Bob Teplo, a 3rd-grade teacher at Mason Elementary School in Lawndale, is taking a bunch of his students through their weekly vocabulary lesson. He holds up word cards containing one of 25 simple words starting with “l” or “m;” the youngsters call out what they think the cards say.

The kids get “least” and “lumber” right, but they err on the pronunciation of “limb.” Jasmine, a girl in a navy pinafore, stumbles on “launch,” causing Teplo to prompt, “You know, what a spaceship would do.” Jasmine gets it, and says the word correctly. Teplo dispatches a boy named Joseph Haynes to the blackboard to award Jasmine 10 points for her accomplishment.

Teplo, a big-bellied man with a goatee and glasses pushed atop his hair, keeps running point totals on his students that reflect both their academic prowess and their behavior; each week he gives a money prize out of his own pocket to the top scorer. “Some of the parents don’t like their kids getting money,” Teplo notes, “so in those cases I’ll give the top kid a treat.”

Teplo’s incentive-driven vocabulary lesson is ground zero in the Chicago School Reform Board’s war against social promotion. It’s a war that not only holds students back at four grade levels, but also seeks to remediate their problems and get them back on track. For Mason’s retainees, that means being assigned to small classes of their own and having the opportunity to participate in an after-school program that offers additional instruction in reading and math as well as recreational activities. Teplo has one of those classes.

Yet the mission is a perilous one, given children barely out of the academic starting block and parents suspicious of, if not hostile to, the retention strategy.

Huge school

The three buildings and playground of Mason School cover close to a whole city block. Here 1,600 children, predominantly poor and African American, attend preschool through 8th grade. They don’t perform well—only 15.7 percent exceed national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and they fare little better in math.

Under the board’s new retention policy, children in the 3rd, 6th and 8th grades who perform poorly on the Iowas or have low grades or poor attendance, are sent to summer school, called the Summer Bridge Program. Students with low Iowa scores at the end of summer school have to repeat their prior year. Citywide and at Mason, the failure rate was worst at third grade. Of 135 Mason 3rd-graders, 105 attended the Summer Bridge; of those, 50 were held back.

As a result, Mason has 10 3rd-grade classrooms this year instead of the standard five. Using an additional teacher—a bonus for schools with a high number of retainees—and federal poverty dollars, Principal Noel LeVeaux carved out six 3rd-grade rooms containing 14 youngsters each. By grouping low achievers together, LeVeaux says, teachers can pay more attention to them and their progress.

30-year veteran

Teplo’s blue-walled classroom, Room 126 in Mason’s north building, boasts line drawings of such African-American notables as Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche. A photograph of Lyndon Johnson (a President uncommonly seen on school walls nowadays) is askew in a frame beside a tableau of cursive letters. Elsewhere there’s a small in-class library of beginning reading books, a globe, some science material and a few struggling plants.

The 52-year-old Teplo has taught at Mason for three decades, his entire career in pedagogy. He has risen to high station here, being both the Chicago Teachers Union delegate and a local school council member, but his home turf has remained the 4th grade. There he’s developed a strength in handling weaker learners as well as disruptive children. “Kids get sent to the office here all the time,” says Teplo, “but I never send anyone.”

He welcomes the opportunity to teach 3rd grade. “Third grade is pivotal,” he says, “because it’s then you should read and compute not just to do it, but to learn.” Teplo applauds the smaller setting: “In a classroom of 30 or 35 kids, certain ones monopolize, and you can’t give individual attention. But you can do that with a small group. You can be more informal. I like this setup.” The setup also includes a teacher’s aide, Consuela Edwards, who works with Teplo in the morning.

Room 126’s curriculum includes vocabulary, reading, basic social studies and science and math—multiplication, simple fractions and geometry. “But understand that some of these kids have difficulty telling time on a clock,” he notes. Reading presents the thorniest problem. The Reform Board’s bottom-line standard to proceed to 4th grade is a score of 2.8 in reading (the eighth month of 2nd grade), but a sizable number of Teplo’s charges posted scores of 1.5 or lower. One boy, with a score of 0.8, has what Teplo believes is a learning disability in that he reverses the words he sees on a page; to compound matters, the lad has sight in only one eye. “His mom bought him glasses, but he broke them already,” Teplo says.

Teplo says that his 3rd-graders have particular trouble with their “sight vocabulary”—recognizing words on a page. He encourages them to press through tricky constructs: “They’ll come upon a word and get it all mixed up. Don’t get frustrated, I tell them. Just keep going, and you’ll figure it out.”

The board’s program of training lead teachers at high-retention schools has not reached Mason. Learning of the program from a reporter, LeVeaux says, “Perhaps I missed something.” The board did provide Mason with “Bridging the Gap” booklets for both reading and math, but Teplo doesn’t use them. “I have relied on certain methods,” he explains. “I like the overhead projector and math problems I make up myself. Sure I follow the curriculum, but I do it my way.” In reading, he favors a workbook that features short passages and a series of questions on the content. In general, Teplo says, he teaches reading by combining direct instruction, whole language and phonics into what he describes as “a potpourri” of methods.

The passage this morning concerns the characteristics of a mole. “I’m going to start this, and when I stop you pick up reading,” he tells his students. Several kids get stuck on saying the word “angleworm” (a mole’s tail resembles a nightcrawler), and Teplo dispatches one boy to the dictionary to look up the word’s definition. When Jasmine mouths off, Teplo looks her in the eye: “Who’s running this place, Jasmine? Once you get married, you can give the orders, but until then I’m in charge.”

