Where They Are, Why They're Gone: Three 9th Grade Dropouts

June 12, 2009

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Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz

About 12,000 kids drop out of school in Chicago every year. At Robeson High School, a special project this year has tried to keep freshmen on course to graduate. Despite that, students have slipped away—they've stopped coming to school for a whole variety of reasons. Once they're gone, the chances that anyone will find them are slim.
Series: 50/50: The Odds of Graduating
Slideshow: Where do we go from here?

Dropping out of school is a process. It can be hard to know exactly when it begins and when it ends. A week of absences can turn into another and another.

This is a story about three kids who have stopped coming to school. They're all freshmen I met over the past year in a single classroom at Robeson High School. One week in late May, I went to look for them.

ambi: dial tone

The phone numbers Robeson has on file for students are often bad—families move, or their phones get disconnected, or sometimes… they don't want the school to be able to call.

ambi: We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed…

I'm looking for Tim. His home number is disconnected. There's a work number for his mom, but somebody there tells me she was fired a long time ago. The number of a family friend is busy—all the time. 

The address listed for Tim is 220 E. 75th Street.

I don't see a 220…but there's a 200. It's a one-story building. Right about where Tim's house is supposed to be, there's a parking lot. I imagine all the letters that Robeson High School has sent to this parking lot. Certified letters warning Tim's parents to send him to school.

My last lead on Tim is the family friend—his name is Mr. Gunn. I find his address online.

The door to Mr. Gunn's building is unlocked, and the whole foyer smells like reefer. I finally find Mr. Gunn around the back of the building. I tell him I'm looking for Tim.

GUNN: I'm not related to him at all. I'm 60 years old. I'm just trying to help them out by when they call, I go tell his father when he's not in school. Now they were living over here, on the next block, right there at the end of that alley, on the end. They're not there anymore. Now, the first gray house you get to on that side of the street—that's where they moved to.

The house is two stories with a big stoop. With all the calls and stops, it's probably taken me three hours to get here. But I've finally found Tim.

Sound of house.

A very wide smile comes across his face, and then he turns away.
LUTTON: Can you figure out why I came to look for you?
TIM: No.
LUTTON: Cause you haven't been at Robeson.
TIM: Aww.

You might think there'd be a big reason why Tim hasn't been in school. Like maybe it's drugs. Gangs. Maybe Tim's gotta work to help his family—he's the 8th out of 10 kids.

TIM: I had to take shots.
LUTTON: Shots? What do you mean?
TIM: I had to go to the hospital and take shots.

It's not that he's sick. He isn't up to date on his vaccinations. That's why he hasn't been in school. His brother—who's also a freshman—is out for the same reason. They've both been gone since December, which is when Tim says the school gave him a paper telling him he couldn't come back without proof he'd gotten his shots.

TIM: After they gave me the paper I tried to go back. they asked me did I get my shots. I said, 'No,' they said I couldn't come without my shots…they sent me back around. They told me I can't come without my shots. So I didn't try to go since.

Tim says he hasn't gotten the shots because his mom and dad both work, and nobody can miss a day ‘cause that's a hundred dollars off their check. He says his older brothers and sisters can't take him to get the shots because they don't have IDs.

TIM: If I'd had a choice to walk my own self to the hospital, I'da been back in school a long time ago. I was gonna go to Robeson on the last day and see if there's summer school. ‘Cause I wanna get back in school. I like going to school.

Tim wasn't a bad student—he got Cs his last year of grammar school. He was never identified as a potential dropout by Robeson—and a lot of other kids were. But Tim was no angel either.

One day in the fall I was hanging around with his math teacher, Mr. Kuriakose, while he was making phone calls home.

KURIAKOSE: Hi. My name is Mr. Kuriakose. I teach at Robeson High School.

Here's what Mr. Kuriakose told the family friend, Mr. Gunn.

