“Boring” a Common Complaint Among Dropouts

June 11, 2009

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Mykelle (right) jokes with a Whitney Young student in Advanced Orchestra. He doesn't have any electives at Robeson. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
We've been following Mykelle Wheeler through ninth grade this year as part of our series, 50/50: The Odds of Graduating. Mykelle was identified as being a drop-out risk even before he got to Robeson. He's made it through the year, but Mykelle says he's BORED by school. That's a complaint that a lot of dropouts make. What they MEAN when they say that can be harder to figure out.

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Mykelle Wheeler says one of his favorite things about high school is how easy it is to skip. He does just enough work to get a passing grade—sometimes not even that much.

Mykelle says he's been bored all year. Here's an except from a journal entry he wrote in English class:

MYKELLE READING: I can't wait until school get out. I'm gonna go home, clean up, change clothes and go outside. School is boring today. I wish I wouldn't have come. All there is to do today is listen to my iPod.

Mykelle is not a model student. He's disruptive, and he's not the only one. There is a culture here—from lunchroom fights to frequently pulled fire alarms—and Mykelle's become a part of it. That makes learning tough.

MYKELLE: G, Stop f------- playing, man! (Excuse my language). C'mon, G! Stop playing for real, man! He all steady throwing stuff up there! They gonna get me started up here.

Mykelle says this English class isn't interesting—he hasn't found much that is. He's in this class for two periods a day, and he also has a double shot of algebra. There's no art, no music. He's on the standard freshman schedule at Robeson—meant for kids who arrive well below grade level, and that's just about everybody.

MYKELLE: Like some stuff we do like English and stuff—like, it be stuff that we did in grammar school, stuff I already knew and we be doing it for a long time. I just be getting bored of it.

ambi: algebra class

In the computer lab for math class, online algebra problems do not hold Mykelle's attention either.

TEACHER: Mykelle! You're losing focus again!

He clicks over to Facebook—where one of his status updates says “in school bored as hell.”

But Mykelle is also struggling.

MYKELLE: You add seven. Hm-mmm. I think I'm doing it wrong. I think I was supposed to add. I'm not sure. Mr. K…did you say multiply?

Mykelle pretty much understands the algebra in the equation he's trying to solve. But he can't figure out how to multiply 7.5 times 2.

This is Mykelle's math teacher, Soby Kuriakose.

KURIAKOSE: He's got trouble with basic multiplication, a lot of kids do. Even without the decimal. Just times tables? They don't even have that.  That's why I break things down into cents and money…they eventually get that.

Kids who've failed a lot in their life can use boredom as a cover. That's according to Robert Balfanz; he studies dropouts for Johns Hopkins University.

BALFANZ: It's a lot easier to say, 'This is stupid. It's not important. I don't care about it. I'm bored.' That's a better place to be than, 'I tried really hard but I still failed.'

When kids say they're bored, they can actually mean lots of different things.

Balfanz says it can mean the teaching is lousy…It can mean the kids are lost...It can mean they're just bored the way everybody gets bored in high school at some point.

I sort of wonder if it's Robeson, or whether Mykelle would be bored at any school.

REPORTER: Let's find a school that's not boring.
MYKELLE: I don't know what school is not boring!

We decide to try Whitney Young—one of the best schools in the state. It's a school Mykelle could never attend—at least not with his grammar school grades.

Robeson's principal, Gerald Morrow, says the focus should be on Mykelle and his effort, not the school.

MORROW: My question to him when he come back is going to be did you see anything at Whitney Young that YOU can emulate, that would help YOU?

ambi: entering Whitney Young

Kids aren't searched when they enter Whitney Young, and this makes a big impression on Mykelle. They don't have to wear uniforms either—there are no gangs here. Ninety-eight percent of Whitney Young kids graduate.

It's easy to figure out which class is Mykelle's favorite during our day trip:

ambi: Band plays, Mykelle is on the cymbals

That's Mykelle on the cymbals.

Freshmen get a couple electives here—art, foreign languages, and music are options. This is advanced orchestra.

Mykelle has had a drum set since he was two. But there's no band for him at Robeson. Later, in a practice room, Mykelle tries out the school's drum set with two students.

ambi: drumming and conversation

Mykelle and the other students exchange tips—which might seem completely unremarkable. But Mykelle doesn't usually interact this way with classmates. At Robeson, Mykelle never drops his street-tough persona.

Outside the band room at Whitney Young, Mykelle tells me he should have worked harder in grammar school so he could have come to a high school like this one.

But in algebra, things are not as exciting.

                                                                                               

ambi: algebra at Whitney Young: On your test I'm gonna say, “Solve by graphing, solve by substitution, solve by elimination, solve by whatever way you want to.

The algebra being taught here is the same as it is at Robeson—though they're going over concepts Mykelle hasn't seen yet. The teaching seems pretty much the same. The huge difference is the students. They're focused. There are no disruptions.

Mykelle puts his head on the desk.

A girl in front of him asks why he's visiting Whitney Young.

 

MYKELLE: Just trying to find a school that ain't boring.

GIRL: Ooohhh.

MYKELLE: Which is not possible.

GIRL: Uh!  

MYKELLE: Well, this school is not that boring. THIS class is.

After class, Mykelle debriefs with the teacher:

MYKELLE: I didn't get it.

TEACHER: You didn't get it? Was I moving too fast?

MYKELLE: No, not really. I just, I just gotta work on that.

ambi: front porch

A few days later, on his front porch, Mykelle talks about his visit to Whitney Young.

MYKELLE: Yeah, I like that school. They got all the extracurricular activities that you could get into. At Robeson they don't really got that. They got basketball teams and stuff. But they ain't got no band or nothing like that.

The visit doesn't change Mykelle's behavior back at Robeson.

Mykelle cut class through the entire year, especially the last period of the day. That got him an F in English…which means that when he finally gets some electives, he may have to use them to make up his requirements.

I ask Mykelle what sort of student he thinks he'd be if he went to Whitney Young.

MYKELLE: A totally different student, probably. We would have to work way more harder than at Robeson to pass. So I would probably be a good student.

REPORTER: What about Mr. Morrow? He says you could be that good student right now if you wanted to be.

MYKELLE: He probably right, yeah. If I put my head to it, yeah. I could.

Mykelle's mom wanted to see a change in Mykelle this year. She says she doesn't know what to do about his lack of effort.

WHEELER: At this rate, if he keeps going that way I'm really, really not certain that he's even gonna want to finish school.  If he's already talking about he's bored, he's this, he's not challenged. I'm scared to think of what's gonna happen in the next year. It's a scary thought.