50-50 Series: Chicago Public Schools Student On the Streets Again

June 9, 2009

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Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz.

This is the last week of school for most Chicago students. But for some teens, school ended weeks or even months ago. They're the kids who've already dropped out. And they make up a devastating statistic in this city. WBEZ has spent a year reporting from Robeson High School in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.  Homelessness, violence, teen pregnancy are some of the complicated reasons young people at Robeson give up on school. But sometimes, it's the school that gives up on the kid. That's what happened to one of the students we've been following, Demetrius Davis. As part of our series, Fifty-Fifty: The Odds of Graduating, we find out that like most things at Robeson, the situation is not simple.

Demetrius began the school year determined to graduate. But all this year he struggled academically. He's had a lot working against him--a spotty history of attending school, partly because he's been in and out of juvenile detention. He's a dad already—with three kids.

And his mom, a recovered drug addict, only recently began to advocate for him at school.

Then at the start of the second semester at Robeson high this year, he got another blow. Robeson decided to kick him out. 

DAVIS: Actually it was like a surprise. They told me it ain't nothing but a five minute process. I could just go and get my mom. 

Here's what happened to Demetrius. In mid February he was returning to school from being out for three days. He went into Robeson's front office to let them know he was back. But instead of sending him to class, the school told him to get his mom.

DAVIS: So I went to get my mom and we came back and that's when they was telling me I didn't have enough credits. And it would be best if I just go to an alternative school. And I guess I was no longer allowed at Robeson.
 
Illinois law says students have to stay in school until they're 17. Ask Robeson and the District's Area Instructional Officer Jerryelyn Jones and they say the school can “counsel out” a 17-year-old student it believes would be better served in an alternative school.
 
That's what Robeson was telling Demetrius and his mom, Mary Davis. That at the rate he was going, with so few credits, he would never graduate by age 21.

At first, Mrs. Davis argued to keep him in school.

MRS DAVIS: And I was like can you just give him another chance till the next semester and see where he at from there and if he can improve? And they were like no the only thing we can do is give him the names and addresses of some alternative schools he probably can go to.

Mrs. Davis had started the year thinking Robeson could help her son. But in the conference that day she says it became clear the school didn't want him there anymore. And so she stopped fighting. There was something else she knew too. Something she told Demetrius at the time.

MRS.DAVIS: I am like, it's not like they kicked you out, you brought this upon yourself. They was giving you chances after chances after chances and telling you to come to school and be on time, and you know you just choose to do your own thing. I said I just hope that when you go to another school you just take school more serious.

It wasn't just Demetrius that day. That week, the school told at least 10 other students they weren't cutting it. Demetrius says he knows three of them.

DAVIS: Three of my guys got kicked out with me.  They all sophomores. 

Principal Gerald Morrow says at the beginning of the year between 35 and 50 student programs were pulled. These are 17 –year- olds who had so few credits or such poor attendance the school concluded they weren't trying.
 
MORROW: It's just the reality of it. There's no way to jazz it up and say it pretty. It happens, about 10 do get counseled out. And it mainly comes down to you're not making the effort!

Principal Morrow says all the students were warned that if they didn't improve they'd better plan on getting themselves on a list for an alternative school—because there is a very long waiting list. By late in the 
semester Demetrius had 27 unexcused absences. Still, Demetrius says he never got that warning.

DAVIS: If they would have told me something like Demetrius we're going to let you back in but you're very close on the edge if you even argue with somebody you're going to get kicked out. And then I would have knew alright, alright it's time to do work and you know, nerd up.

REPORTER: If you had known what would you have done differently? I mean, specifically.
 
DEMETRIUS: I would have been doing everything I had to do. Every sheet of paper that was in front of me.

Demetrius got almost all F's first quarter and his interim report wasn't any better. All year he had a mentor at the school, Rodney Thomas. Thomas had seen the grades.

REPORTER: Did you ever make sure that he did get tutoring?

THOMAS: You know just like with every kid and Demetrius it started out well. But when a kid is disinterested then we can't force them to be there. And so it was just a constant questioning of did you go, did you go, did you go and then you would get ‘Yeah, Mr. Thomas I went,' but he didn't go. So it was back and forth with that.

Looking back, Thomas says maybe it's his fault. Maybe he didn't make things clear to Demetrius.

THOMAS: There are a lot of areas in Demetrius' life that we-- things could have been better. Personally, school-wide. Even me as a mentor. Not that I lied, but being brutally honest to Demetrius.

