In the second marking period, Dominique’s Fs in algebra and English became Cs.
Her plan is to have her baby in April, then return for the end of the school year. She expects that her mother and her baby’s father’s family will help with child care.
“I’m young, [but] with a grown mind,” Dominique declares. “Now I’m worried about school.”
Meanwhile, at South Philadelphia High School, 14-year-old Will Green is just worried about making it through his 78-minute first period algebra class.
South Philly’s support for ninth graders focuses on academics. This means double periods of math and English for those who, like Will, scored in the lower ranges on the eighth-grade PSSA.
Will’s algebra and English teachers, however, are both first-year recruits from Teach for America who are wrestling with their own transitions to South Philadelphia High.
During Natalie Wossone’s algebra class, Will shifts between attentive and distracted.
While a steady stream of tardy students stroll into the room, Will begins tackling the “Do Now” problems that Wossone has put on the blackboard. Before long, his attention wanders.
Once Wossone has a quorum, however, she runs through the day’s lesson, and then gives her students sample problems to work out independently. Will’s hand quickly goes up to ask if he got the first one right.
But after 20 minutes of solid work, the class dissolves into confusion – abetted by Will, who talks across the room with his best friend. Wossone, however, is able to refocus students with a math-based guessing game, and they get back to work.
Throughout his school day, the unassuming teen seems to flow with what is happening around him. His grades fluctuate, and his teachers seem to be describing different people.
“Will has become a B- student,” Wossone says. “He does all of his homework, which is unusual for my male students.”
English teacher Tom Szczesny, however, paints another picture.
“Will has a lot of friends,” says Szczesny. “There are days when he’d rather play around than respond to redirection.”
Today, that seems to be true. Szczesny struggles to get his class started. Will and his friend are involved in one of several raucous conversations that drown out the teacher’s repeated pleas for quiet.
Will has earned Ds in English during both marking periods and admits that he hasn’t turned in major projects. Now, he’s behind in the assignment to research a poet. “The library lady wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have my uniform on,” he explains.
It isn’t until third period physical science that Will appears enthusiastic about school – and that a teacher speaks enthusiastically about him.
Third-year teacher Segan Millington tells her students to pair off for a hands-on project.
Will and the friend who chattered loudly during English bolt for the back of the room, grab batteries, wires, and light bulbs, and engross themselves for the entire period in several experiments involving circuits.
“Will and Tyus are very inquisitive,” says Millington. “They are always asking, ‘What happens if I do this?’”
So far, Will has earned Bs in physical science, and this class seems to be the closest thing to a comfortable place he has found at South Philadelphia.
“I went to [freshman] orientation,” he says. “My first thought was ‘It’s big in there.’ They gave us a tour of the school, but my brother [11th grader Lamar] had to help me find my first class.”
One activity at orientation that attracted Will’s attention was JROTC. He signed up, he explains, “because they said they help you get into college.”
Given Will’s quiet dream of becoming a veterinarian, this was important to him. But following a disagreement with his instructor, he was kicked out.
He has yet to connect to any other activities. He hasn’t met his counselor. He wasn’t sure to which of South Philadelphia’s three career academies he had been assigned.
Halfway through ninth grade, he’s adjusting his ambitions. He’s thinking that construction might be where he belongs.