Student Experience

After Chicago shuttered 50 schools, this teen with autism “got stuck”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Maria Gavilanes
Sylvana Gavilanes at a Valentine's Day dance in 2016

Sylvana Gavilanes was 13 when Chicago Public Schools closed down Trumbull Elementary, which sat on a busy corner in Andersonville on Chicago’s North Side. Of the 400 students at Trumbull, more than half were Latino, a third were bilingual, and a third received special education services. Sylvana fit into all three demographics.

Her mother, Maria, had prayed CPS would spare Trumbull, one of the few schools considered for closure that wasn’t majority black or on the South or West sides. But neither prayers, nor lawsuits, could save it. In May 2013, the board of education voted to close 50 Chicago schools, including Trumbull. And Maria began the stressful process of finding another school for her daughter, an avid reader with a computer memory—but who says few words.  

Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 5, Sylvana struggled with new people and new places. Routine was crucial. Her parents ultimately settled on McPherson Elementary in nearby Ravenswood. After her first day at McPherson, Sylvana returned to her family’s Albany Park apartment, had a snack, and rushed to watch a DVD that her teachers at Trumbull had made her. It played nice, soft music, and showed pictures of various music recitals and school plays she had participated in with her classmates.

When the DVD was over, Sylvana headed to a corner in her living room, turned her back on her mother, and began to cry. She did the same thing every day after school for nearly two months.

“She was missing her friends there, the teachers. It was a difficult adjustment for her at the new school,” Maria said. “It was heartbreaking to see her cry.”

Transferring to a new school can be hard on children. For Sylvana, a typically cheerful teen who loves blues music, especially B.B. King, the change was particularly challenging. But the Gavilanes family wasn’t the only one having a hard time. Of the nearly 11,000 K-7 students who had to switch schools because of the closings, almost 2,000—practically one in five—received special education services.

Like many of their parents, Maria feared the transition would disrupt the emotional bonds and academic progress made by her child. “I’m very concerned it will affect her development, in all areas—academically and socially,” she said then.

As we know now, the next five years would mean a lot of cost-cutting, which led to big changes for Chicago’s public schools—and for its special education students. This spring, the state took over CPS’ special education program, an action spurred by an investigation that found a 2016 overhaul led to delayed or denied services for scores of students with special needs. Five years now marks the end of a moratorium on school closings: This fall, the district will again start closing schools. And, while fewer students are being displaced overall, the proportion of special education students is even higher than before—one in three. CPS, meanwhile, appears to have no clear road map on how to transition these students to new schools.

Meanwhile, this question lingers: What happens to students in special education when Chicago closes schools?

And what happened to Sylvana?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Maria Gavilanes
Sylvana, 3 months old, with her mother in 1999

Chicago has the unfortunate distinction of overseeing the biggest mass school closing in U.S. history. We’re still unpacking the meaning and impact of what happened.

The school closings were a matter of math, according to the schools chief at the time, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel. The district warned of a $1 billion budget deficit, and of a “utilization crisis” in the city, which African-American families had been leaving in droves. There were 403,000 students enrolled in CPS schools—but the district said it had capacity for 511,000. Pressure was being applied from the outside, too: There were federal calls to close low-performing institutions.

In May, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research released a study saying that the closings induced a period of “mourning,” freighting teachers and students alike with enormous stress and hurting students’ performance, particularly in math. Students and staff appreciated the new technology, resources, programs and other investments they encountered at 48 “welcoming schools”; however, those investments weren’t sustained, and the consequences of the closings still loom over the district today.

But while the consortium report examined the experiences of educators and families in the chaotic months leading up to the closings and how students performed academically in the years after, it doesn’t say much about the particular impact on special education students. And while the state’s investigation acknowledges policies that hurt special education, it only explored the years after the closings. The final recommendation from the Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t address the closings at all.

For many parents, there’s never a good time to change schools for a student who has a disability. One decision can have lasting impact and can threaten progress, especially for students who are developmentally delayed or have a shortened development window.