Thomas spent a lot of time helping Demetrius manage his anger. Anger over seeing one brother shot and another in jail. Anger over his mom choosing drugs over her children. Thomas made a lot of progress. Demetrius had fewer outbursts and suspensions.

THOMAS: But if I could rewind, knowing what I know now. I would be a little more aggressive around the academic portion as well.

Thomas says no school should ever give up on a kid. And Morrow agrees. But then he says there are kids like Demetrius who only show up because they are in the juvenile court system. They must come to school or violate their probation.

MORROW: It goes both ways. Do they want to be here? Are we just carrying them to be carrying them. I tell the parents all the time, I'm not a baby sitter, a lunch program. This is school they need to come, participate, go to class, do what they supposed to do.

But in Demetrius' case there was another compelling factor that somehow the school never knew about. Something Demetrius himself doesn't want to acknowledge. He was reading at about a second grade level.

MORROW: It's not that he's quote, unquote a slow learner. He's talented. What happened? Missed so many days of school. He's talented, what happened, didn't have a parental structure. He's talented, what was going on? Got involved in the street. Those are the things that came in and took him away from school. Now if we're talking about a kid who came every day but is not comprehending? That's a kid with special needs.

REPORTER: Although, if you are in a sophomore class like world history with Ms Roberts and you're looking at a text book and she's saying read the book, and you can't read? I mean literally, he-- at Healy they tested him, she's saying second grade. There's no way he could have done that and maybe people were afraid to push him because every time they asked him (he'd lash out, right) then he'd get mad.

MORROW: But the thing about it is when you sit him down and have him focus on school you can see how quick he picks things up. That means he doesn't have a learning disability, that means he did not go to school.

REPORTER: Then what do you do with a kid like that here?

MORROW: You give him resources as far as tutorial, SES, AIM high, but all again these are after school programs. Getting Demetrius to stay after school is a whole different dilemma.

Paige Ponder is in charge of reducing the district's drop out rate. She says she understand principals' frustrations.
 
PONDER: They're perspective is I need to focus the resources that I have and the energy I have on kids who can graduate. So kids who are coming to school who have no chance of graduating may often be also kids who are disruptive and distracting everybody and causing lots of problems. But the problem is we simply don't have the capacity as a city to serve these students. There is no where else for them to go, or not enough places for them to go.

Ponder wants to fix this, of course. But it's expensive. New York City has invested heavily in re enrolling drop outs, Chicago has not. There are at least 50,000 Chicago students who need to be reenrolled in school. There are only about 5 thousand spots for them in alternative schools. Demetrius was lucky enough to get one of them.

RANDOLPH: Demetrius Davis enrolled in Healy South on March 17… March 18 absent, March 19 present. March 20 absent. Mom called.

Healy South is an alternative school at 81st and Cottage Grove. Demetrius got in with the help and encouragement of his mentor from Robeson, Rodney Thomas, and also his probation officer. Ms. Randolph runs the school.

RANDOLPH: We've been calling the parents every day to let them know he was not here. A couple days we spoke to the grandmother and the probation officer. So we don't know where to go. Once Demetrius is here we can set up an academic plan or a behavior plan.

Ambi: sound of Demetrius and family…

On one of the last days of the school year, Demetrius Davis is keeping an eye on his 16-month-old son, Meechie Jr. He's with his Meechie Jr.'s mom, Rayshawn and her sister, Rakia in the girls' family's apartment. The teens are playing cards. All three have dropped out. All three insist they will go back.

RAYSHAWN: Yeah, I'm going to go back when September hit. To Robeson? No to an alternative school. Do you know which one you want to go to? Banner.

RAKIA: So, as for me, I'm going to be graduating next September.

DEMETRIUS: Actually I'm out of school but I went to school yesterday and they said I missed too many days I'm supposed to bring my parent back up in there. I'm supposed to be doing that tomorrow. Tomorrow.

Ambi: Sound of him teaching Meechie.

Demetrius says what's important to him right now is being a good dad to his son. Especially since his own dad was never there for him. He says he is serious about providing for 16-month-old Meechie. But with no skills and little education, that doesn't seem too realistic at this point.

His mentor, Rodney Thomas hasn't given up on Demetrius. He stays in touch--says he's seen other guys like Demetrius eventually turn themselves around.

But for now, instead of being in school, Demetrius stays home with Meechie Jr.…teaching him his ABCs.

ambi: sound: Yeah! Big boy! Applause.

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