KURIAKOSE: It's about Timothy's attitude in class and his behavior. It's been steadily declining, as in he's cursing more often. He doesn't care who hears him curse. He's been more willing to start arguments with other students. And he talks about fighting other students all the time.

It's Mr. Kuriakose's job to call home for issues like this. But CPS says teachers aren't social workers. They can't be expected to track kids down at home.

Truancy officers were cut from schools in the early 1990s. Community and religious groups have picked up some of the slack, but they can't reach the thousands who go missing.

Mr. Kuriakose told me last winter he hoped when the weather changed, when spring came—maybe Tim would return.

LUTTON: Have any of your teachers called you?
TIM: No.
LUTTON: Has anyone come around and looked for you?
TIM: No… But you.

I say to Tim, why don't I take you to school tomorrow? You can explain that you haven't gotten the shots but you want to come to school—and we'll see what happens.

TIM: OK. You come tomorrow. I'll be ready 7:30.

But when I get there, Tim is still sleeping. His mom comes out to talk to me on the stoop. She knows that I stopped by the day before. And she says right off that none of her kids is going to drop out of school. She tells me that the problem is the form that they gave Tim for his vaccinations—he lost it.

LUTTON: You want Tim in school?
MOM: Yes I do.
LUTTON: Do you know when he'll get his shots?
MOM: Uh-uh. Well Saturday, I guess Saturday. Today's Thursday. I guess Saturday.
LUTTON: But he hasn't had the shots since December, right? That's when they sent the paper home?
MOM: Right. Since December when they sent the paper home.
LUTTON: Can you say…I mean, why has it been so hard to get those shots?
MOM: Like I say, he lost the paper. He lost the paper himself. Not me. He did. The nurse gave him the paper. She didn't give it to me. I don't go to school. I'm 44 years old.

The form Tim lost is available at any clinic, but maybe Tim's mom doesn't know this. She says she'll bring Tim to the doctor as soon as he gets another paper. I offer to take Tim to Robeson right then to get the paper, but his mom lets him sleep.

TIM'S MOM: I'll send him up there. I'll send him up there. I'll have my nephew to take him up there in his car. And get the papers so he can get back to school. ‘Cause I told him, 'Oh, you're going to summer school, Buddy. You're going to summer school.' 

I figure that finding Marcellis will be a lot easier than finding Tim—there's a working phone number. I find his address in the phone book. But when I get to Marcellis' house, nobody knows where he is—not exactly, anyway. This is his grandma.

GRANDMOTHER: I really don't know where he is—I can say, I believe he's on 69th and Indiana or 69th and Calumet. But I did see him—it looked like him and I'm pretty sure it was him—going down Indiana toward 70th Street …we were blocked off by a trailer... He's got a lot of hair. I was just trying to check to see if it really was him. The shoes he had on was not the shoes that I saw him in.

The family filed a missing persons report with the police in April. Marcellis is 15 years old, and this is the fourth or fifth time he's run away from home.

Sound of papers rustling.

GRANDMOTHER: No this is that one? April 3, O9. OK. That's it. That's the newest one.

Marcellis' grandmother says Marcellis just didn't want to follow the rules anymore. He stole things. He'd come home high. Marcellis' mother died when he was 4. He and his brothers came to live with their grandma three years ago. Marcellis' Aunt Krystle says she could see him being pulled by the neighborhood.

AUNT KRYSTLE: The streets or the gangs are providing him with some sort of emotional connection. And I guess he feels like he's a part of something—you know it's hard when you don't have your parents. Although we're here. We're trying. It's a certain void that he's trying to fill.

Marcellis' grandmother says one person at Robeson tried to help Marcellis, and that was Rodney Thomas—the head of a program to keep freshmen in school. But when I call Thomas later, he says he can't quite remember Marcellis. He has hundreds of kids to keep track of.

