washingtonpost.com
Will Jonathan Graduate?
His D.C. High School Needs an Overhaul of Attitudes, Academics and Expectations. He Needs Three Credits.

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

No one remembers why Kathryne Lewis called Principal L. Nelson Burton that afternoon. It was something about one of her son's teachers, but by spring her calls to Calvin Coolidge Senior High School had begun to run together.

Burton just remembers that he wanted to resolve whatever it was immediately. He sent a student to pull Jonathan out of English class, but Jonathan wasn't there. Lewis text-messaged her son's cellphone. Where are you? she asked.

In class, came Jonathan's reply.

Burton went to see for himself, then called Lewis back. She sent her son another message: Wherever you are, get back to school!

They had dealt with this last year after Jonathan failed to graduate. "I messed up, Ma," Jonathan had said. He had been cutting classes to roam the halls and hang out with friends. He and his mother had sat in Burton's office promising he would do better.

But Lewis found herself planted there again and again: Jonathan was failing algebra -- could he be moved to a different class? Why didn't she get a warning note when he was failing geography?

Still, most of her frustration was with her son. Inside Burton's office, crowded with students and parents, she snapped at him for claiming never to know when his assignments were due.

"I can't deal with this," Jonathan snapped back, abruptly walking out.

"You can't deal with what?" his mother yelled after him. "You can't deal with my hand upside your head this evening? I don't care if I have to come up here every week. You're going to graduate."

Kathryne Lewis sees the boy her son used to be. The boy who made B's, helped kids with their class work and won first place at his sixth-grade science fair. That boy is gone, and if Jonathan doesn't graduate, she fears, all anyone will see is a big, young, uneducated black man -- the exact same as not seeing anything at all. He'll spend his days doing nothing much with friends who dropped out. He'll become a statistic, and, good Lord, she does not want that to happen.

Jonathan's mother attended George Washington University for two years and is a corporate project coordinator. His father attended Howard University for three years and is a Metro technician. The two never married, but Allen Putman lived nearby and saw his son nearly every day, watched him play baseball, took him for haircuts. His parents have pushed him.

Jonathan, 18, says he can see where he wants to go: graduation, college, then owning a business, maybe doing graphic design or creating video games. This is what education is supposed to prepare you for, academically, socially and emotionally: to join the real world, to become a productive citizen. But in Washington, the social contract between students and schools has been broken in all kinds of ways.

Jonathan Lewis is short on time at Coolidge. He needs three credits to finish: English, math and history. But for the second time, he is struggling. Everyone knows he's smart enough.

But whether or not he'll graduate is an open question with lots of moving parts.

"In my American government class, [Ms. Cruz-Gonzales] had brought a test from a private middle school, and the stuff that they were learning in eighth grade, we were just learning now. And I, like, literally started to cry because it's sad. Like, I understand we go to public school, but that doesn't mean that since we can't afford the education, we shouldn't have it. . . . It made me feel ignorant. Really ignorant."

-- Tiarra Hall, 17, 12th grade

Jonathan's high school is neither the best nor the worst in the District.

Built in 1940 in Northwest Washington, Coolidge gained a solid academic reputation and became a school of choice for the black middle class after desegregation. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's lawyer graduated from Coolidge, as did one federal and two Superior Court judges. And Principal Burton. The citywide graduation rate is about 60 percent, but roughly three-quarters of Coolidge seniors have graduated each of the past three years. Generations of alumni cheer at Coolidge sporting events and donate time and money.

But when Burton returned in 2005, he found a school in decline. With the proliferation of alternative charter schools, enrollment had slipped to the 600s after topping 1,000. Although Coolidge was in a solidly middle-class area between Brightwood and Takoma Park, more than half of its students came from out-of-boundary, drawn by athletics or fleeing bad schools in their neighborhoods. More than half of the students received free or reduced-cost lunches. And there were physical problems: leaking roofs, asbestos, no central air or heat.