When Trumbull closed in late May 2013, Maria scrambled to prepare her daughter, who was born with dislocated hips and struggled as a toddler to walk and speak. The timing couldn’t have been worse: Sylvana was entering eighth grade—that crucial year before high school.

Sylvana had been a student at Trumbull since fourth grade, and she had made considerable progress, her mother said. In her time there, Maria saw improvements to her daughter’s motor skills, her ability to focus and communicate, and her comfort level in social situations. Maria had never thought her daughter would do some of the things she accomplished: opening doors, flipping light switches, typing, solving fractions. She attributed the improvements to Sylvana’s time at Trumbull.

“[Teachers] were very well trained to deal with autistic kids, and she got occupational, physical and bilingual speech therapy. I could see her progressing. She always liked reading, but she would be more involved in her books.”

"It was heartbreaking to see her cry."Maria Gavilanes

Her mother was especially appreciative that Sylvana’s teacher, Michele Van Pelt, had given the family tips on how to support learning at home. To teach Sylvana math, Van Pelt showed Maria how to practice using coins rather than flash cards: Autistic children sometimes struggle with abstract thought, and coins are a more concrete representation of numbers. Sylvana began to write legibly, too, after her teacher suggested she practice writing with a big pencil or crayon for an easier grip.

When Sylvana moved to Trumbull after third grade, she had arrived at her new school armed with a booklet that pictured the outside and inside of the building. She had toured the school and met with her future teacher over the summer. Later, when she moved up grades and changed teachers, the staff would invest time in preparing for her transition, gathering and exchanging information. One teacher would prepare a booklet with the new teacher’s room number, name and picture for Sylvana to keep throughout the summer.

“It was good for her because change was very difficult,” Maria said.

Sylvana lived in Albany Park with Maria, a counselor in a women’s social services center, and her father, Jerry, a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver. When Maria sought a new school for her daughter, she chose McPherson. The 650-student school was nearby, and it had good reviews. About 16 percent of its students had Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, which meant they received some type of special education services.

By the next school year, McPherson had 130 more students. The percentage receiving special education services had increased, too, to 20.5 percent.

 

This graphic shows the makeup of the district in 2013 compared to the demographics at the closed elementary schools. FRL stands for “free or reduced-price lunch,” a common measure of the percentage of low-income students.

In CPS at large in 2013, about 13 percent of students were enrolled in special education programs. Researchers are still trying to understand why, taken all together, the schools that closed had a proportion closer to 17 percent.

Currently, there’s a study underway at the University of Illinois at Chicago to see if the percentage of IEPs at a school predicts the likelihood of that institution being closed. Federico Waitoller, the UIC professor behind the study, trains special education teachers. He suspects that the space utilization formula used to determine which schools were underenrolled and eligible for closure in 2013 didn’t account for dramatically smaller class sizes for some special education programs. Students in cluster programs ideally require smaller class sizes—and in 2013, one in three schools that closed had cluster programs.

In other words: “The hypothesis is, the larger your percentage of students with disabilities, you’ll be more likely to have a lower utilization,” Waitoller said.

Waitoller has studied the effects of CPS school closings, and he doesn’t believe there’s a good, comprehensive study that examines the impact of school closings on students with disabilities. Without that, it’s hard to believe the district has research that it could use to inform future closings, he said.

“It’s very difficult to say we’re going to learn a lesson when we don’t know what the lessons are,” he added.

Kate Gladson, a staff attorney at LAF, formerly known as the Legal Assistance Foundation, can list some takeaways from her own experiences. From 2014 to 2016, Gladson represented about 50 students in cases involving special education and school discipline as part of a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Most of the schools involved her cases were affected by the closings, including several designated “welcoming schools.”

“School closings in 2013 were disruptive for all kids at closing and welcoming schools, but students with special education services have a different set of challenges,” Gladson said.

