50-50 Series: Keeping Mykelle in Class

December 16, 2008

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Mykelle Wheeler in class. Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz.

When kids don't show up for school, missing multiple days, it's often an alarm bell. These are the students who are likely to quit. Even before Mykelle Wheeler walked into Chicago's Robeson High School, some of the staff knew he was at risk of skipping school and failing classes. Somehow, during his first semester at this South Side neighborhood high school, Mykelle has managed to skip more than 70 classes. While Mykelle doesn't know it, his chances of graduating are diminishing. That's because excessive absences in 9th grade are a key predictor of whether a student will eventually drop out of school. 

As part of our series Fifty-Fifty: The Odds of Graduating, we find out what Robeson has done to keep Mykelle in class
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“A lot of freshmen do not go to ninth period….I'm gonna start going though….I'm gonna start going.” –Mykelle Wheeler

One Friday, Mykelle Wheeler got very close to going to his ninth period class.

MYKELLE: I was right in front of the classroom.

His English teacher saw him.

MYKELLE: She was right there sitting next to me, standing next to me. I'm just like, 'Forget it,' and just walked down to the locker room.

Then, like nearly every other day since school started, Mykelle gets on the #67 bus and goes home early. He goes by churches and gyro shacks and the boarded up neighbors' homes. And instead of English, he hangs around with his older sister and his little niece.

Mykelle is not a kid you'd think would be skipping school. Compared to his peers, he has a lot going for him. For one, his mom and dad are still married, and they both have stable jobs—that's the exception, not the rule in his neighborhood. He lives in a wood-frame house with a cursive W for Wheeler painted on the awning. It's the same house his father grew up in. Besides being a maintenance man, Mykelle's dad is a blues musician. He gave Mykelle a drum set when he was just two.

MYKELLE: This is the high hat, this is a crash symbol, this is the floor tom, and this is a bass drum right here.

Mykelle taught himself to do this:

ambi: drums

MRS. WHEELER: He a sweet boy, really.

This is Mykelle's mom, Dorothy Wheeler.

MRS. WHEELER: Mykelle probably take better care of me than my daughter do. If I'm sick, he the one. He'll make tea for me, he'll iron my clothes. You know, he does a lot of good things.

So it's surprising that Mykelle is not off to a good start at Robeson. In fact, he's off to a very bad start. At this point in the story, his mom doesn't know how bad. But Dorothy Wheeler isn't kidding herself about how Mykelle probably acts in school. She figures Mykelle's teachers probably have her on their speed dial—it's been like that for years.

MRS. WHEELER: He likes to be the center of attention.
TEACHER: Mykelle, Take a seat! In a chair, not on the table.
MRS. WHEELER: Instead of him working, he want all eyes on him while he's acting the fool and everybody's looking at him. See, they getting their work done, but he clowning around.
MYKELLE: I cannot tell a lie! I'm like Lincoln.
KIDS: You can't tell a lie? So what do you do every day at school? MYKELLE: Sleep.
KIDS: See! He's lying! 

Robeson teachers and administrators are trying to get a key point across to freshmen this year: the more they're absent, the more they're likely to fail their courses. And the more courses they fail, the more likely they are to drop out of school. But this message does not seem to be reaching Mykelle. He says he cuts class because he's bored.

MYKELLE: It ain't hard at all. All the stuff we've been doing I learnt that in grammar school.

And maybe he's right—he points to math quizzes where he gets 9 out of 10--that's without studying. He got a note from his English teacher one day telling him he had the high score on one of the few assignments he bothered to do. Then again, the high score was a 68.

It didn't help that for the first few weeks of school Mykelle was stuck in classes with substitute teachers—a different sub every day.

MYKELLE: That's really why I wasn't going—‘cause we didn't have no teacher in there.

The school got more freshmen than it anticipated this year. But it couldn't hire additional teachers until it got the green light from downtown.

MYKELLE: All we had were substitutes. Basically I didn't even want to come to school, but I went. They had us doing work that we didn't even get graded for or nothing. They used to say they was going to give it to the office we was going to be graded for it but we never got graded for it. So Mykelle skipped—especially the last period of the day.

LUTTON: Hey! Mykelle! Where you going?
MYKELLE: Home.
LUTTON: What do you have ninth period?
MYKELLE: English.
LUTTON: You don't feel like going today?
MYKELLE: Nope. I'll go Monday.

MYKELLE: It's not hard at all, really. You just walk out of the building. Some security guards will ask me why I'm not going to 9th period, but they don't really put no effort into stopping me. Really stopping me like that.

