50-50 Series: School Tries to Beat Drop Out Odds

December 15, 2008

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Paul Robson High School. Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz.


High schools are supposed to produce graduates. But some schools are dubbed drop out factories. At Chicago's Robeson High, on the city's South Side, the graduation rate is just 39 percent. It is a place where more students quit than graduate. Almost all of the 1,300 kids here fail to meet state standards. But everyday, there are administrators, teachers and students who come to school hoping to make a difference. We're spending time at Robeson High because we want to understand the complex issues that go into a student's decision to quit. And we want to know why other students in the same place hang in there and graduate against the odds."This school is not for the faint of heart."--Principal Morrow.

Related:
Meet the students and teachers from 50/50: The Odds of Graduating.

A week before school starts, Robeson staff gathers in the media center to go over what to expect.

MORROW/STAFF: When I started out last year I fussed and I ranted and I raved…Yes I did. I take my whoopings standing up.

Principal Morrow's been on the job for just a year. Right after he took over he began making life difficult for teachers he thought were ineffective. So you'd think people here might be hostile. But Morrow has a way about him, and the atmosphere in the room is something like a revival meeting.

MORROW: This year you're going to see a kinder, gentler Mr. Morrow.

New staff members sit shoulder to shoulder with veteran teachers, security guards and counselors. All eyes are on Morrow, who works the room.

He shares a lot of data with them, information on Robeson's attendance and test scores and discipline that shows the school moving in the right direction.

MORROW: They took the ACT score this year, although it's not 20, now it's 14.6 which means 4 years growth in 3 years worth work. That's outstanding...

He tells his staff members not blame kids for the low test scores.

MORROW: What they see in that neighborhood is coming with them. You can't change that.

The problem is, the school is still largely at the bottom of the barrel in just about every measurable category. That 14.6 score he talks about? If kids had just randomly filled out bubbles on the test they would have done that well. And worst of all more kids are still quitting than graduating.

DEMETRIUS: It ain't easy, man. It ain't easy. But you just gotta be willing to make it.

Students like Demetrius Davis are the ones Robeson wants to help. He arrived here reading at about a 6th grade level. We'll get to know more about Demetrius later this week.

If your mind focused on making it and getting out of school and all of that, you can do it. I'm working on it right now.

RODNEY/STUDENTS: Top five reasons for not coming to school, I'll start over here and I'll keep going around.

STUDENT 1: Because students feel it's a better life out there on the streets than it is in school.

Rodney Thomas and Querida Flores are in class surveying Robeson freshmen. The Chicago school district sent them here last year, as part of a pilot project to prevent kids from dropping out. Five other high schools are also in the program. Around May they went and visited classrooms to talk to students. 

The goal is to keep freshmen on track to graduate.

The District knows ninth-grade is pivotal. If Rodney and Querida are successful these kids will quadruple their chances of graduating. Rodney's got a big white board out and he's writing down their suggestions. 

STUDENT 2: Some kids don't get it like you would have it. Some parents be on drugs, they be homeless, don't got no where to go. They barely eat, they don't got no where to sleep, so they probably feel like I'm all dirty I don't want to go to school. People are going to talk about me.
STUDENT 3: Sometimes the work be a little too hard for them. Students be laughing at other students because they can't read faster than them. Or like them and stuff. That's why they just stay home and play the play station two. STUDENT 4: Females, they pregnant and they don't want the school to know they pregnant. So they'll drop out. 

Some students need help with deeper social issues. But Rodney and Querida also conclude that a lot of Robeson freshmen just don't seem to understand why school should be important to them.

They decide to tackle this issue over the summer. About 65 students show up for Robeson's freshman connection program, which helps 8th graders transition to high school. Querida meets them in the library.

QUERIDA/LESSON: Do you know how much someone with out a high school diploma makes? Two dollars. Basically about 7.50 an hour. Are you listening? 

Querida talks about attendance and grades and why it all matters. And she does this budgeting lesson to prove to them they'd earn more money with that college degree.

QUERIDA/LESSON CONTINUES: What do you need every day for cost of living? Food. Water. Place to live. You gonna need weed. (Laughter) Fine you and I can have a wonderful conversation after this. Our expenses are still one thousand over what we make. Are you going to move in with your momma? No!

Querida and Rodney do a lot of other stuff to reach freshmen and their families before school started. They want everyone to come in for freshman orientation –a critical moment for communicating key information about grades and attendance to parents. But they have trouble. Phone numbers don't work, and over 130 letters come back wrongly addressed.

As the first day of school approaches district administrator Paige Ponder hands Querida and Rodney a list of all incoming 9th graders Robeson will be getting from neighboring elementary schools.
 
PAIGE: We have 34 kids who are flagged for attendance intervention, and then 56 who are flagged for academic AND attendance intervention…

The District calls this the drop out “Watchlist” because it shows which kids were already getting low grades and skipping school back in 8th grade, the give way for who's likely to quit in high school.

Over 150 incoming Robeson freshmen are targeted as possible drop outs. Rodney and Querida now know who they need to reach. The District's Paige Ponder stops by once more before school starts with ideas they can use.
 
TAPE PAIGE: You know, develop an action plan, make sure they are signed up for peer mentoring, an extra curricular activity, and or and extra curricular activity. So this will become your spread sheet that you're tracking….

The three people sitting around this table are nodding like this is realistic. But it really isn't. All the well-laid plans by Rodney and Querida are about to face a heavy set back. No one in this meeting can anticipate Robeson High on the first day of school.

ambi: I don't know where I'm going. Girl, I can't go with you, I gotta get to class…

The scene is pretty much chaos. The District sent students' transcripts to the wrong schools again. The lobby is jammed with students trying to figure out where to go and parents worried why their kids aren't enrolled.
 
Staff members are trying their best to keep people calm and tell them what they need to know. Rodney Thomas is trying to convince kids not to walk out the door. 

Student Quentin Creamer asks to use our tape recorder.

QUENTIN. They're saying that my records are over there. But I've been attending Paul Robeson for two years. Now they saying it's a glitch. And now they saying I don't go here none. So do you think that's a problem?

GIRL: Yeah I think that's a problem! They should have let you knew that before school started back.
QUENTIN: So how do you think we should fix it?
GIRL: This school needs to get they stuff together before the kids come back so everything could be straight and we won't have to go through all these mammas coming up here and snapping and all that extra stuff. Right.  

It is especially confusing for freshmen. Because of the district's bad enrollment projections for Robeson—the school has almost 70 extra 9th graders— and that means there is a shortage of teachers. For many freshmen the tone was set. They had substitutes, and that sent a message the school wasn't serious about teaching them.

Mykelle in class...

The kid goofing off in class is freshman Mykelle Wheeler. His parents are pushing him, and his teachers are trying to support him. The odds of him graduating from Robeson are worse than 50-50, so a betting person might wager against Mykelle making it.  

Then again Mykelle could surprise us.

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