Parents wanted their children to have the supports they needed to learn and progress, and they wanted placements in schools close to home. But, as a 2015 University of Chicago consortium report noted, parents received limited information from the district.

“In some cases, families realized that the supports at the designated welcoming school were not adequate and had to look for other schools in the district to meet their children’s needs,” the report said. It recommended providing parents with more information and time to make informed decisions.

"It’s very difficult to say we’re going to learn a lesson when we don't know what the lessons are."UIC researcher Federico Waitoller

Once children were enrolled at schools, other problems arose. The district re-evaluates IEPs every three years, and the closings turned the evaluation process on its head for students who required initial evaluations or for whom re-evaluations were due, Gladson observed. Teachers at welcoming and receiving schools were getting to know their new students, and records and data from previous schools were not always available, she said.

Even when the IEPs were completed, children from closed schools who transitioned to welcoming schools were sometimes left without the resources to support their plans, Gladson said. The impact was felt, too, on students in the welcoming schools. “There was a disruption to their educational experiences as well.”

None of Sylvana’s teachers followed her to McPherson in 2013. The school was being remodeled, so Sylvana wasn’t able to attend summer school, and she didn’t meet her McPherson teacher until the first day of classes. The school did have a lot to offer: Maria liked the principal and school counselor, and, unlike a lot of CPS schools, McPherson had a librarian.

But Maria said that Sylvana had a rough time in the classroom at McPherson. “She wasn’t responding as much at McPherson as I saw her responding at Trumbull. I feel she kind of got stuck. She wasn’t as motivated,” Maria said.

Sylvana’s grades dropped. She had been receiving speech and sensory therapy but now those things weren’t offered. Maria said the kids in class were more functional than her daughter; many had been at the school for years.  

Maria conceded that Sylvana and other students from closed schools must have presented a challenge for the staff at McPherson. An administrator at McPherson did not return calls seeking comment.

Back in 2013, CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett knew the closings would be hard. But as she said in a statement then: “I also know that, in the end, this will benefit our children.”

By mid-2015, her tenure was over, wrecked by a corruption scandal. Her successor was Mayor Emanuel’s chief of staff, Forrest Claypool, who had deep ties to the Democratic Party and a scant education resume. Under Claypool, CPS made drastic changes that created systematic obstacles and delays in special education—changes that, after a WBEZ report, the Illinois State Board of Education concluded violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Claypool eventually stepped down in 2017 amid ethics violations, and in January 2018 was replaced by Janice Jackson, a former principal who had been serving as chief education officer. A month later, the Chicago Board of Education voted to open a new $85 million high school in Englewood and close or phase out four “underutilized”  high schools.

Robeson High School will close this summer, while Harper High, Hope High, and Team Englewood will be phased out over three years. The schools have a combined enrollment of 392, and 129 of those students are in special education.

Earlier this year, CPS announced new guidelines for the formula it uses to determine a building’s utilization, saying it would acknowledge “unique space challenges and the need for greater program flexibility” at schools and account for special education cluster programs. When Chalkbeat asked officials at CPS for other policy changes that might minimize the impact of school closings on students in special education, none agreed to an interview on the record. Instead, a spokeswoman sent an email that stressed that the district has learned that “sustained, individualized supports can facilitate better outcomes” for all students and that the lesson “is being implemented” in Englewood:

The email said students will receive the following:

  • Up to $1.5 million for academic and social/emotional supports, like after-school programs and dedicated social workers.
  • An unspecified amount of budgetary support for under-enrolled schools.
  • Detailed, individualized transition plans that include safety and transportation.
  • Summer jobs, tutoring, and other chances to engage with their new school communities before the school year begins.

But nothing in the CPS response was specific to special education, and the district declined to provide further information.

Chris Yun, an education policy analyst with Access Living, a disability rights advocacy group, said there’s a lot CPS can learn from the school closings when it comes to special education students. One is having somebody on the school board who is specialized in the topic so that decisions are informed by specific expertise. Another is a mechanism that ensures students displaced by closings get special education services at their new schools without interruption, as required by law, regardless of cost or red tape.

