Discussions on teaching the disadvantaged usually focus on teachers and ignore the social ills that afflict the disadvantaged:
A TRIBUNE SPECIAL REPORT: THE TOUGHEST ASSIGNMENT
Part 1: They needed a lifeline and found a teacher
By Stephanie Banchero
Tribune staff reporter
September 1, 2007
At a school where every other reform had failed, Montie Apostolos was the last, best chance for students to succeed.
She had been brought in because she produced impressive gains in reading test scores at her last school. She was tough. Her lessons were rooted in the best research, and she was trained for inner-city schools.
She's an uncompromising, charismatic 56-year-old grandmother with an irresistible life story: She had fought off water cannons, attack dogs and white supremacists to get her own education in the segregated South. Nothing her students faced was going to surprise her.
But on a fall morning last year, at Sherman School of Excellence on Chicago's South Side, Apostolos' steely demeanor met its match.
A baby-faced 8th-grade boy stood at a lectern analyzing a poem. In a squeaky voice, he talked about feeling alone and neglected, like the narrator. And, matter-of-factly, he ticked off events that brought him there.
He had been taken away from his crack-addicted mother. His brother had been shot in the heart and head during a gang fight. His young cousin had died of neglect.
Apostolos suddenly realized what she had to overcome to reach her students. And in a rare unguarded moment, she hurried from the classroom, her eyes brimming with tears.
Apostolos and her class were at the leading edge of a historic experiment at the heart of the No Child Left Behind reforms. Sherman was the first school in Illinois—one a few dozen nationwide—in which the staff was completely overhauled according to federal law.
The perennially underperforming school had been closed in June 2006 after it failed to meet federal testing standards six years in a row. It reopened three months later under the management of Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that trains teachers. The academy ran five Chicago schools last year, and is set to open two more Tuesday.
The new management replaced the teachers with hand-picked, skilled educators such as Apostolos.
The stakes were high. Lawmakers debating the renewal of No Child Left Behind were looking for evidence that strong teaching could rescue schools impervious to other reforms.
As a new school year gets under way, the Tribune is examining the first year of Sherman's turnaround, as seen through the eyes of the teacher and studentsin Room 301.
Evidence from that year suggests that a strong and dedicated teacher, backed by a top-notch principal and high-quality professional development, did make a difference.
But the first year also showed that teaching in a low-income, inner-city school can grind down even the most energetic professional.
Apostolos struggled with the uneven academic progress of 34 students—children such as Kyesha Caver, a smart 13-year-old, far ahead of her classmates; Sarah Stevens, a C student who desperately wanted A's; and DJ, who could not focus because of a troubling secret he kept locked inside until he was arrested at the end of the school year. (The Tribune is not using his full name because it does not publish the names of juveniles charged with crimes.)
Apostolos' time to meet their needs was short. Adding to the pressure, she took on the roles of mother, social worker and counselor. By the end of the school year, she had worn down and she wondered whether she belonged in the classroom.
Five weeks into the school year, Apostolos stood in front of her class shaking her head in disgust.
"I'm not going to tell you again," she said to a boy who had draped his body over his desk. "Get your head off the desk and pay attention."
He kept his head buried between his folded arms, eyes squeezed shut.
"Last chance," Apostolos warned. "Get up and go splash some water on your face to help wake you up, or I am going to give you an F for the day."
The boy dragged himself from the seat and sauntered to the door, drawing laughs with his exaggerated slowness.
As the year got under way, Apostolos was taken aback by the lack of interest she saw in many of her students. One boy was removed from the classroom because Apostolos suspected he was high on marijuana. A girl kept falling asleep; she had been staying up late doing laundry for the family.
A boy disappeared for weeks when he ran away from home. A girl missed two weeks because she was afraid she would get beaten up on the way to school.
Apostolos tried to counsel them, discipline them or just ignore their insolence. But she was not about to let them knock her off course.
"You are going to learn," she told the class as she turned to write on the board, "whether you want to or not."