Classes revolve around test prep

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When Rosedell Chester III learned last August that he would be going to Transition Center F instead of high school, he was mad and his father was worried his son would be among “bad kids, dysfunctional kids, kids with problems.”

Those attitudes didn’t last long.

Within a week at Transition F, Rosedell had new friends, and school “started being cool.” One friend, the fast-talking Marcus Allen, “could make an Energizer bunny look like a Duracell,” says Kevin Jones, a security guard who Marcus sought out as a friend. Jones doesn’t know Rosedell as well, only that he’s “an angel compared to Marcus.”

The two boys take classes together even though each “passed” a different part of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, Rosedell in math and Marcus in reading. Rosedell considers math his weaker subject, so he didn’t mind the review. Beginning next year, transition center students who arrive with a passing score in either reading or math will go straight into high school-level work in that subject.

“In elementary school, if you didn’t get it, they just moved on to something new,” Rosedell says. “Here they keep giving you the work until you get it down. I didn’t like math until I got here.”

His father, an electrician, says Rosedell didn’t get enough help at Cameron Elementary School and endured putdowns from his teachers. “They were impatient with the kids. They didn’t know their students. Cameron was hell for my son.”

Where Cameron draws over 1,200 students, Transition F enrolled only 220 this fall. “I think being small is the key to the success in the school,” says Chester. “I can see the teachers speaking to the children on a personal basis, being friendly to them, knowing their names. There was no screaming and hollering ‘Get out of the hall!'”

A friend of Rosedell’s who lives off and on with a drug-addicted mother was truant at Cameron but now attends Transition F regularly, says Chester. He attributes that to the school’s friendly atmosphere. “The school made him want to come to school.”

Rosedell’s main interests are drawing and rap music, and he wants to be a comic book artist someday. When asked about college, he seems uncertain, although his father says that’s definitely in his future.

For now, Rosedell spends 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the 3rd floor of Our Lady of the Angels at 3814 W. Iowa, home to Transition F. The school is surrounded by run-down two-flats. A new drug house in a nearby alley lures some students.

“I’m absolutely sure there was some gang activity outside the school yesterday,” center director Anthony Finger announces on a clear Wednesday morning in early December. A hush falls over the cafeteria as students look up from their styrofoam breakfast trays. “The police will be here as soon as division is over this morning. I’m telling you just so you know.”

Rosedell misses the announcement. He has overslept.

Here are the highlights of his day.

Periods 1 and 2: Math

It’s 8:15 a.m., and Lauretta White has just laid her attendance book aside when Rosedell strides in, hands her a late pass and slides into a front-row seat next to Marcus, who gives him a grin.

Rosedell is the first of six latecomers to White’s class this morning; on an average day, there are three or four out of a class of 21. White notes that after-school detention can’t be used as a stick because students have to catch buses.

Rosedell rarely oversleeps, but he was up until midnight ironing his clothes. “I spend an hour on my pants,” he explains later.

White quickly gets down to business. “Who’s got their homework? Let me see it.” Out of 16 students present, five hands go up, including Rosedell’s. “What have we got here, Christmasitis?”

Transition teachers cite a low return on homework as one of their most serious problems. “There’s a lot of pressure in their social life to be out there doing other things,” White notes. “It overrides even their deepest sense of what they ought to be doing.”

Since the class has gotten lax, White makes them calculate the percentage of students who didn’t do their homework. If they find it’s more than 20 percent, she tells them, everyone will get a double load of homework tonight. At the chalk board, she helps them through the calculation. “Come on, you’re working this with me,” she says sternly.

That done, penalty assigned, she leads her students through last night’s assignment. Most problems involve ratios and proportions, such as solving for “b” where 2/5 equals 10/b.

Still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Rosedell works the problems and volunteers answers. He is one of only four active participants. Some, like Marcus, pick up their pencils after White tells them to get to work.

Six refuse to work altogether. One boy puts his head down. A girl stares vacantly. A sullen boy in the last row fiddles with his notebook cover. White will deal with them later.

Many students struggle with basic computation, but word problems, which make up the bulk of the 8th-grade ITBS, give them the most difficulty, transition teachers say.

“I have some students who do well on an isolated skill, such as multiplying, but when taken as a multi-step problem, they just freeze,” White says. She attributes that to “fear of math, lack of confidence in problem solving,” and in some cases, poor reading skills.

Only one word problem comes up today. “Leslie’s car can go 95 miles on 5 gallons of gasoline. How many gallons of gasoline does Leslie need to drive 304 miles?'”

Here she leads them through the setup of two equivalent ratios. “What do I need on top?”

“304,” several students chime.

“Because 304 represents what?” Miles. “So what is missing?” Gallons. “We’ll call that ‘x.'”

White’s class has covered a lot of ground since the start of the semester—from place value to multiplication and division to fractions and decimals. Next week, she’ll work on interpreting graphs and later a little geometry. On each topic she spent enough time for at least half the class to show “adequate comprehension.”

Some students still flounder with math as basic as the multiplication tables, however. During a chapter test the second period, several have to refer to a times table chart over the blackboard.

Other students have more serious issues than times tables. The same six who didn’t work earlier also refuse to take the test. Each has a different problem, which White addresses individually as best she can.

One girl was just reinstated at Transition F this morning. “I hadn’t seen her since September.” White gives her a private tutoring session at a side table. Twenty minutes later, she calls another girl over. This one is seven months pregnant and often absent.

The sullen boy seldom does his work, and White keeps him isolated in a corner to prevent disruptions. By the following week, he’ll be arrested for vandalizing Cameron Elementary with five other students.

Until that incident, White had hope for him. “Mr. Finger was just excellent at getting [him] to open up and talk about what was the catalyst for his behavior. He was reachable.”

