Jermaine Kelly Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

Jermaine Kelly’s elementary school experience was chaotic. Every time he turned around, a fight was “jumping off,” he says, smiling sheepishly and adding, “We had wars inside that school, and I was in the middle of it.”

The response of the principal was swift and always the same. Jermaine says he was suspended so many times, it felt like going through a revolving door. “I would get there, and two days later I would be back home,” Jermaine recalls.  In 7th grade, he was suspended multiple times for eight to 10 days.

By 8th grade, he had missed so much school that there was no way he would be able to pass his classes and be ready for high school.

In the 2006-2007 school year—Jermaine’s first time around in 8th grade—more than 7,000 elementary school students in Chicago were suspended more than once, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. Almost 60 percent were black males, like Jermaine.  While there is no data linking multiple suspensions to eventual retention, Jermaine’s story makes the correlation clear.

When he received the letter notifying him that he would be held back, Jermaine was bummed out. “I didn’t get to graduate with my friends,” he says. “I had to stay back with all their brothers and sisters.”

Jermaine got another shock the following year. Harvard Elementary School—where Jermaine had been enrolled since kindergarten—became a turnaround school. The principal and virtually all the staff were replaced. Jermaine says the next year, discipline was stepped up and the school became calmer. But he resisted. Again, he was suspended a number of times.

Jermaine says teachers tried to help him improve his behavior, but their efforts didn’t accomplish anything because he was suspended so much.

Jermaine failed 8th grade, again. He was sent to summer school, again.

In August, he was told that he wouldn’t be spending another year at Harvard. Already 15, he would have to go to Robeson’s achievement academy. Jermaine was excited. He was ready to be out of elementary school.  In high school, he would be able to be more independent. 

This year—his second year at the achievement academy—Jermaine decided he would finally buckle down and get to work. He has a 3.5 GPA.

Jermaine credits teachers with getting him on track. “They are non-stop,” he says, stopping him in the hall and checking on him to make sure that if he isn’t in school, he still turns in his work.

Bonita Furcron, the assistant principal at Robeson who runs the achievement academy, says that she thinks a nurturing environment helps students. “If you feel as though someone cares about you, you will do well,” she says.

But Jermaine has a long road ahead. The achievement academy curriculum requires students to double-up on reading and math coursework to catch up academically. So when students enter 11th grade, they must take a large number of electives and classes in science and social studies to meet graduation requirements. The transition to a regular high school is rocky for many achievement academy students: A large number give up and drop out.

And in a regular high school, there will be no one standing over Jermaine to make sure he stays on track.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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