A budding talent
As a freshman, Andre West used to hop over the tall, wrought-iron fence that separates his home from Crane High School. But over the next 18 months, Andre himself proved to be the biggest obstacle to his getting an education. After three semesters and chronic absences, Andre was dropped from the school.
School records show Andre had no discipline problems, and teachers report he completed school work on the days he attended class. But he just wouldn’t go.
Art teacher Lori Real remembers Andre as a budding talent. “His first year he was great. He was shy, he did all his work.” His transcript shows he earned a B for the year in a course he took at the Art Institute as a student in the Metro program housed at Crane.
However, as the year progressed, Andre began to slip. His grades fell and his class rank dropped from top third to middle of the pack. Crane would not release Andre’s test scores, but his transcript reveals he was required to attend Summer Bridge in 1997 to bring up his math and reading scores. (High school attendance in Summer Bridge was so poor the board stopped funding the program in 1998. See Catalyst, November 1998.)
By sophomore year, Andre sealed his fate. During the fall of 1997, he racked up 41.5 absences and failed every single course.
“Andre’s been lost for a long time,” Real says. “He hit his turning point age, and no one was there to guide him.” From her classroom window, Real saw Andre shooting hoops and hosting afternoon parties on the patio.
Andre admits he sometimes played basketball instead of attending class, but more often slept late and watched television.
His mother, Barbara West, says part of the problem was lack of supervision. Mother to three sons and grandmother to three infants, West works as many as seven days a week as a rehabilitation aide at Mayfield Hospital. She says she received few if any written notices from Crane about Andre, but concedes if may not be the school’s fault. “I’m not saying they didn’t send it. I don’t know if they came and the children tore them up or what.”
However, West says in two instances Andre’s absences were for valid reasons and should have been excused by the school. In August 1997, he hit his head against a lamppost while playing football with a few buddies; he was treated at the hospital for a concussion. Later that semester the Wests traveled to Georgia for a family funeral.
School personnel say neither Andre nor his mother submitted documents to support an excused absence. But the two insist they gave school officials Andre’s hospital discharge papers and his great-grandmother’s obituary. (They produce the documents for a reporter to review.)
Attendance director William Harvey says he has no record of what transpired. Every year, Crane purges the files of students who are dropped by the school.
No one disputes that West visited Crane often to talk with teachers about how to help Andre. Andre’s division teacher, Larry Waites, remembers consoling West. “[She] was literally crying in this office,” he says. “She’s working. She’s trusting her kids to do what they’re supposed to do—get up and go to school. But they wouldn’t do it, and she didn’t know what to do.”
Crane finally dropped Andre in February 1998 for excessive absences. He and his mother visited the school and talked to a guidance counselor to get him reinstated. Andre showed surprising persistence himself—returning to Crane at regular intervals over the course of the following year to plead his case to be readmitted. No luck.
“We must keep them until they’re 16,” says Assistant Principal G.K. Smith. “Once they turn 16, it’s pretty much of a merit thing. Those students who toe the mark, who come to school, they are successful.”
Under state law, Crane should have conducted a due process hearing on Andre’s request because he had enough credits to be able to graduate by age 21 The hearing requirement is little known and rarely followed.
Real says Andre’s story is typical of chronic truants. “Truancy is my biggest heartbreak here,” she says. “I have watched kids who could go on to college just disappear. I’ve had two this year—seniors, they have all their credits. They were ready to graduate, and they just vanished.”
A miscoded dropout
According to school documents, Marlen Rodriguez, 18, transferred in October 1998 from Amundsen High to Truman College. In fact, she is a dropout who has not set foot in any school the past seven months.
Marlen did not make much of an impression in the three years she was enrolled at Amundsen. Her photo appears only once—during her freshman year—in the school yearbook. Teachers and other school staff interviewed by Catalyst do not remember her.
Assistant Principal Pauline Tarvardian has to think a minute or two before she recalls Marlen. The last time she saw Marlen was in late October. Marlen and her mother, Olga Guevara, were in the attendance office for the last of a long series of conferences, calls and warnings regarding Marlen’s poor attendance. Now the warnings were over; both mother and daughter sign a withdrawal slip.
“I suggest you continue your education,” Tarvardian tells Marlen, encouraging her to enroll in Amundsen’s GED program at Truman College after her 18th birthday.
After signing the card, mother and daughter head down the hall to the program office. When they arrive, they hand the card to the clerk and ask for a transcript. “Transfer?” the clerk inquires. They nod.
Later inspection of Marlen’s record shows the clerk used code 37, “immediate transfer to evening school,” to record her discharge. As a result, Marlen will not be counted as a dropout at Amundsen. Marlen’s discharge should have been coded 66, which is used for dropouts who go to GED or vocational programs, or delay their enrollment into evening school.
Asked why Marlen was coded a transfer, Tarvardian answers, “She’s not [a dropout] if she goes to a GED program. It says GED, right?” After looking at the code instructions on a student withdrawal slip, she corrects herself. “Oh, no, it doesn’t.”
Marlen’s grammar school record shows an average student who arrived with her family from Mexico in 1990. Marlen entered school in the 4th grade. At first, the family moved a lot, but Marlen spent the bulk of her elementary school years at McPherson in Ravenswood. She had a D average, but by 8th grade had pulled up grades to B’s and C’s. She had only five absences during her last two years at McPherson.