Federico Waitoller of UIC says a school closing is inherently disruptive. But if it has to happen, there should be several steps to mitigate emotional and academic harm students might suffer.

“How do you give a sense of belonging and trust?” Waitoller asked. “That’s a huge challenge, and that’s more than a technical question.”

Asked how educators can create a sense of belonging, he said it takes time. “It happens through relationship-building activities, focusing on the human aspects of learning.”

Among his other suggestions: bringing over as many special education teachers from the closing school to the new one to foster a smooth transition and managing teacher stress. It’s crucial, too, that teachers at the new schools have the training and skills to meet students’ needs and that the district sustain its investments beyond the first year of impact.

"I personally thought we could do it on our own. But I have to listen to the will of the people."CPS CEO Janice Jackson
Sylvana and her father, Jerry, at her eighth grade graduation from McPherson

In late May, not long after the consortium report on school closings was released, CPS’ Jackson stood at a public forum at Michele Clark High School in Austin and fielded questions from a parade of parents and advocates. Toward the end, a grandparent asked: “What can we do as a whole to make special education better?”

Jackson started by acknowledging CPS has a long way to go and touted efforts to add special education funding, positions, and services.

“I personally thought we could do it on our own,” Jackson said. “But I have to listen to the will of the people.”

Even this spring, Maria Gavilanes hadn’t heard that the district’s special education population was at the center of a state investigation or that an independent monitor was taking over the program. She said the problems reminded her of her own experiences, and how her daughter stopped receiving speech therapy at McPherson.

Life hasn’t been easy for Sylvana since she graduated from eighth grade. She lost her father, Jerry, to a heart attack in 2015, and weathered a long period of mourning. But Maria said Sylvana is recently back to her cheerful self, and when it comes to school, things are better.

Despite Sylvana’s struggles at McPherson, there were bright spots: The counselor there helped her mother navigate the application process and gain entry into North Side Learning Center, a district-run school for about 220 students with intellectual disabilities. Beyond academics, students there practice skills that prepare them to live independently and work in the community. Sylvana, 18, can take classes there for two more years before she graduates. Her mother’s hope is for her to one day have a job, maybe clerical work in an office or factory doing something like packaging.

Maria knew that Sylvana would face certain challenges in life. School closings were just one. But she can’t help but wonder if losing Trumbull slowed down her daughter’s momentum and affected the trajectory of her progress.  Still, she’s grateful her ordeal lasted just one year. Plenty of families are still searching for a better situation.

More complaints

At least five educators accused Memphis principal of pressuring to pass students

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Here, Kingsbury High School principal Terry Ross is featured in a district video on student-based budgeting.

At least four teachers and a school counselor have accused a Memphis principal of pressuring them to promote or graduate students who were failing, according to Chalkbeat’s review of his personnel file.

The teachers said Kingsbury High School Principal Terry Ross told them individually that they must give seniors last-minute makeup work to ensure they graduate — even if students ignored the makeup work they had already been offered or if the student had missed weeks of school. The complaints all came in May, as graduation neared for about 230 Kingsbury seniors. Three of the four teachers resigned over the issue.

Tamara Bradshaw, the school counselor for 12th grade students, said if Ross deemed that teachers had too many students who were failing, he would threaten to fire or reassign them.

“A diploma from Kingsbury is worth very little,” Bradshaw said in an email to the district’s department for employee discipline. “It has been like that for years. The students have been taught to do very little or nothing at all because Kingsbury teachers will pass you. Trust me, it is not by choice that this is done.”

These and other accusations of misconduct and workplace harassment in the past year make up about half of his 210-page personnel file, which did not include any statements or responses from Ross. Chalkbeat obtained the file through an open records request.