Burton was the seventh principal in nine years. Teachers' morale was low, and Burton felt that many were just passing time. In comprehensive assessments, half of the students scored below the basic levels in reading and math. Only three Advanced Placement classes were offered. Students thought all they had to do to pass was show up, Burton said, and teachers would send them right along.

"We live in a culture and a time and a system where we're striving every day to be mediocre," he said, "and sometimes we don't make it. We don't even reach mediocrity."

Burton, 34, set out to overhaul attitudes, teachers, academics and discipline. He wanted to make Coolidge a place where parents across the city, including white parents in Takoma Park, would consider sending their children. The neighborhood was 80 percent black, but not a single white student attended Coolidge.

Still, no matter how ambitious the agenda, some realities are not easily changed. Suddenly introducing rigor to students who have had it inconsistently, if at all, can feel arbitrary and capricious, like changing the rules late in the game. Some students have such painful home lives that just showing up for school is significant. "They find a way to persevere, and you have to honor it, but at the same time, the world doesn't honor it," Burton said. He doesn't want to send students into adulthood just minimally functional.

But as one Coolidge teacher wondered aloud: If you fail kids who will never come back to finish, "what's the benefit to society in that?"

"Coolidge [is] just like a zombie zone. Just like you see these kids walking in the hallway, that's because they have no other choice. Because they feel like when they're in class, the teachers don't connect, and you don't want to feel dumb. No one ever wants to feel dumb."

-- Kellyse Hood, 17, 12th grade

As the noise and rush of class changes swirl around him this late April morning, Jonathan walks halls longer than a football field. Nearly every other light bulb and ceiling fixture is broken, and the pervasive dimness renders students faceless and indistinct. Students file past gutted water fountains; only two in the school work. They duck into stairwells layered with graffiti: the tag WSP (We Spray Paint) and defiant neighborhood shout-outs ("Southside!" and "Rittenhouse Niggas! What?"). High ceilings lend an echo to every curse.

"Whassup, son?" Jonathan slaps hands with one of his boys. He pretends to throw punches at a guy as a teacher walks by, and he chases his "play cousin," Jarriett Kiser, a kid he went to elementary and middle school with, a kid who's always urging him to go to class.

"You too old to be acting like this, Jonathan," Jarriett says, dodging. "You gonna be here next year, and I'm going to laugh."

Jonathan looks out for his friends when kids from Southside want to "wreck." The large contingency of out-of-boundary students helps sustain enrollment but fuels neighborhood rivalries, usually between kids from Southeast and kids from "uptown" neighborhoods: Kennedy Street, Michigan Park, Rittenhouse, Riggs Park and Sursum Corda. Beefs are based on constantly shifting allegiances and who-looked-hard-at-whom slights.

More than a dozen fights have broken out at Coolidge since January. Five brought in police. Twenty students were arrested. Twenty-one boys were suspended; five were transferred. Two girls were expelled for a melee that involved parents off school grounds. The mentoring group Peaceoholics intervened, and police held mediation sessions, but the fights continued.

A girl passes Jonathan in a T-shirt reading "Kiss My Ass." Jonathan -- six feet tall, curly black hair, cocoa skin and flashing smile -- envelops another girl in a full-body hug, then pretends to push her away. "Sike! I don't like you like that, Gabby!" he says, laughing. He is loud and quick with a joke, a curse word or an insult, an imposing guy with a hard-edged cool that makes him popular in the halls.

As he walks, he absently taps out a beat on his chest and thighs. Freaky freaky freak show, freaky, freaky freak show, he chants. He is lead mike for the Intense Drama Band, rapping and hyping the crowd at community centers.

When he was younger, he sang with the D.C. Boys Choir and played Little League. Now he mostly hangs with friends. He shops, watches music videos and plays video games. He started with "Super Mario Bros." and graduated to "Grand Theft Auto." Now he'll play "Madden NFL" four hours a day.

He doesn't get high, but he smokes Newports, and his drinks are Belvedere (vodka) and Hpnotiq (vodka, cognac and fruit juices). He says he plans on getting tore down at prom.

He doesn't do homework or complete assignments. He says he doesn't try. He can't say why. He considers himself average. "I could be smart, but I'm average," he says. He remembers liking school all right before he got to Coolidge.