“It’s heartbreaking at times,” she says of her students’ personal lives. Some have only a “distant uncaring relative looking after them,” she says. “Can you imagine the anger they come in the classroom with? And you have to try and teach over all of that.”

“I think if we maintain a standard and don’t give in to them, we give them some hope,” she adds. “Just some. It’s better than none.”

Period 3: Reading

“OK, let’s get started. Eight minutes for a test,” says Dianne Crawford. “The bell has rung,” she emphasizes for those still milling about.

Marcus plops down beside Rosedell, but Crawford orders him to the back of the room. “Oh, come on,” he says, trying to charm her with a smile. Crawford holds firm.

Her class does three timed readings a week. This one consists of two paragraphs comparing weather differences in the United States and Argentina and seven multiple-choice questions. Most questions address skills tested on the ITBS, such as identifying a main idea or using a word’s context to find its meaning.

When time is up, they take 20 minutes to review questions and discuss each possible answer.

For the most part, Crawford says her students don’t have difficulty finding information stated explicitly in a passage. “Where did he live? When did he die? Easy. The minute they have to think and make an inference, that’s when they have a problem,” she observes.

One multiple-choice problem states “An ‘axis,’ as used in this article, is …”

Rosedell chooses, “a tool used for chopping wood.” Many other students pick “the spinning earth.”

Here Crawford gives them a shortcut they can use on the ITBS. Plug your choice into the sentence, and see if it makes sense. “The earth can’t spin on it’s spinning earth,” she points out.

Rosedell gets only two wrong, a passing score. He thinks the timed tests given by Crawford and his afternoon reading teacher help him read faster. When he took the ITBS before, he felt pressured for time and followed his elementary teachers’ advice: “They were telling us they knew we couldn’t read all of those passages and answer the questions, so we should just read the first and last sentences and skim the middle,” he says, adding, “I should have read more of those paragraphs.”

For the last 20 minutes of the class, Crawford reviews some vocabulary worksheets for a quiz on Friday. “Their vocabulary is so limited,” she notes. Transition teachers say that’s a major factor interfering with reading comprehension. “If they never hear people in their everyday life use vocabulary, they don’t pick it up.”

Tonight students are to look up in the dictionary words with parts like “phil,” meaning love, and “biblio,” meaning books. As Crawford explains the assignment, Marcus starts a conversation with the boy behind him. She steps over to his desk, takes his hand in hers and says, “Marcus, you’re talking and fooling around, and you’re not going to understand the homework.” He hangs his head, looking bashful.

Crawford spends part of most class periods on readings with multiple-choice questions, although not all are timed. Sometimes students use newspapers to practice ITBS skills like “finding the main idea.” One or two days a week, they read from a literature textbook, partly to learn about genres such as short stories and plays, which also appear on the ITBS.

They do little writing except for short responses to questions about the literature. “We don’t focus on writing as much as on reading because we’re under so much pressure,” she explains. Next semester she will teach composition. “Right now we emphasize the test-taking skills.”

Period 7: Social Studies

At the door of a sunny room filled with plants, Joyce Hopkins greets all her students by name. “These are difficult kids. They need someone to see them as a person,” she says later.

Transition students follow the same World Studies curriculum that high school freshmen do. Last year, Hopkins didn’t complete the whole curriculum. She intends to this year, following a directive from the board.

She does modify the reading assignments, however. Like other transition social studies teachers, Hopkins finds the textbook the board provided is too difficult for her students. She gives it to them in small doses with step-by-step guidance on note-taking. And the book never goes home. “Most of them want to get the guy who invented books. They’ll tear it apart.”

Hopkins says background knowledge is a major problem. Before a chapter on longitude and latitude, “I had to teach them what a globe is,” she explains. “If they started with the textbook, they wouldn’t understand.”

Before a reading exercise, she uses activities that build background knowledge and vocabulary. For instance, to understand early commerce, they played a card game that had them barter barley, metal goods, jewelry, textiles and clay bricks. Today’s activity is another example.

With an overhead projector, Hopkins shows them pictures of ancient Greek life, such as the Parthenon and the Goddess Athena. Each student has a sheet with similar drawings that they must label.

“It’s the Parthenon,” she says pointing to one picture of a long building supported by columns. “and it’s on top of the acropolis. There was a statue in this place 20 feet high—am I impressing you?—made of gold and ivory. It was a statue of the Goddess Athena. That place is on your sheet. What number is it?”

“Eight!” students call out.

“Oh, my goodness. I think most of the class got that.”

Hopkins has a social goal for students, too: “to get the behavior to the point where they can function.” Those who misbehave must fill out a form explaining why they broke a rule and what they could have done instead. When she taught high school, her classes were too large to deal with behavior problems and struggling students. “You don’t bother with them. You take your students in the middle and work with them.”

Here she contacts parents regularly, passing on good news as well as bad. One boy’s disruptive behavior ended after she sent a note to his mother praising him. “He said his mother had pinned it up on the bedroom door. She was so proud. She had never received a good note about him before. Now he does all his work.”

In January, all students who had been retained or sent to a transition center got to take the ITBS again and win promotion. Marcus fell short in math. “Why get upset about it? Just do better next time,” he decided. His plan: “focus on my work more” and “stop playing around so much.”

Rosedell cleared the hurdle and headed off to Orr Community Academy High School. He’s glad to be back with his old friends. But if he had the choice, he would have finished the year at Transition F.

“It was more fun. The teachers help you more. It’s kind of smaller so we don’t have to walk up all the stairs and go to all the different rooms. But since I got the test to get out, that was OK, too.”

At Orr, Rosedell has a mix of first- and second-semester courses. He takes second-semester Algebra from a Transition F teacher on loan to Orr. “He already knows what we need to work on, so he makes it easier for us,” Rosedell observes.