Shelby County Schools suspended Ross with pay last week as a law firm investigates the harassment claims. The accounting firm already tapped to determine if staff at seven Memphis schools improperly changed student transcripts or grades added Kingsbury to its list last month after a former math teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Ross had a hand in changing final exam grades for 17 students to 100s.

The complaints also highlight the shortcomings of corrective measures Shelby County Schools put in place after investigators last year found a “pervasive culture” of tampering with student grades at Trezevant High School.

"The students have been taught to do very little or nothing at all because Kingsbury teachers will pass you."Tamara Bradshaw

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has since restricted who can make any changes to transcripts or report cards. But those measures would not prevent principals from pressuring teachers to change grades or assign a flurry of eleventh-hour makeup work to promote or graduate students who show last-ditch effort. Hopson also ordered monthly reports from principals detailing any grade changes and requiring documentation.

Jinger Griner, who had taught English at Kingsbury for nine years before recently resigning, told Chantay Branch, the district’s director of labor relations, that Ross would not accept her list of seniors who were going to fail her class. She said Ross allowed one student who came to Griner’s class only once during the entire spring semester to complete a week’s worth of makeup work “with the intent that she will walk at graduation.”

“I love Kingsbury and I love the students that we serve; they are diverse, spunky, and talented, but, if there are no standards or expectations, then we are setting them up to fail,” Griner wrote in her email on May 16, five days before graduation. “Many of my students could not keep a minimum wage job with the attendance record that they have at school, but unlike that job, which would not give them a paycheck for truancy, we are offering them a diploma.”

"Many of my students could not keep a minimum wage job with the attendance record that they have at school"Jinger Griner

The accusations against Ross are the latest in a string of complaints of misconduct during the course of his 22-year career in education. When Ross was principal of Getwell Elementary in Memphis in the early 2000s, he was suspended without pay for three days after admitting he violated security procedures for the state’s annual test for student performance. (His personnel file says that he failed to store test materials in a secure manner, and did not report testing improprieties to the central office.)

A retired teacher said last year that students received grades for a fake class that the school said she was teaching months after she left the district, according to local TV station WHBQ, but that complaint was not in his personnel file. And a five-minute segment from TV station WIVB in Buffalo, N.Y., featured teachers who said Ross created an “environment of confrontation and intimidation” at a school he led there just before he took over at Kingsbury High in 2014.

A call to Ross’ cell phone requesting comment was not returned Wednesday. A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district “will not have any further information available until the investigation concludes.” Officials estimated the probe would be completed by the end of this month.

‘We need these kids to graduate’

Students must have a “satisfactory” attendance record to graduate, but specific benchmarks are not listed in district policy. If a student has an unexcused absence, district policy says the student and parent must submit written requests for assignments to make up the work and that “one day of makeup time shall be allowed for each day of unexcused absence.”

But according to several teacher complaints, Ross allowed minimal makeup work in a shorter time frame to count for multiple days of absences. This especially applied to seniors, they said.

Harris, the math teacher, said in her May 10 email to school board members and Hopson that Ross told her “to do whatever it takes to get zeros out” of her online gradebook. Ross encouraged teachers to give makeup assignments during quarterly Saturday sessions known as Zeros Aren’t Permitted, or ZAP, Days. Those sessions are allowed under district policy, but Harris and others said a single Saturday assignment was expected to replace several zeros.

“Many of the students have said they don’t care about missing assignments because they know there will be a ZAP and they will get the zeros replaced,” her email said.

Nikki Wilks, who taught English to sophomores and seniors at Kingsbury, said in a May 15 email to Branch that teachers were expected to use just a few assignments “to cover any and all zeros that a student has in the gradebook.”

Ross would especially pressure her to find “creative” ways to give seniors a passing grade, said Wilks, who transferred to another district school this year. She said she received one phone call from Branch in July to verify a portion of her email, but has not heard any substantial follow up from the district or outside investigators.

