From surly to ‘sweetie pie’

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Cierra Jones

Photo by Jason Reblando

Cierra Jones

Cierra Jones didn’t have the easiest time in elementary school. She transferred once mid-year, which set her back academically, and repeated 3rd grade. By the time she completed the 7th grade, she was approaching 15 and, under CPS policy, was too old for elementary school. Sent instead to Chicago Vocational’s achievement academy, she arrived with, in her words, “an attitude problem, a real bad temper.”

In freshmen seminar, she refused to follow directions. “You ain’t my momma! I ain’t going to do that!” she remembers snapping. She was repeatedly sent to the office, and fell under the guidance of student advocate Malann Marshall. Advocates counsel students with behavior and attendance problems, and Cierra became Marshall’s pet project. “She was a pistol. I told her if it was the last thing I did, I would change her attitude,” Marshall says.

While insisting she apologize to her teachers, Marshall also encouraged Cierra to drop in before her temper blew. During freshman year, Cierra sought Marshall out frequently, and Marshall checked periodically to see how things were going with Cierra and her freshman seminar teacher.

By sophomore year, Cierra was a new girl. Says Marshall. “She’ll pause and think more. Now, she’s a sweetie pie.”

Cierra got individual attention from her teachers, too. In English class, the teacher sat beside her and explained the work when she didn’t understand it, Cierra recalls.

Now, in 11th grade, the work is harder. Class sizes are larger, and Cierra doesn’t get much individual help. Her dream of attending the University of California at Los Angeles to become a teacher is not off to a promising start: Her first-semester grades were mostly C’s and D’s, and she failed Spanish and science. Reading is still difficult, especially vocabulary.

“I understand some of the words, not a lot,” Cierra says.

As a former academy student, Cierra feels stigmatized by some of her teachers, and returns to visit Marshall for moral support. Many former academy students feel the same way, says Marshall.

Teachers started out with negative stereotypes about academy students, although those attitudes are beginning to ebb, she believes.

Cierra says her science teacher went so far as to direct all of the former academy students in the class to sit on one side of the room. “I was pretty upset,” she says. “Nobody needs to know your past.”