Getting into trouble

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Cutting class

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Cutting class

It’s about 11 a.m. on a cold, gray December day and Derrick Green’s* incessant talking has gotten him in trouble once more. He’s been suspended three times already this school year, and now risks being put out again.

But rather than go straight down to the disciplinarian’s office, as ordered, Derrick stops to slap hands with a group of boys who are hanging out in a corner. Suddenly, a young man comes barreling down the hall, signaling that a security guard is on the prowl. The boys, including Derrick, take off.

On most days at Marshall High School, some version of this cat-and-mouse game takes place. The near-daily ritual underscores perhaps the biggest problem undermining the school’s participation in High School Transformation: Teachers say the initiative won’t work if they can’t get students to show up.

At schools participating in the transformation project, absenteeism is a significant problem caused by a mix of suspensions, unexcused absences and class cuts. On average, students at Marshall missed 50 days last year—more than a fourth of the school year—because they were suspended or for other reasons. Only Tilden Career Academy (another transformation school) in Back of the Yards posted a higher absence rate.

CEO Arne Duncan says the transformation project’s focus on curriculum is part of the district’s bet that if classes are more engaging, students will show up and behave.

Teachers at the first group of transformation schools have seen some improvement, he adds. “There’s a huge influx of students who are getting to first period on time; that used to be a big problem,” says Duncan.

Students also need to feel connected to at least one adult in the school and be involved in a sport or extracurricular activity, he says.

Doubt at every level

At Marshall, Dean of Students Michael Johnson and Attendance Director Pamela Olguin say they sense that discipline and attendance problems have tapered off a bit this year. The line of tardy students every morning is shorter, says Olguin.

However, there’s no hard data to determine whether improvements are due to the high school reform initiative or other changes, such as school officials’ efforts to be more personable and connect with students. And on every level—from administrators to teachers to students—there is doubt that changing the curriculum and teaching will spark a dramatic improvement in attendance and behavior.

Some students have heartbreaking circumstances that make it difficult for them to attend school regularly.

Football coach Will Gray tells the story of one player that he used to pick up and drive to school every day.

“His mother was on crack and his father was dying of AIDS,” Gray explains. “He had to get his little sister to school and make money so he and his siblings could eat. He came to me one day and said, ‘Coach, I can’t do it.’“

Last year, as a sophomore, the boy dropped out, and he’s still not back in school, Gray adds.

Teachers say it’s nearly impossible to engage students whose home lives are so difficult. What’s really needed, they suggest, is an infusion of programs that address the reasons why students act out or miss school. They would also like to see better options, besides suspensions, to instill discipline and redirect bad behavior.

Allan Alson, director of High School Transformation, agrees with teachers’ assessment, noting that high school reform’s initial focus on curriculum and teaching will have to be more comprehensive to make an impact. Coming next year, some high schools are lined up to get a “dropout prevention lab,” a new tool for schools to recapture students whose attendance is faltering. Marshall isn’t one of them.

Skimming the surface

At the moment, Olguin says, Marshall can only skim the surface to reach out to absent students. Most of the time, she and her staff of two try to remain afloat despite a barrage of day-to-day issues, such as re-enrolling a girl who was dropped from the rolls after missing months of school to have a baby.

Olguin’s office relies on teachers to call the homes of students who regularly miss class. No one tracks whether this actually happens. Once a student racks up 10 absences, a certified letter is sent home.

None of the city’s high schools have truant officers on staff—these positions were eliminated in the early 1990s—but last year, the district hired several non-profits to run truancy programs at schools. With a stipend of less than $75,000, one such group, Life Directions, hired two men to track down truants and lead group counseling sessions for Marshall High and five West Side elementary schools.

A report outlines what the agency was able to do: Of 173 Marshall students referred to Life Directions during the last school year, 162 were contacted and 78 of them participated in lunchtime counseling sessions that allow students a chance to talk about their problems and why they miss school. Among those who participated, 55 improved their attendance—a 71 percent success rate among those who attended the sessions; but only 32 percent of the original truants.

Daniel Little, a former Marshall security guard, hits the streets most evenings and Saturdays as an outreach worker for Life Directions. He’s looking to make contact with truant students and their parents. What he sees on the streets is disturbing. “It is hard for people to really understand what these kids are dealing with,” Little says.

He talks about so-called “neighborhood houses” where some students he’s looking for live. Such houses, often owned by an elderly grandparent, function essentially as drop-in centers, where the grandchildren and their friends live unsupervised.

“As a consequence, no questions are asked … and no rules followed,” according to the report.

Calmer school, more absences

Schools, like Marshall High, regularly mete out suspensions to control school climate, yet by doing so, they contribute to absenteeism.

Marshall used to operate an in-school suspension room, but scrapped it because the teacher’s aide running it wasn’t able to keep the students in line or productive. Students who commit less serious offenses must go to early morning or Saturday detention; if they don’t show up, they are suspended.

Johnson, a Marshall alumnus, is sympathetic to students’ personal circumstances, but says suspensions are necessary to keep the school orderly and get the message across that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. For a time, taped to a window near his cubicle is a black-and-white photo line-up of the worst disciplinary offenders. “Those are ones we’ve sort of ex-communicated,” Johnson says.

On the road to nowhere

Derrick looks to be on the road to exile, though he doesn’t think that he is that bad. He blames the suspensions on technicalities and strict teachers.

When Derrick, who lives with an adult cousin, gets suspended, he stays home watching television or cleaning up. He’s not sure how suspensions have affected his grades; by mid-December, his mom still had not picked up his report card. “She was busy,” Derrick says.

Johnson and Derrick’s teachers say he is apathetic about school. Derrick says school staff are more bent on putting him out than having a conversation about what’s going on in his life. According to Derrick, conversations with Johnson have been mostly about his difficulty remaining quiet in class.

There are much deeper issues troubling Derrick. For most of his childhood, Derrick says, he was shuttled between his mother and his father, who always spoiled him.

But since he was 10, Derrick says his father has been in and out of jail for minor offenses. Then around Christmas in 2006, his father was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Derrick recalls being in court, laughing, the day the sentence was handed down. “That’s just the way I am,” he says. “I laugh at everything.”

But now, quietly, he admits that he’s mad at his father. “It is like he’s dead to me now,” Derrick says. “He is not getting out.”

*Editor’s note: Catalyst is not using Derrick Green’s real name to protect his privacy.