“With my sophomores, there was never really a conversation about your failure rates being too high,” she told Chalkbeat. “Then you get these seniors and you’ve got to play cleanup.”

Kingsbury High School carried some of the graduation gains Shelby County Schools has made in recent years. The school had the seventh highest increase of students graduating on time over the past decade, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of graduation rates in Memphis schools. Last school year, about 70 percent of Kingsbury students graduated on time, up from 58 percent in 2008.

That statistic, cited by federal and state education officials when evaluating school quality, is the main reason Griner said Ross pressured teachers.

“We need these kids to graduate because we need to keep our graduation rate up,” Griner recalled Ross as saying during a conversation about some of her students failing. Because Ross did not respond to a request for comment, Chalkbeat was unable to verify this exchange.

De’Mon Nolan, a second-year teacher who taught a creative writing elective, said in an email to the district’s labor relations in May that Ross directed him to “pass all of my students regardless of if they attended school or not.”

“He also told me that my class really does not count, so I should especially pass the seniors,” Nolan wrote in his email to the district. “When I gave him a little push back he is the one who had threatening and unruly comments. I felt that he bullied me so much, I even went home crying one day!”

Nolan told Chalkbeat he estimated about half of his 40 students who were going to fail his class in May ended up graduating without earning the grade.

"I felt that he bullied me so much, I even went home crying one day!"De'Mon Nolan

“Administration staff came to me and said, basically, I need to figure out how I’m going to pass them,” he said. “I was doing everything I could giving them makeup work. They didn’t come to Saturday school.”

The district declined to extend Nolan’s contract for the 2018-19 school year, which he perceived as retaliation. A few weeks prior, Ross had reported Nolan “sleeping at work, not getting to your classes in a timely manner, leaving students unattended and not coming to (teacher coaching) meetings.” Nolan, in an interview with Chalkbeat and in an email to the district, denied those charges and said Tuesday he has yet to hear from district officials or investigators about his claims against Ross.

‘Like a prisoner in my own room’

Ross’ personnel file also shed more light on Harris’ allegations, presented to the school board in June.

Before the alleged grade tampering took place, Harris and Ross had a disagreement over how to handle a senior in danger of not graduating. Harris said she had given the student makeup work, but he didn’t turn it in. Ross pushed for more makeup work, and when she refused, he said “he will get the student a packet and have someone else grade it if I won’t,” she wrote.

Shelby County Schools dismissed Harris’ allegations as “inaccurate” because the grade changes were a mistake, but declined to release full details of the initial investigation until the current one has finished.

Nicholas Tatum, a special education teacher who sometimes taught with Harris, said he meant to input 100s for students for a first semester exam that was taught by the teacher who Harris had replaced midway through the year. He said he accidentally put them in as second semester scores.

Neither Ross’ personnel file nor district officials offered explanations why first semester grades were edited in May or any documentation that those updated scores were correct. Felicia Everson, Ross’ supervisor, cleared Harris to change back the second semester grades a few days after the incident.

Phyllis Kyle, a union representative for Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, represented Harris and another employee during two meetings with Ross. She told district officials in a May 11 email that Ross was “demeaning, unprofessional and not representative of what leadership looks like in Shelby County Schools.”

Several emails in the personnel file show that Harris and Ross’ relationship continued to grow tense to the point she felt “like a prisoner in my own room,” she wrote to Everson.

outside the box

How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Test scores were rising at Fuller Elementary School when Marilyn McCottrell took over in 2016. Yet troubling trends loomed behind the numbers.

“A lot of growth has been made,” said McCottrell, Fuller’s third principal in six years. “But that growth is not equal among students.”

She’s talking about black boys.

Black girls had driven most of Fuller’s academic improvement since the 2012-13 school year, when Chicago Public Schools handed management of the Bronzeville school over to the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which replaced the staff and principal in a turnaround effort. Black boys had improved much slower. They got most of the school’s Ds and Fs, and were much less likely than girls to meet or approach expectations for college readiness on state tests.

