No easy road
In South Philly, three ninth graders try to find their stride on the path to graduation.
By by Benjamin Herold and Todd Friedman on Mar 5, 2009 02:16 PM
The morning sky is just beginning to lighten, but Corey White is anxiously checking the time. His school day won’t start for two hours, but he has a first period algebra test, and he’s eager to get a head start on today’s tutoring.
Every day, Corey, a ninth grader at Academy at Palumbo, is out the door before 6 a.m. His 40-minute trip takes him from the dense row homes of Southwest Philadelphia to this new special admission school in South Philadelphia.
Once at Palumbo, Corey heads directly for Stuart Kryzwonos’ room.
“We’re the first two in school every day,” says Corey’s algebra teacher, a 20-year veteran. “Corey is the only one who can keep up with me.”
The quiet 14-year-old smiles sheepishly. He probably doesn’t need the tutoring – he earned a 96 the first marking period, then brought it up to 100 in the second. More likely, it’s his connection with “Mr. K” that keeps Corey coming to school 90 minutes early.
“He’s goofy, just like me,” says Corey. “And he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He stresses that we have to put in 10 times as much work as the next person in order to get scholarships for college.”
Corey points to his relationship with Mr. K as the biggest support helping him make the transition to high school. Their early morning sessions have allowed him to keep his algebra grade high and to feel that he belongs in a new school that is a world apart from his past experience.
At Palumbo, African-Americans make up 53 percent of the student body, compared to over 97 percent at the three schools Corey previously attended.
Even more striking for Corey, however, were the raised expectations.
At Palumbo, he has about four hours of homework every night. There are countless terms and definitions to memorize for biology. A 74 on his first algebra test wasn’t good enough.
Undaunted, Corey bought books like How To Develop a Brilliant Memory Week By Week and began the early morning sessions with Kryzwonos.
With his first period test looming, he is locked in as Mr. K whizzes through sample problems similar to those he will soon encounter.
For both Dominique Holloman and Audenried High School, this year is about starting over.
The old Audenried was closed in 2005, following many publicized violent incidents and years of horrible student attendance and performance, including a 68 percent dropout rate for the class of 2006 (see Class of 2006: How many graduated, how many dropped out).
The new Audenried opened this fall for 172 ninth graders.
Dominique wasn’t sure she would be among them.
After eighth grade, Dominique stayed out of school for a year rather than go to South Philadelphia High, which she and her mother considered unsafe. She stayed home, mostly watching TV.
Now 16, she welcomes the opportunity to re-start her education at Audenried as a new beginning.
The building, a brand new 216,000 square foot facility, awes her. “It’s like a high-tech school from downtown,” she said.
But it is freshman seminar, a mandatory class for all ninth graders, that has most helped Dominique with her rocky transition to high school.
Designed by principal Terry Pearsall-Hargett and Roster Chair Victoria Monacelli after visiting urban schools with uncharacteristically high graduation rates, the seminar covers everything from note-taking to conflict resolution while emphasizing personal connections between students and teachers.
Monacelli teaches Dominique’s freshman seminar. Today, she powers up a slideshow with statistics on the dropout crisis.
“We’ve brought this up from day one,” lectures Monacelli, “because you need to be aware that you have odds against you, and you need to do what you need to do to finish high school.”
A rumble suggests the class hasn’t fully bought the message.
Nevertheless, students discuss the topic further in small groups while Monacelli moves about. She lightly teases Dominique, who smiles and nudges her teacher on the shoulder.
This personal touch has been especially important to Dominique.
Now seven months pregnant, she barely made it through first marking period. Between the adjustment back to school and the nausea and exhaustion in her first months, Dominique missed a ton of school and failed half of her classes.
Through her struggles, “Ms. Monacelli talked to me all the time. Every time I saw her in the hallways, [it was] ‘Nice to see you today,’ or ‘Are you OK?’ That made me feel like I’m wanted.”
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.