He's not the only one to have figured that out.

WILSON: After 8th period there's a great exodus. Are they leaving out the main door?

ROBESON ATTENDANCE COORDINATOR: Yes they are. Bryan Wilson oversees attendance at south side high schools. He's at Robeson for a brainstorming session—to find a solution to the 9th period attendance problem.

ADMINISTRATOR: What's the attendance for 9th grade [9th grade, 9th period]?
ROBESON ATTENDANCE COORDINATOR: Well, I can tell you like this: it's not good. I can say it's about maybe 20 percent.

The main problem is that Robeson's freshmen are sneaking out of school with the upperclassmen, who are dismissed earlier.

WILSON: So we need to try to put something in place where IDs are checked as they exit the building. Robeson is trying to instill a change in a school where the average student misses nearly 40 days of school a year. At the meeting, school staff suggest a flurry of ideas: strengthen security on the floor where freshmen have class, offer incentives to get students to come.

One district administrator suggests a $20 solution. She wants to change the color of the freshmen ID cards. That way security guards could easily spot and stop escaping freshmen.

ADMINISTRATOR: Still again, because sometimes it takes people too long to get things done. Get the cards! Last year I think they were like $20 a box for 500. Or less than that. Make the freshmen feel good—give them gold cards.

That meeting was in mid-October. Everyone agreed the ideas were good. But by December, nothing has been implemented.

People at the school have various reasons why. But the bottom line is that despite extra staff and good intentions, kids are still streaming out the door. Right before the end of first quarter, Mykelle's algebra teacher decides he's got to do something about Mykelle's behavior in class.

MR. KURIAKOSE: Hi. Could I speak to Dorothy Wheeler please? Hi Dorothy. This is Mr. Kuriakose. We've been having some troubles with Mykelle.

Mr. Kuriakose tells Mrs. Wheeler that Mykelle curses, walks around the classroom, comes without any materials, and generally acts crazy. Something like this:

MR. KURIAKOSE: Mykelle, that's not the way it works.
MYKELLE: No, man, you're always trying to scam somebody!
MR. KURIAKOSE: Who's trying to scam who, Mykelle?
MYKELLE: You're trying to scam me! You just said I could get up!

MR. KURIAKOSE (to Mrs. Wheeler): Basically, I want to offer him a behavior contract.

Mykelle has to improve his behavior and do his schoolwork if he wants to pass the quarter. He's got two weeks to turn it around. Mykelle says his mom was mad about the call.

MYKELLE: She don't like that, when people gotta call and tell her about what I do. She don't like that. She get mad. She be yelling at me and stuff. But it be my fault. So I can't say nothing.

And it actually worked—for a while. Mr. Kuriakose said he noticed a change.

Mykelle said he was even even GLAD his teacher called home.

MYKELLE: He actually cared trying to get us to be focused and stuff. That's when I really like started doing all the work in there, trying to bring my grades up.

The night before report card pickup, just as Mrs. Wheeler was drifting off to sleep, Mykelle came into her room. He had a confession to make: Some of his grades might not be so good.

Mrs. Wheeler says she doesn't get too nervous before picking up Mykelle's grades.

MRS. WHEELER: I always try to go with an open mind. I try not to expect the worst and maybe I won't get the worst.

Mykelle's teachers were seated at Robeson's long lunchroom tables. Mrs. Wheeler found his English teacher.

MS. RING: And the other thing that I wanted to make sure you knew is that he's not coming to ninth period. Ever.

MRS. WHEELER: All right. I was not aware of that. But thank you so much for informing me of that because…I'm gonna kill him! I did not know that. But I'm happy to find that out today.

The teacher, Ms. Ring, had tried to call Mykelle's mom, but she had just taken over the class a few weeks prior. The day she called, Mykelle's older sister had answered, pretending to be their mom.

Mykelle's report card was all Fs, except Mr. Kuriakose's algebra class, where Mykelle pulled off a C.

Mrs. Wheeler walked through Robeson's parking lot and turned things around in her mind.

MRS. WHEELER: I'm really, really dis…I'm not SO MUCH disappointed because he prepared me, but I just thought he would take freshman year a little more serious—because now he's on a different level. And I still don't think he's grasped that yet.

About a week later, Mykelle told me his mom made him a deal.

MUSIC: Lil' Wayne "Lollipop"

If he brings his grades up in every subject by the next marking period, she'll give him tickets to the Lil' Wayne concert. All he needs are Ds, but he won't get them if he doesn't go to class.

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