PARCC Scores

Last school year, McCottrell and her staff crunched the data and made changes at Fuller to shorten the gaps between boys and girls. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. As adults, they are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, or chronically unemployed. McCottrell believes what Fuller did, starting with painstakingly crunching data at the school, classroom and individual levels, could help other schools do better for black boys.

But she wants to be clear about something: Black boys don’t need to be “saved.”

“They need to be respected and appreciated for the differences and the unique gifts that they bring to the educational experience,” she said.

Black boys
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Fuller Elementary School students (from left)Tyrese Robinson-Guy, Terrell Johnson, and Jasean Waters at a community garden in Bronzeville.

 

Fuller, a Level 1 school in good standing, occupies the corner of St. Lawrence Avenue and 42nd Street in Bronzeville. Nearly all of its 370 students are black and come from economically disadvantaged households. About half of the teachers are white, and about half are African-American. When CPS turned over management of Fuller, it was seeking to lift up a school that had been on academic probation five consecutive years. Fuller still has far to go. In 2017, only 10 percent of Fuller students were ready for the next level compared to 26 percent across the school district and 34 percent across the state. Growth has been above average, but, as McCottrell said, that growth hasn’t been equal.

PARCC Scores

Last August, McCottrell arrived at Fuller for a training session for teachers bearing handouts packed with data on black boys’ grades and test scores. Middle school reading teacher Arlicia McClain was shocked to see the stark disparities.

“It made me buck up and say I need to talk to these students,” she said. “I need to know what is going on that is preventing them from improving. Is it me? Is it something going on with them individually? Is it something they are missing?”

Girls’ math scores had increased by 193 percent compared with 90 percent for boys since the turnaround effort began in the 2012-13 school year. The gender performance gap was even more striking in reading, where black girls’ scores jumped 140 percent compared with 31 percent for boys. 

As McClain and other teachers reflected on the numbers, they recounted their  own experiences in the classroom. For example, they could all name which students were removed from class the most for disciplinary reasons, and nearly all were black boys.

Arlicia McClain
PHOTO: Courtesy of Arlicia McClain
Fuller Elementary School teacher Arlicia McClain.

McClain realized she tended to call on black girls more in class.

McClain, African-American herself, wondered if she was favoring girls or failing to challenge boys enough, and how that could affect their learning. She resolved to push black boys more during her second year at Fuller. 

She also left the session with another big take-away: A lot of boys who wouldn’t participate in classroom-wide sessions engaged more in small groups. Wedding the data to her realizations has helped the young teacher come up with tailored approaches for struggling students.

“Look at them as individuals who want to learn, but who sometimes need the individualized attention to do that,” McClain said. “If you really are about the progression of black youth, you’re going to need to be individual-focused, and you’re going to need the data to do it.”

In the 2016-17 school year, for the subjects of English language arts and math, about 70 percent of all Ds and Fs at Fuller went to black boys.

In the first quarter of last school year, McCottrell and her staff revised Fuller’s grading policies in hopes of addressing the disparity.

They switched to what McCottrell called “a more equitable grading scale,” where the lowest a student could score is a 50, adopted a “no-opt out policy” for homework, so children who failed to turn in their homework by deadline wouldn’t automatically get a zero and had to make up assignments, and allowed students to redo certain parts of failed tests and quizzes after reteaching.

By the end of the first quarter, the numbers of Ds and Fs had decreased by nearly half.

But black boys were still getting about the same percent of them as before.

So McCottrell decided to go in for a closer look.

“The numbers only tell part of the story,” she said.

McCottrell ate with boys in the lunchroom. She played flag football with them at recess. She sat with them in class, assisted their teachers, and taught her own lessons across grades and subjects.

She talked to the boys — and listened.

Jasean Waters, a black boy

Jasean Waters, 13, said he found it hard to focus on his school work.

Some distractions come from inside the classroom, like the bullies Jasean’s run into. Other distractions live in the world outside Fuller, like the gun violence whose victims are overwhelmingly black males.

