathized when he wanted to give up, picked him up when he fell, pushed him when he needed it, and cheered as often as possible.
On December 21, 2017, he graduated. And as I shook his hand, and hugged him on that stage, I whispered in his ear, that his debt is fully paid. After graduation, I stood with his family, and his mother, who I hadn’t seen since that day in my office, told me with tears in her eyes, that D is planning to attend college. We didn’t discuss our last conversation, held years before.
In two weeks, I’ll be speaking to 8th graders who are making high school choices for next year. D will speaking by my side. He’s agreed to share his story with the potential class of 2022. He’s also coming in next week so my Campus Coordinator can help him with his college applications. He wants to attend the University of Akron in the fall.
T sat with my Campus Coordinator earlier this week. He’s 19 years old now, and there’s no chance for him to graduate in May. He’s accepted a job at a factory, and he’s right on the edge of dropping out. But he doesn’t want to. My Campus Coordinator worked out an academic game plan, where, if he does everything, and works incredibly hard, he could graduate in August. I came in to speak with him, and he looked me in my eyes and told me he wants to graduate. I believe him. Can he do it? I don’t know. But for the first time since he arrived, I know that he wants to graduate as much as we want him to graduate. And that’s a start. He’s been shot, missed a ton of school, and has a job he doesn’t want. But he needs to do engage in school. He needs to put in the time. I’m incredibly hopeful I have the opportunity to give him the diploma will have earned in early August.
A came to school yesterday incredibly angry. He started cursing at me immediately and was dressed to promote antagonism and anger. He came to school to fight, not with another student, but certainly with me, and his every action screamed “I dare you to engage with me. I dare you to connect with me. I dare you to get me to try.” I brought him to our Planning Center, the place students go to decompress, or when they need to be taken out of class. He looked at me with such anger and hatred in his eyes, and said, “I ain’t doing anything you ask.” I told him he had a choice. He could pull his pants up, take out his head phones, and leave his phone, his headphones, his hoodies, his do-rag, and a bunch of other items with our Planning Center teacher, or if he intended to keep them all on, he could walk out of the building. There was no in between. He yelled at me, cursed at me, and told me in no uncertain terms how awful I am. My Planning Center teacher stood up and raised her voice in a way that she never does. “How dare you!” she said. “How dare you let this man, care more about you than you care about yourself!” A ignored her words, and said to me, “I’m going to class, and I’ll wear what I want to wear and say what I want to say to whoever, whenever.” I told him if he walked into any class, with any of the items I had demanded he remove, I would physically remove him from the building. “And when you put your hands on me, I will beat you down.” He said. “You may beat me down,” I said, “and then you will go back to jail. It’s your move.” We waited, silently, in a tension-filled office. Slowly, and quietly, without looking at me, A handed all of the items I required to our Planning Center teacher, and I walked away without another word.
A stayed and spoke with her for another thirty minutes or so. While I know what was said, it’s not for public consumption. And then A, went to class. And he had what might have been his best day of learning all year.
D’s story is one that appears to end happily. So far. He’s graduated, but there’s still more to do, and his story isn’t over. T is poised at the precipice. On one side is a diploma with choices for a better future. On the other side, he’s a drop-out at nineteen, living a life he hates. And A’s story is still in the first chapter. Of all three young men, he has the most academic potential. If he can learn to be a positive young man, he could absolutely succeed at a four year college. He can be anything and anyone he wants. But can he stay out of jail? I don’t know. Can he pass any high school class? He can for sure. Will he choose to? I just don’t know.
There aren’t any students in our school for whom the road is easy. We care. We empathize, and we get them to engage. And sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t. Either way, the cycle continues.
Until next week...