Every day, Robeson's automated phone calling system dials up Marcellis' grandmother and tells her he's absent from school. She presses 1 to acknowledge the call. Family members have tried to find Marcellis, but when he sees them, he runs away. I get directions and set out to look for Marcellis myself. 

LUTTON: There's like a store there Arab store on the corner of 69th.. Indiana… 

Excuse me, I'm looking for a student that I used to know? His name is Marcellis. I don't know him. 

It's a spring night…and the block is full. A big group of men and boys are gambling on the sidewalk. One guy is holding a stack of bills. sound of gambling And there's Marcellis, leaning up against a car, the shortest one there. He's got a baby face. 

ambi: “Shorty!”

Marcellis' warm-up jacket is pulled up over his face, up to his nose—which is why he sounds all muffled.

LUTTON: Put your thing down so I can talk to you.
MARCELLIS: I'm good.
LUTTON: You remember me, right?
MARCELLIS: Yeah.
LUTTON: This week I've been looking for kids who aren't in school anymore.
MARCELLIS: OK. How'd you find ME, though?

Marcellis really doesn't want to talk about why he's not in school. And I'm not sure I can trust what he's saying anyway. He's acting funny. His eyes are completely bloodshot. He lies and tells me he was in school yesterday. But he's really fixated on how I've found him.
 
MARCELLIS: I don't get that. I mean, like how ya'll find me, man?
LUTTON: Have any of your teachers come out looking for you?
MARCELLIS: No, nobody got to look for me.

I tell him I'm looking for the kids in his classes who don't come to school anymore.

MARCELLIS: (chuckling) So you going through everybody neighborhood looking for these students. Wow.

I'm the one who's surprised when I find the third student, Keonna. She's at home on the sofa reading a book. I've watched Robeson teachers try hard to get students to read this year. And here I am with a kid who's not even coming to school anymore—and I find her with a book.
 
The apartment where Keonna's family lives is clean and sunny. Her 8th grade graduation photo sits on a little end table. When I ask Keonna why she's not in school, this is what she tells me.

KEONNA: Well, I choose not to go to school because I get into too many fights. I feel I can't get an education at Robeson. There's too much violence.

Robeson's principal is usually outside after school, which is when the fights break out. He told me once he wishes it would rain every day at dismissal, so kids would go straight home. Keonna started having problems her first week at Robeson.

KEONNA: The first fight I had I got jumped on by eight girls. The second fight…

Two more fights followed that one—Keonna tells me that a former friend has become her tormenter.

KEONNA: Then I decided I didn't want to go there no more. Because it seems like I always get into a fight with her, and I get suspended. And I think that I'm gonna be a demote and I'm not gonna go to the next grade, ‘cause of all this fighting.

I'm trying to square what Keonna is telling me with what I'm seeing—the quiet, tidy apartment, the book. From the couch, she can see the Robeson kids coming home from school. Keonna almost cries when she tells me she fears being a “demote”??that??s a demoted freshman. She says she was suspended for a total of 40 or 50 days for fighting this year. Keonna's dad says he's gone to the school to try to figure things out.

DAD: I've been there so much seems like I'm taking classes there.

He wishes the school could have come up with a way to keep the two girls apart.

DAD: She wants to be in school right now. And I want her to be in school right now. The whole year is gone, she's gonna have to repeat this 9th grade over again, all because of this foolishness.

Keonna hardly leaves the house. Her mom says she's been depressed since she stopped going to school. Keonna and her parents say they asked for a transfer to a different school, but they were told they've got to wait until the end of the semester. Keonna's report card—out today—will almost surely be all Fs.

KEONNA: It's not that I'm choosing not to go to school no more—it's just I don't want to go to that school no more.

Keonna says she hasn't dropped out of school. In fact, all the kids tell me this—that they haven't dropped out. They've just stopped going. These kids will stay on Robeson's rolls. But if they don't return to school, eventually…quietly, as quietly as they disappeared from class, their names will be dropped. Along with 12,000 other kids'.