Big dreams, long odds

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Math teach Raminda Dua

photo by Cristina Rutter

Math teach Raminda Dua

Freshman Tamoura Hayes speaks with conviction about her dream of going “to Harvard or Spellman to become a pediatrician.”

But she’s a realist. “Come on,” says the round-faced 14-year-old. “I go to Marshall High School.”

Many of Tamoura’s relatives—her father, two brothers, a sister and assorted aunts, uncles and cousins—attended Marshall, and most of them left with a diploma. Only two graduated with real plans for college.

Her father, a standout basketball player, gave up a scholarship when Tamoura’s mother became pregnant with her oldest sister. An aunt enrolled at Malcolm X—just a bus ride from Tamoura’s house in East Garfield Park—and earned an associate’s degree.

“She’s had good jobs, and she’s a great example, but I want to do more than that,” Tamoura says. “I want to major in something big. I want to go out of town. I want to join a sorority. I want to make history.”

Being the first to attend a four-year college and graduate would indeed be historic in Tamoura’s family. Yet neighborhood high schools like Marshall—nestled in poor communities where teachers have limited resources and often must focus more on discipline than student development—have largely failed to move students forward academically, much less prepare them for college.

Even motivated teenagers like Tamoura, who arrived with average scores in reading and math and who attends classes regularly, are more likely to do poorly and drop out at low-performing schools. (See chart on page 19.)

Every year, Chicago’s public high school freshmen and sophomores take standardized tests that forecast their performance on the ACT college exam, which is administered during junior year. On average, high school students score 3.3 points higher on the ACT compared to their scores on the freshman test. At Marshall, though, they gain a paltry 1.4 points.

On a scale of 1 to 36, the average ACT score for Marshall is 13.7—too low to earn entrance to any selective colleges. Not surprisingly, none of Marshall’s class of 2006 graduates enrolled in a very selective university (like Harvard) that year, according to CPS data. Fewer than 1 percent went to an out-of-town college.

Tamoura’s dreams hinge on whether High School Transformation, the Chicago Public Schools latest reform effort, will deliver on a promise to raise expectations and improve teaching and instruction so students can transcend obstacles that hinder their progress.

A glimpse into Tamoura’s classes reveals some encouraging signs. Tamoura’s teachers in four core subjects seem adept in their disciplines, yet at times seem to stop short of demanding that students push themselves to do better. For instance, the transformation project has provided teachers with real-time performance data about students’ progress, but many don’t use the information to help students correct weaknesses.

The progress also is tempered by a host of obstacles—a late influx of new students, budgeting issues and teacher shortages—that have to be overcome for the reform effort to take hold and improve Tamoura’s chances. Also a drag on instructional quality at Marshall are ongoing difficulties recruiting and keeping the best teachers, issues that are beyond the current scope of the district’s high school reform effort.

Mr. Whetstone, 2nd-period English

There’s one poster hanging on the bare-bones walls in Mark Whetstone’s second-floor classroom. It’s a bar graph that compares the average salaries of a high school dropout, a high school graduate and a college graduate. The message is clear.

Whetstone, 30-ish with a thin build, blue eyes and a reddish-blond goatee, describes himself as a scruffy kid from downstate Peoria who is not all that different from the students he teaches. Today, three weeks into October and nearly a month since class schedules are finally in order, Whetstone is walking through the steps for writing an essay. In a couple of weeks, all freshmen will be tested on this skill.

The essay, to be written in class, must cover one of the following topics: starting over, fitting in or belonging to a group. Then, Whetstone passes out step-by-step essay writing instructions, and asks the class if they know what “one, three, one” means.

They don’t.

He explains that every written paragraph has an opening sentence, several supporting sentences and a closing sentence. Over the next month, all English teachers at Marshall will review the “one, three, one” mantra repeatedly, with hopes of drilling it in before the test.