“It’s a big struggle for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of people dying around here, so we gotta watch our backs, and when we’re walking home we feel like we’re unsafe, so we just focus on us being safe. It’s hard to focus on school.”

Boredom is another issue. Jasean said that he does well in math, but struggles sometimes with reading, and that his interest wanes with the lack of characters and authors he can relate to in school texts. That sounded familiar to McCottrell.  When she spoke with boys, she heard that school amounted to a seven-hour suppression of their personalities, interests, and voices — especially in reading and English classes, where black voices and black writers were missing.

“When kids have to pick a book for independent reading, they don’t relate to the characters in those classroom libraries,” she said. “It’s really hard coming to a class everyday when nothing relates to you.”

Parcc Scores

McCottrell decided to teach an optional African-American literature class every Friday during a weekly “intervention time” for students needing help in reading and math  About 17 boys showed up on the first day and read excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” whose protagonist proclaims, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

McCottrell said many of the boys could expertly analyze the Harlem Renaissance classic, because they related to the idea of not being heard, seen, or understood for who they really are. The students offered examples like the portrayal of black men in the media.

“Many of them were saying things like, ‘I’m not a gangbanger, but this is what people think I am, because I’m dark or because I’m tall,’” she said. “They talked about it in the context of their teachers not knowing who they are.”

The class soon doubled as word of mouth drew others in. Jasean, a C student at the start of the class, joined them. He said he learned things he hadn’t been introduced to before. He read about segregation, speeches by Martin Luther King, and books like “Bud, Not Buddy,” about a 10-year-old black orphan during the Great Depression.

He said he rededicated himself to doing 100 minutes of reading a night and by the end of last school year earned an A in reading. He said he raises his hand to ask and answer questions in class more.

“It feels good,” he said.

Jasean’s grandmother, local school council member Regina Waters, praised McCottrell’s hands-on approach with students and her efforts to build one-on-one relationships with the boys.

“She’s upfront with the kids, and she knows all the kids by name which is unusual in the short time she’s been there,” Waters said.

McCottrell
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Marilyn McCottrell

Fuller’s boys closed the gap with girls in several ways over last school year.

They went from getting 70 percent of the Ds and Fs in English and math to 60 percent. In 2016-17, 46 percent of boys compared with 55 percent of girls were on track, meaning they earned a C or higher in reading and math and had an attendance rate of at least 95 percent. In 2017-18, the percentage of boys on track increased by 23 percentage points compared to 19 points for girls. But sitting in her office at Fuller one day earlier this summer, McCottrell admitted something about her efforts for black boys.

“Nothing is solved,” she said.

Despite some progress last school year, when the 2018-19 school year starts, black boys at Fuller will still lag behind black girls. Forces outside of education like poverty, mass incarceration, and racial discrimination will continue to disadvantage black youth in ways that manifest in classrooms, where they land heaviest on black boys.

The odds aren’t yet even for black boys at McCottrell’s school, or at most schools across America. However, McCottrell believes that educators learned a lot that they can build on down the line.

Next year, McCottrell said she’s urging teachers to incorporate more of the black experience and black voices into lesson plans and to increase small-group instruction.

Teachers are having more data conferences with McCottrell and with each other to guide instruction and target specific students’ needs. McCottrell is also promoting more social-emotional learning techniques and restorative practices rather than punitive approaches to discipline, and incorporating cultural awareness and bias training into teachers’ professional development.

Marlene Aponte, the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s director of coaching,  said that in some ways Fuller’s story resembles other schools’ in the years after turnarounds. After focusing on rigorous instruction and ambitious growth targets,“we’re starting to really hone in on some of the pieces that we may have overlooked, such as gender bias, gender equity, access in equity,” she said.

McCottrell wants her boys to have the tools to succeed. She knows there are some issues that her school won’t be able to solve.

But it’s a start.