He makes two full revolutions past his second-floor Algebra II class, and when the hallways have mostly cleared, he goes inside, 10 minutes late. He heads straight for the back of the room. The 28-person class (far fewer show up) typically splits in two. Those who want to hear Aaron Lee, 25, a slight man whose voice seems just notches above a loud whisper, sit toward the front and along the side chalkboard. Jonathan and a half a dozen others sit along the back wall.

"Jonathan, your backpack?" says Lee, who is one of the teachers Burton brought in.

"I ain't got it today, man," Jonathan says nonchalantly as he slides into a desk.

"How are you ever going to pass the class?" Lee asks. Jonathan stares at him wordlessly.

Lee writes a warm-up equation on the board. "How do we solve this using elimination?" he asks the class. In the back, Jonathan and others start to argue loudly about how many Pringles each should get.

Around the room, cords from a dozen headphones snake up to students' ears. Some are trying to drown out their teacher; others are trying to ignore their classmates. An iPod's blare fills the room with bass.

"Quick review: One-fifth plus one-tenth, what's the common denominator?" Lee asks as his class spins out of control. A cellphone rings jarringly. "What the [expletive] is that?" a girl blurts out. It's 10:50 a.m., but the clock on the wall says 1:03. Lee continues without reacting to the growing chaos.

He mostly looks at the students who are looking at him. He points to the chalkboard and asks about X's and Y's in a voice that doesn't rise. A 10th-grader who usually pays attention gets up to chat, going desk to desk. Lee glances her way, then finally asks her to leave. She goes, supposedly to the principal's office, although no one tracks her and to students that notion seems almost comical.

The chatty girl returns 15 minutes later and continues to engage classmates from her seat.

Lee asks a girl in the back about an equation. She doesn't know, and Jonathan laughs.

"That's why you're failing," he taunts.

"I have a 97.2 in here," she counters.

"Man, I have a 28.9," a 10th-grader says, shaking his head.

Jonathan gets up to check his average, which is posted on the wall. 28.3. "Ah, hell naw!" he bursts out. "He just don't like me, that's what it is," he offers as he heads back to his seat. "I was about to beat him one time, that's why he don't like me."

Jonathan brags: "I don't need this class anyway. I got a class upstairs. She's gonna give me a whole rack of work so I can get my math classes so I could pass."

"I'mmo fail this [expletive] for real," 28.9 says.

"If I fail," Jonathan says, "I'm coming back and I'mmo smash this [expletive]."

A couple of desks away, the music blares. A girl chants a go-go rap loudly enough for everyone in back to hear. Jonathan joins in.

Lee walks over and stops at Jonathan's desk. "Did you take down notes?" he asks quietly.

"I ain't got no paper," says Jonathan, staring at him, his eyes flat, leaning forward with his arms crossed.

"Turn off your phone and put it away," Lee tells him.

"Man, go 'head," says Jonathan, waving him away. "You ain't giving me no type of whatever."

Jonathan has always been weak in math. In middle school, his mother hired a tutor. At Coolidge, he got a D in Algebra I and flunked his first try at Algebra II. Although he can't stand the notion of looking like he can't do the work -- he won't raise his hand in any class unless he's "90 percent sure" he has the right answer -- he says it's not because he's embarrassed. "I stopped being embarrassed a long time ago."

"Aren't you supposed to come see me during lunch?" Lee continues quietly. Lee had told Jonathan's mother that he would tutor him, but Jonathan never showed.

"I ain't going to," Jonathan says defiantly. "I did all that makeup work and still got an F. But it's all good. I'm not trippin'."

"Same thing happened to me," 28.9 chimes in.

"I'm saying, what's the point of doing makeup work and I still fail?" Jonathan asks, getting agitated. The whole class is watching. It's a question fundamental to how he sees his education. "I do homework to at least get a D," he says. A D is passing.

"You do homework to prepare for the test," Lee counters.

They lock eyes. There are no points of entry between them.