At 10:15 a bunch of youngsters who’ve been working with Mason’s federal Title I coordinator on reading return to the classroom, exchanging places with Jasmine’s cohort. The new arrivals are worse readers. “A mole’s eyes … are so … tiny that you … can find them only by … parting the … fur around them,” a heavyset boy named James says haltingly.

Soon the school librarian ushers the whole class upstairs for a brush with the stacks, and Teplo takes a break. “I just keep telling myself that these kids can do better if I maintain a certain attitude,” he says. “You have to stay on the positive side because the kids’ egos are a bit battered over their situation.”

‘I was sad’

The students had learned of their situation gradually. After performing below par on the Iowas in May, a letter went home strongly advising summer school; then, without sufficient improvement during the Summer Bridge, each student got word from Mason officials that he or she had flunked.

The kids felt a blow. “I was sad about it, ’cause I’d already been in 3rd grade,” says Joseph Haynes, who is 10. When 9-year-old Dedrick Glee heard about repeating, “he was down about it,” says his father John, a cook at Long John Silver’s. “It wasn’t extreme on his part—and he hasn’t changed significantly—but he did cry.” Autumn Howard, a stout 9-year-old, also wept, and to this day she is so embarrassed about having flunked that when she and her mother visit friends in the suburbs she passes herself off as a fourth-grader.

Some parents took the news evenhandedly. “This [retention] was a good idea,” says homemaker Brenda Adams, Dedrick’s mother. “He needs all the help he can get.” But Sherry Williams, Autumn’s mother and a Mason Local School Council member, was so riled at her daughter’s flunking that she immediately took her case to the regional office and then to board headquarters on Pershing Road. “This was completely unnecessary,” insists Williams, a temporary worker. “Autumn just didn’t test well.” When Williams failed to win Autumn relief, she insisted that her daughter be released from Room 126 to a regular 3rd grade each day for more advanced reading and math; the school complied.

Though Teplo had no role in the retentions, he is sometimes cited for the children’s failure. “Mr. Teplo always complains that Joseph is talking out in class, but Mr. Teplo is teaching 2nd-grade work, and Joseph is more advanced than that,” says Lindsey Haynes, a nurse assistant and Joseph’s mother. Brenda Adams, Dedrick’s mother, complains that Teplo doesn’t give her son enough homework.

“Mr. Teplo is a pretty good teacher, and the kids like him,” says Sherry Williams, shifting the onus back onto the parents. “You got parents at Mason who stay up all night, whose kids stay up all night. They send their kids to school without socks or in thin summer coats. These parents don’t have a quality homelife, and they can’t back up retention.” In contrast, Williams says she takes Autumn to the library and the Chicago Children’s Museum, has enrolled her in tutoring at Malcolm X College and monitors her homework regularly.

After tacos in the Mason lunchroom, it’s time for math. Teplo gets out his overhead projector and conducts a clever lesson in which the students figure out the fractional equivalents for shaded portions of geometric shapes. The class is stir-crazy, and a couple kids show Teplo disrespect—”Hey, Teplo,” a girl shouts to get the teacher’s attention. Teplo cautions an increasingly lippy Jasmine, telling Joseph Haynes to deduct five points from her total on the blackboard.

The youngsters go off to the computer lab, then return to a discussion of mammal characteristics. The hard reality of the neighborhood intrudes when Teplo casually mentions that a girl down the street died the prior week. “What could have happened to her?” Teplo asks the class. She was hit by a bus, someone offers. No, she was shot, says a boy. Another classmate thinks she was raped. “She was playing with a gun,” Teplo says, “and the next thing you know she accidentally shot herself. That’s called an accidental death.”

Few stay after school

The day is winding down. Teplo hands out a worksheet, the evening’s homework. At 2:30, the children line up to leave, with Teplo announcing that the parents of four unruly children, Jasmine among them, will receive evening phone calls.

The Reform Board has funded a lighted schoolhouse three days a week at Mason; it offers an hour of tutoring in reading and math, followed by another hour of social activities and then a hot meal. Participation, a key piece of ballast in the retention program, is strongly advised for repeating students, but it is not mandatory. Teplo reports that half his students have signed up for the lighted schoolhouse, but fewer than that attend; only a handful make moves to go this afternoon.

‘Kids more receptive’

Principal LeVeaux hails the board’s retention effort. “For the most part, it’s working,” he says, “because it’s creating a realization in the children that they have to make an effort.” Teplo is somewhat heartened, too. “This is good because the kids will understand that if you make a rule, it has to be met after a certain amount of time.” In Teplo’s estimation, initial indicators have been encouraging—only one parent failed to attend Report Card Pickup day in November, and class attendance has been respectable. “The kids seem a little bit more receptive to learning,” he says.

Yet the children’s futures are linked to how well they do on the Iowas in May. “Many of these kids have to make up in one year double what they’re supposed to have learned in three years,” Teplo says. “I have high expectations of them, but this is going to be hard to do. If half of these kids get to 4th grade next year, we’ll have been fortunate.” He notes that two of his students had already been held back once. “What’s going to happen to them?” he wonders.

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