As soon as Tamoura realized what Whetstone was talking about, she was able to connect the concept to essay writing skills she had learned in elementary school. She wrote a three-paragraph essay about why it is more important to be yourself than it is to fit in. Whetstone gave her a B.

“I think the class is too easy,” she says. “I’ve always been a good writer.”

But many other freshmen never got the hang of it, despite the classroom drills. They failed the test (which is graded by curriculum provider Kaplan) and posted markedly lower scores than freshmen at other transformation high schools.

Whetstone’s colleague Dijana Baltic was disappointed and puzzled that her students flubbed the essay test. “I had them write the essay with the same question before hand and they did fine,” she says. “I guess we are going to have to go over it again.”

In a statement, Kaplan noted that Marshall improved its performance in the second semester. But in the statement, officials note, “There is much to be done.”

Allan Alson, who oversees High School Transformation, thinks that the problem is mostly about students being unprepared for high school. Many students need basic support in how to study, write and get organized to gear up for the curriculum, he explains.

Starting next year, every high school in the transformation initiative will offer AVID, a program already in place at many CPS high schools that is designed to provide such skills for low- and average-performing students.

Students like Tamoura, who mastered the essay pretty easily, raise another issue for High School Transformation: the need to accelerate lessons. In the second semester, which started in February, the school opened up a freshman honors track, which it never had before.

Ms. Dua, 3rd- and 4th-period math

Later on this day, Tamoura’s math teacher, Raminda Dua, sighs as her students walk in.

This is Dua’s first time teaching freshmen after years of teaching juniors and seniors, students who are self-starters, she says.

It’s been difficult for Dua, a regal woman with long black hair. Freshmen are not yet acclimated to high school schedules, are not as mature as upperclassmen and can be a bit rambunctious.

But Stefanie Dobrin, the math department chair, had little choice about moving Dua into a freshman class. A shortage of math teachers hit Marshall particularly hard, and the school’s location and reputation make it difficult to recruit faculty. Also, Dobrin often is forced to make new hires at bad times.

This year, for instance, low enrollment projections led to the district allocating too few teachers for Marshall. The problem wasn’t corrected until late November, when the district finally unlocked funding to pay for hiring additional teachers. By then, the pickings were slim.

The shortage forced Dobrin to shuffle faculty assignments just days before the first day of class, too late to participate in the intensive week-long curriculum training. (Every year a few teachers miss the high school curriculum training, Alson says. “It is something we need to fix.”)

Dua, who’s in her 50s, expects to be at Marshall for the long haul. She began teaching five years ago, and she’s a long way from retirement.

Today, seven of Dua’s 12 students show up for class and immediately begin working on the “bell ringer,” a quick math exercise on the chalkboard. Tamoura is one of the first to finish. A boy wants to see her answer. “I won’t let you copy,” she tells him. “But I will help you.”

As students help each other complete the problems, Dua jokes, “You guys are clearly getting too smart.” She points them to another set of algebra questions written on the board that she expects them to work on independently and then returns to attack a pile of paperwork on her desk.

Tamoura would rather chat with friends than work out this next set of problems. She flits from seat to seat before settling down next to a boy and striking up a conversation. Eventually, the banter catches Dua’s attention. “Tamoura, I don’t know what has gotten into you.”

Most freshmen, including Tamoura, have math for two periods daily so there’s enough time to reinforce basic skills and then introduce algebra. During the second half of class, students work through lessons on laptop computers.

On the way to logging on to the math software, students detour the Internet to download music. Soon, the classroom is a cacophony of rap and R&B. Dua admonishes the students to get to work. “I will take your computer from you,” she threatens.

Dua, like other teachers, allows students to listen to music, but would prefer not to have to deal with distractions like these that are the result of the math software connecting to the Internet. Otherwise, she generally likes Cognitive Tutor, which uses word problems to review and reinforce old skills while teaching new ones. Students cannot move up until they’ve mastered the necessary skills.