At the time, Marlen’s command of English was not strong. She scored well below grade level on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. But she did much better on La Prueba, a standardized achievement test for Spanish-speakers.
By the time Marlen entered high school, family troubles were brewing. During the fall of her freshman year, Marlen’s mother got an order of protection against her father. Marlen missed fewer than 10 days of school that year, but barely passed her classes. Her highest grade was a B in art. Marlen says she wants to be either an architect or a fashion designer.
During her sophomore year, Marlen’s father returned to Mexico. She was distraught. “I started having problems, not going to school,” she recalls. “I wanted to stay home and think about my father.” In nine months, she missed 25 days of school. By the end of the year, she was not promoted. As a “sophomore demote,” Marlen was assigned to a new division teacher and guidance counselor, staff who are crucial contacts for troubled high school students.
Amundsen’s paper trail on Marlen includes a record of discipline problems—two suspensions and several truancy stops, when the police brought her to school.
Although Guevara admits she had her own emotional problems during the time, she says she remained attentive to her daughter’s state. At times, though, the way she expressed her concern was not always helpful. “She started to miss classes, and her grades got lower,” Guevara says through an interpreter. “There were times I knew she wasn’t going. Sometimes she would look really bad, and I would tell her not to go if she was feeling bad.”
During her third year of high school, Marlen missed 64 days—19 in the first semester and 35 in the second semester. When she did show up for class, Marlen says no one asked if she needed help. “They would just give me the homework.” Last fall, she was required to serve Saturday detention every week to make up for absences the previous year. Though she continued to cut class, Marlen says she always went to detention. “I liked to go, because I was away [from home]. I could do my homework.”
Guevara adds that her efforts to communicate with Amundsen were frustrating. Twice, she recalls taking time off work to meet with Amundsen personnel only to find them not available to see her. She concedes, however, that she did not mention the family’s problems to school officials until they threatened to drop Marlen for non-attendance.
Now Marlen says she’s a bit hesitant about going back to Amundsen to get a GED after being kicked out. But she and her mother say they bear no resentment against the school.
Marlen decided last fall to apply to Truman Middle College, a full-day diploma-granting program. She took the program’s entrance test on Feb. 8, but did not receive her results until April. Bad news—Marlen did not score high enough on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) to get into Truman. Her reading is on par with a mid-year 7th-grader; her math, equivalent to a student finishing up 6th grade. Both need to be at the 7th-grade level for Marlen to be accepted.
For now, Marlen’s education is on hold. She works in a Ravenswood women’s clothing store. Both she and her mother are planning to register for summer GED classes at Truman.
Marlen is both wistful and self-critical when she looks back at her high school days. “Sometimes I think I was wrong and I wish I could go back. I wanted them to help me, to give me another opportunity. They didn’t treat me good. I think they should help people, not just tell them to go out. That’s crazy.”
‘They didn’t want him’
Robert Nichols (not his real name), 15, started 9th grade at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in September 1997. Sometime that semester—no record says precisely when—he was dropped.
Robert says he liked some classes, especially English, but admits he cut class regularly and did not get caught. He would usually wait until after 4th period, then go to the lunchroom or the gym locker room. “I knew the security there, and they just let me walk right out the door,” he remembers.
But Robert stopped going to school a few weeks into first semester to stay home and care for his sick father. He did not notify King of his departure.
When he turned 16 that November, Robert learned from friends that King had dropped him. After his father died in January, Robert did not make an attempt to re-enroll. “I knew I wouldn’t [do] my homework,” Robert says, citing depression as the main reason. School records show Robert had racked up 65 absences and 2 tardies.
Out of school, his life got worse, not better. By May, Robert was serving an eight-month prison sentence for robbery, he says. After he was released in December, Robert says he tried to register for classes at King. School officials declined to enroll him and instead handed him a list of alternative schools. “They kept saying my attendance was too bad,” says Robert.
He made a second attempt to enroll the following month, but King turned him down again. After the second refusal, Robert asked parole officer Brent Jones to intervene. “I tried to fight for him to get back in school,” says Jones. “They really didn’t want him.”
Jones says he accompanied Robert on a visit to King in February. School administrators refused to allow Robert back into the school, even though his first-semester grades were “decent,” Jones says.
Robert is frustrated that King will not give him a second chance. “They say if my attendance was bad once, it’ll be bad again,” he explains.
Robert did have another opportunity to attend to school, says his current parole officer, Nikki Eisenberg. Last winter, he was enrolled at Healy Center, a high school diploma and GED program for juvenile parolees. But Robert was a no-show, and the program dropped him.
The Healy Center program, which pays students’ lunch and transportation costs, was a 30-minute commute from Robert’s house, notes Eisenberg. “I put money in the guy’s hand,” says Eisenberg, who drove to Robert’s house in March to encourage him to stay at the school.
Robert says that the commute was really 45 minutes and “too far” away. If Robert wants to re-enroll in Healy, it won’t be so easy the second time around, warns Eisenberg. “Those [seats] go like hotcakes. We can find another kid who wants another chance.”
In Robert’s defense, Jones notes that Healy has the stigma of being a jail school. Robert, he says, is a kid who’s trying to better himself. “His heart is in the right place, but [he] needs help.”
Robert, who dreams of someday becoming an architect, says he called nearby alternative high schools and put his name on the waiting list. Meanwhile, he is looking for a job. So far, the job hunt is “going so-so.”
Robert will turn 17 in November.