Suddenly 28.9 jumps up. Jonathan jumps up, and they both stride angrily from class. 28.9 shoves a desk as he goes.

"Come on, y'all, come back!" a girl yells from the back row. She chases after them, but the two disappear in the half-light of the long hall.

"I don't think you're going to meet a student, or anyone, for that matter, who doesn't want to graduate from high school. They all want to. Everyone wants a diploma, but not everyone wants to do the work required for it."

-- L. Nelson Burton, principal

Jonathan came to Burton's attention at the end of the principal's first year. Burton had banned 150 students -- more than 20 percent of the 670-member student body -- because they were discipline problems, had poor attendance or had no better than a 1.5 GPA.

The parents of about 40 who hadn't been severe discipline problems, such as Jonathan, met with Burton, and their children were allowed to return. Jonathan had failed six of nine classes the year before and was regularly truant. He had never been suspended for fights, but he had been on the periphery of them.

"I wanted to go back for my mother, to make her happy," Jonathan says. "And I wanted to go back to see if I could graduate. I didn't want to get a GED."

Burton understood. He himself had graduated in the bottom quartile of his class at Coolidge in 1990. He cut classes and would have dropped out, he says, if his mother had let him. But she made it clear that dropping out and living with her were mutually exclusive.

He succeeded, but of the nine guys he was tight with at Coolidge, three have since spent time in prison. "I remember telling a friend, 'Man, I'm going to go back,' " Burton says. "I feel in some ways there are a million people like we were, whose mothers are not going to make them go to school, and they're going to end up breaking into my house."

At Coolidge, he devised a plan to bring vigor to a faculty that included teachers he said lectured from yellowing notes, lessons taught "in 1977 and 1987 and 1997." Others were chronically absent. A student wish list posted in the peer mediation room asked for "teachers who are consistently present." Burton estimated that one teacher missed nearly 40 of 90 days last fall.

Burton hired eight teachers, which isn't easy in a competitive market. Four of them were D.C. Teaching Fellows, college graduates and professionals who take a summer program on teaching strategies and classroom rules. He hired four from Teach for America, which recruits new college graduates to teach two years in urban and rural schools. Both programs require participants to work on getting certified as they teach.

Most of the hires have worked well. Students write love notes about their classes. Dara Zeehandelaar, who was working on a PhD in astrophysics before she took a two-year hiatus to teach math, says her students' scores have risen from an average of C-minus to B-plus.

Kellyse Hood, ranked first in the senior class, took Zeehandelaar's Advanced Topics in Mathematics class even though she didn't need the credit. She's trying to get ready for college -- she got a full scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston -- and called the class organized and challenging, a rarity at Coolidge. If you're a striver, she says, "you feel like you're isolated." But in Zeehandelaar's class, for which students volunteered and had to be accepted, "you're not teased for wanting to learn something higher."

Other Burton hires have struggled. Math teacher Zachariah Michielli was hit twice. He says he reported the incidents but nothing happened. He quit midyear.

On Burton's first day, he asked a student who was cursing to leave. The student hit him in the head with a bottle, then punched him in the eye. Burton expelled him and wondered all week how he could possibly stay, how he could do anything with all this. What's a sandbag to a waterfall? But he stuck it out.

Now, several times a day, he walks corridors filled with ossified grievances. "Excuse me! Are we having trouble going to class?" Burton barks at a girl outside the Junior ROTC department. "Mr. Burton, catch me!" says another tiny student, who unexpectedly launches herself into the principal's arms. Burton gently sets her on her feet.

Other kids want to slap hands or shadowbox. Burton feints and jabs. In this place, boundaries are fluid. For some, Burton says, he is the only man consistently in their lives, and they are hungry for acknowledgment.

Students say Coolidge is "waaay better" than it was. "Coolidge used to be off the chain before Mr. Burton," says Kobi Williams, a senior football player and one of Jonathan's buddies. "He used to be a knucklehead, like we're knuckleheads. So he understands."

