The Education of Rodney Thomas | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

The Education of Rodney Thomas

When central office sent Rodney Thomas to Chicago's Robeson High School he felt sure he could help keep kids in school. He knew the stats at this troubled school: lots of homeless students, pregnancies, kids going through juvy court—a third of the freshmen reading below the sixth grade level. But Thomas believed he could reach troubled kids and save them. So far this school year, despite all his efforts, 140 freshmen have already missed 18 or more days of school. Not what the Chicago District had in mind.

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“All it takes…all they really want is to know someone really cares!” --Rodney Thomas

Sound of hallways
You can find Rodney Thomas' sanctuary for troubled boys on the second floor of Robeson High School. Door opens and closes. Of course no one really calls it that. But it's fair to say that's what it is.

THOMAS: A lot of kids who come through here are looking for something. And that something is they really don't have that support.

Thomas's space is a tiny, windowless room hidden away behind the school lockers. There is no sign on the door, nothing welcoming about it at all. And yet throughout the day guys like Darrius Frazier drop by.

THOMAS: How did everybody else get..?
FRAZIER: Well I was caught in the midst of it. They was already fighting and when I came back security was coming…

Today, Darrius stopped by for a hall pass. But he comes by everyday, for lots of things.

FRAZIER: I'm dealing with a situation where it's me and my two sisters, we don't come from a wealthy home, we're REALLY not wealthy so when I come to Mr. Thomas and ask him for help, he provides for me and my sisters. Not just are your grades on track or how you doing in school…he wants to know about YOU.

Sound of  halls.
Since the day they hired him and his partner Querida Flores, to work this pilot project a year ago, Chicago Public Schools has expected Rodney Thomas to hit one goal: catch Robeson's freshmen girls and boys at risk for skipping school, or failing classes and get them the help they need so they won't quit.

CPS is measuring the progress. It's called the “freshmen on-track rate Thomas and Flores have until June to figure out a way to improve on this.

THOMAS: When I first started I was new, and fresh and you know I came in with all these great ideas…

Thomas is a former corporate HR man. He's always calm and controlled-- even when things around him get chaotic. A lot of students are drawn to this . And at first Thomas thought he could save them, one by one.

It's a reasonable idea. Research shows if you give a student a caring adult in the building it can make a big difference.

THOMAS: I really didn't understand the depth of it…until I got into this. Thomas got a list of all the 9th graders likely to drop out, based on bad grades and attendance. Robeson has a lot of freshmen, over 400. And of that number, 150 are on this watchlist.

So Thomas starts looking at freshman attendance. And what he finds is that it's pretty normal for over a hundred freshmen to miss 2 or more days of school each week.

THOMAS: And then these are the ones who are consecutively missing so they're not here, even for the weekly intervention. Looking from the outside in, I would think if I wasn't in this, ‘What the hell are they doing? Can't they go to the home and talk to the parents?' It really doesn't matter, it's just like we get there and tell the parent your kid has missed this, this, this and this and they still don't show up. And it's like what else can we do?

THOMAS: How are you doing? Student: I'm healing. I got shot on my hand, my arm and my back….

THOMAS: We had a kid we went to visit his home. His mom was battling with drug abuse. So how can she tell this kid, ‘school is important, get to school' when he doesn't even respect her because of the drug abuse? So he's going to do whatever he wants to do anyway.

One of the students on Rodney's “watchlist” is 15-year-old Dahvie Holmes, flagged for poor grades and attendance. But Rodney doesn't meet him until real trouble hits.

DAHVIES: I was a good student. I had my moments and I acted out a bit but as far as getting my work done I always did that first.

Sound of Ms C teaching.

Dahvies algebra teacher, Ms Ciesielski agrees Dahvie started out the school year doing pretty well.

MS C: Ah, he's disruptive in class, he likes to play. But he was very bright. 

In early November she noticed a change in Dahvie.

MS C: He started missing days. He was out for a long time. He started getting suspended.
DAHVIE: Then I had lot of problems with students at school I was fighting and stuff.
MS C: He can't concentrate.
DAHVIE: I was just thinking like, ‘what's the point?'

Ms C considered sending Dahvie to the school psychologist, but although Robeson High is in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city-- the Chicago School District has only assigned one part-time psychologist for 1300 students.

Ms C: Yeah, so instead of writing him up which I think a lot of his teachers were doing, I would just send him to Mr. Thomas.

What was going wrong with Dahvie? His best friend Brian Murdock had been shot dead.

DAHVIE: When I first moved to Chicago from Georgia he was the first person I met. We hit it off, walking to school, rapping and having fun.
REPORTER: Did you know he was in danger?
D: No.
R: How did you get word?
D: I was with him….

Dahvie says Brian was shot right in front of him. Dahvie was afraid to tell his grandmother, whom he lives with. And at first he tried to brush Rodney Thomas off too. But Thomas persisted.

DAHVIE: Mr. Thomas he told me-- I noticed I do bury my feelings--and then he was like, you're going to have to talk about it because you keep burying your feelings it's going to come out one day ain't nothing going to be able to stop it. And he say if he didn't go through what he went through when HE was younger, he wouldn't be able to do what he do now. That's what makes everything okay. Instead of someone in your face, acting like they know what you talking about and not really, at ALL, experienced what you talking about!

But Thomas hasn't figured out a way to provide this kind of support for all Robeson's needy students. What would help is stuff that doesn't exist here. An on-sight health clinic, a day care, more psychologists and truancy officers, more mentors like Rodney Thomas—these are not in place. And it irritates Robeson principal Gerald Morrow.

MORROW: Where are the support and resources? If I tell you I need one, two three, based on the data. REPORTER: Well what would it be exactly? MORROW: A social and emotional agency that deals with the family, not just the student, but the family.
Morrow knows Thomas will be leaving Robeson High soon. The CPS pilot project ends in June. So far at least 140 freshmen are already chronic truants—not official drop outs yet, but well on their way.

THOMAS: I now know that I can't save everybody….

It's not just Thomas. School teachers, counselors, attendance officers…no one at the school is reaching these students.

THOMAS. The best that I can do is to help CPS, help them to see what the real issues are and the kids are failing and the attendance is poor and all that goes along with that.

There are people at Robeson who think the District already knows what these issues are. That sending in Rodney Thomas—this whole pilot project-- is just a waste. That what they really need to help students here, the District will never provide.

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