The program also delivers real-time progress reports on student work. Near the end of the quarter, Dua notes that some students have completed 200 problems, but are stuck in level one while others have climbed up to level five. Dua warns flagging students to stay focused and do more work, but does not dig further into the performance data to figure out what individual student weaknesses are and come up with strategies to address them. Other math teachers are similarly stumped in how to use the data.

Tamoura admits the freedom to work independently in math derailed her. She got a C in Dua’s class, even though she understood the work. “It was all about my behavior,” she says. “I was talking and not moving fast enough.”

Eventually, however, Tamoura gets into the work and is at level 5 by the end of the second semester. She also improves her grade, getting a B.

Ms. Walker, 5th-period reading

By the time Tamoura settles in for 5th-period reading, teacher Etta Walker announces she has a migraine. Soon it is clear that she is joking—the “headache” is really her frustration that the last-period class did not remember the reading strategies she has been teaching them.

“It drives me nuts,” she says.

Reading is not a typical high school level course, but at transformation high schools like Marshall, where a critical mass of students have problems with literacy and comprehension, the class is a freshman staple.

Two days a week, students quietly read novels of their choice. On the other three days, Walker teaches them strategies for reading difficult material. Yesterday, Walker covered how students can use what they already know about a subject to help them understand what they’re reading. Another comprehension strategy is on the table today: reading a sentence, summarizing it and then interpreting what it means.

Walker, a petite, spunky woman, sits with her legs straddling a chair or perched on a desk. Today, she is teasing Tamoura, who, a day earlier, asserted that the United States won its independence from the French.
“The French lady over here,” Walker says. “You lost 100 cool points for that,” shouts another girl.

Tamoura is on top of her game now, answering questions, defining the term economics and telling the class how to pronounce the word “antagonism.”

Ms. Payne, 8th-period science

Walker and Tamoura’s final teacher of the day, science teacher Sandra Payne, have a different take on High School Transformation. They are energetic veterans and, while they like the new curriculum, they say it’s not much unlike what they have done over their decades of teaching.

What is different, particularly for Payne and others in the science department, is the abundance of new materials and equipment for lab work, like the goat brains that elicited squeals of disgusted delight from students dissecting them.

Such resources are a big deal at Marshall, a school bogged down by security expenses, that has been waiting years for the weed-clogged concrete that surrounds it to be replaced by grass and a sports stadium.

But High School Transformation is supposed to be more than a pipeline for tough schools to gain access to the same books, materials and equipment that magnet and selective schools already have. Alson says these resources merely “open the door” for Marshall to change its reputation from a bad school that fails students to a good school that offers students future possibilities.

Whetstone, Walker and Payne are doubtful the reform effort can achieve this goal, arguing that they and their classes are not and never have been the problem. By the time students arrive at Marshall, they say, there’s already too much working against them, from the social problems connected to poverty—including poor nutrition and a lack of stability—to years of inadequate elementary schools.

Tamoura also is doubtful. She races though the exercises Payne has prepared for today’s class: solving a bell ringer about the theory of plate tectonics, coloring a picture of a dinosaur skeleton and identifying its parts, then joining a group of students doing a puzzle on the stages of evolution.

Finished with about 10 minutes to spare, Tamoura stands near the door and talks to her friend Kim. She pulls out a flier about an after-school program but dismisses the idea of signing up because she wants to transfer out of Marshall. “I am not supposed to be here now,” says Tamoura, repeating the mantra of many students who want to go a different school, but got sidetracked to Marshall.

Tamoura wants to go to Providence St. Mel, a nearby private school that has a good track record of sending students to college, or to Al Raby, a tiny high school with higher test scores than Marshall. She says she applied to Raby, but wasn’t offered a spot.

Just before the bell rings, a woman on the intercom chimes in with a host of announcements. All of Payne’s students are milling by the door, half listening.

The bell rings. Tamoura rushes into the hallway and into a swirl of teenagers. On their way out of the building, they pass beneath a gold, red and green banner exhorting them to have “[t]he audacity to hope and achieve.”