Mr. Kuriakose: Teacher on the Frontlines

February 18, 2009

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Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz.
Robeson High School is mourning another student death. Johnel Ford was shot a couple miles from the school last Thursday. He's the third Robeson student to be killed this school year. Violence is one of many issues complicating how teachers do their jobs at this South Side school. Today in our series, 50-50: The Odds of Graduating, we visit the classroom of 28-year-old teacher Soby Kuriakose, or “Mr. K”, as students call him. Mr. K finds himself on the front lines of the dropout crisis, with few resources.

Related:
 50-50: The Odds of Graduating

"All right. Five year graduation rate. The goal this year is to get 50 percent of our babies to graduate. That's the goal."

--Robeson High School Principal Gerald Morrow

Once in a while, teaching at Robeson makes Soby Kuriakose say this:

KURIAKOSE: Oh, those kids drive me nuts.

If anything does it, it's sixth period.

ambi: 6th period algebra

Every year, Robeson gets a fresh crop of the neediest teenagers in the city. They're behind academically, a quarter of them are special ed kids. But nobody had to convince Mr. K to work at a place like Robeson, one of the toughest schools Chicago has to offer.

KURIAKOSE: I don't know, that's where education's needed. That's where I'm needed. That's where good teachers are needed. I could have went somewhere else. You know, like, suburbs. But some of those kids could get along with pretty much anyone.

Kuriakose taught math at another South Side high school for three years, but enrollment snafus this year brought him to Robeson—two weeks after school had already begun.

ambi: classroom

Through disruptions and distractions—and there are a lot of them at Robeson—Mr. K seems determined to get one thing across: algebra.

KURIAKOSE: ...I want both of you guys to stop talking to each other! So this is your X1, this is your Y1.

Because Robeson doesn't have enough classrooms to go around, Kuriakose moves from room to room every hour. This might seem like a minor detail, but the truth is, it really goofs things up. He has nowhere to hang up student work or class guidelines. Nowhere to keep supplies or books. When the bell rings he's got four minutes to get to his next class, just like students.

Mr. K is the sort of guy who rolls with whatever comes at him, but it's hard to avoid comparisons to his old school, where he did have his own classroom.

KURIAKOSE: I could make phone calls during my prep period, right after the kids leave. Or I could have a kid stay in my room and I could talk to two or three kids for a while, right after class, but now I'm racing to another class to try to beat my kids there.

When he gets there, things are not ideal. Kuriakose is supposed to teach from lessons posted to a Web site—that's a new district mandate for Robeson freshmen this year. But some of the classrooms he teaches in don't have projectors or laptops. Some days Mr. K teaches in the computer lab, with every student in front of a computer. But those periods he spends much of his time policing what's on students' screens. It's often not algebra.

Then again, a lot of what Mr. K does isn't algebra either.

KURIAKOSE: I was trying to reach the parent or guardian of Denzel Slater? You're his older cousin? OK, Great.

Making phone calls home still makes Kuriakose nervous, even though he's been doing it for four years now. He wipes his sweaty palms on his pants, nearly forgets to spit out his gum. He misdials. It can be hard to deliver bad news. But he counts it among the few things he CAN do to try to keep kids from dropping out, and he does it often.

KURIAKOSE: OK. He's been up, walking around the classroom. Yesterday he was throwing staplers across my classroom. Yes sir, staplers across my room.

As a new hire at Robeson, Mr. K got what's often seen as the least desirable assignment in a high school—freshman.

But freshman year is one of the most critical when it comes to preventing students from quitting school. Nationwide 60 percent of dropouts leave before getting to 11th grade. At Robeson that translates into a giant bulge of underclassmen: there are 1,000 students in the 9th and 10th grades—and just 300 juniors and seniors.

KURIAKOSE: I lose sleep over it. I??ll wake up at 2 a.m. …oh man…what's going to happen to these kids? Fifty percent dropout rate! Are you kidding me? That's half my kids? Like, where are they gonna be? What's gonna happen to them? What can I do about it? Is there anything I can do about it?

CPS compiled a dropout watchlist for Robeson this year—lots of Mr. K's students were on it. But no one gave him a copy, or even told him it existed. Last month when he turned in grades, about a quarter of his freshmen flunked math for the semester—a warning flag.

And a few kids from each of his classes have stopped coming to school.

Last year, one of his ninth-graders confided to him that she was pregnant. He was caught off guard, but he told her to use the situation to get serious about her education and her future.

KURIAKOSE: I don't got a family, so these kids are like my family. I feel like they're my little bothers and sisters. So I do…I take things personally. When they fail, it's like I fail.

It's that sort of caring that experts say does keep kids from dropping out. But sometimes it seems like whatever Mr. K is accomplishing as a teacher can't compete with what's happening beyond the walls of his classroom.

NEWSCAST: Chicago police got a call around 5: 15 tonight. Two teenaged boys found shot to death…

Kuriakose didn't hear this newscast, so when he arrived at school for a professional development day, he was confused at first. At a somber staff meeting, Mr. K heard the principal's voice crack. He was talking about two students dying. Then, someone mentioned the name “Brian Murdock.”

KURIAKOSE: He said it was hard seeing his face on the news. And then it hit me. Because Brian was my student, too. He was…shot, him and another student were shot last night.

A few hours after that meeting, Kuriakose was in his car, driving to lunch.

KURIAKOSE: I'd really never experienced anything like that before. None of my students had ever died before. I really don't know how to take it, how to react or not react to it.

Mr. K saw Brian twice a day for freshman algebra. He and Quinton Buckner, a senior at Robeson, were found dead about a mile from the school.

Figuring out what to say to Brian's classmates began to eat away at Mr. K almost immediately. He was struggling to talk to students about something that can make algebra seem pretty unimportant.

Fifteen-year-old Mykelle Wheeler, one of Mr. K's students, says Brian Murdock is his fifth friend killed. One was beat to death with a baseball bat. Four were shot.

MYKELLE: When I grow up I'm gonna move my kids to the suburbs…somewhere safe. I won't want my kids to grow up around here, all this killing and stuff, violence and stuff.

The week after the shootings, during his seventh period lunch break, Mr. K went to Brian's wake. It was packed with his students.

For 8th period, he was back in class, teaching math.

Special thanks to WGN-News for the newscast heard in this report.