Still, 20 minutes after a bell sounds, students hang in the halls along the dented lockers or sit on radiators, their backs to open, screenless windows over a two-story drop. There is no study hall. The library has been closed since January, when the part-time librarian who replaced a full-time librarian (an unpopular budgeting decision by Burton) had a heart attack. In Stairway No. 4, the smell of burnt reefer is strong. Seven security guards make periodic sweeps, but there are never enough guards or enough sweeps to keep the halls clear.

"Teachers are just like tires. Some teachers, all the tread has worn off. They're not getting any traction. They're just spinning and moving in place. The classes are not going anywhere, and the students are not going anywhere. It's sad, because they didn't come that way."

-- Harold Cox, social sciences teacher

"WHY ARE THERE STUDENTS IN MY HALLWAY?" Burton bellows, and students scatter for 50 yards in front of him.

"You, join the train," he orders. A half-dozen students have fallen into line behind him, protesting loudly or cursing under their breath. He is a pied piper, trailed by kids and their baggage: boredom, truancy, disrespect. Some boys wear ribbed tanks that show the tattoos crawling up their arms. Oversize pants hang below their boxer shorts. Other pants are belted at mid-thigh, restricting the wearers to small, slow steps.

Near the cafeteria, one girl is wearing pants that fall below her bellybutton and a T-shirt that ends just under her bra. "Sweetheart, you're showing a little too much," Burton tells her. "Go put some clothes on." She giggles and walks toward the restroom, but later she is still wearing the shirt.

In the cafeteria, another girl wears a red hoodie with black letters: "It's the [expletive] 12 Trinidad Unexpected Homies." The dress code prohibits tank tops, half-T's and anything other than "positive" logos, but enforcement is sporadic.

When Burton sees violations, he orders the students to change or go home. He says he has mandated uniforms for next year to foster a better academic climate: collared shirts in school colors -- gray, orange or white -- and khaki or black pants.

Burton confiscates iPods if he spots students with headphones in their ears. He seizes cellphones if students are talking on them.

"A lot of it is adults not doing their damn jobs," he grumbles. "I don't want to take this damn phone. The teacher should have seen the student had it and reprimanded him. Just imagine what would happen if every adult they saw corrected them."

Coolidge Vice Principal Samuel Scudder says students should be suspended and eventually expelled for cutting classes. The student handbook says that after 20 days absent, students automatically fail a class.

"If I really wanted to be a jerk, I'd hold kids to that, with no grace," Scudder says. But kids have to be taken where they are, he says. And if it seems like there are no boundaries, it's not something that began with Coolidge.

"We try to keep them in the system for as long as possible," Scudder explains. Otherwise, they might hit the streets. That's when they're really lost.

"It's not the same as it was when we were in school," he says. He remembers when kids were on their best behavior around teachers, preachers and police. But sometimes it's the teachers, preachers and police who "are among the biggest violators of trust."

Veteran teachers say it was the early 1990s when kids started letting curse words slip in front of adults. By the late '90s, the halls filled with streams of anger and unrepressed profanity. Teachers closed their doors and turned inward. The halls grew unrestrained. Then some of the classrooms.

"A lot of times, I just ignore the noise. Sometimes it's to the point where it gets too loud, but it's not like I can do anything about it. My third-period teacher sometimes does say 'shut up,' and then they get louder and start cussing him out."

-- Gabe Gonzalez, 16, 10th grade

"Sometimes I wish it was more like my elementary school. When students would start getting louder, my teacher would take them in the back and she would start hitting them."

-- Dennis Gonzalez, 16, 10th grade

Aaron Lee had tried to take Jonathan's iPod in algebra class once. "He was coming over, messing with me, so I said, 'Get away from me 'fore I smack you,' " Jonathan says. But "I was still sitting down," he says dismissively. "I wouldn't have hit that man."

"His mouth went off and it contained some physical threat, something menacing, and I didn't want to put up with that," Lee says. Jonathan was suspended for five days.

In two years, Jonathan has also had a half-dozen in-school suspensions for hanging in the hallways and a one-day at-home suspension for letting friends who didn't belong at Coolidge through a side door.

The students are more talk than action, Lee says, and he's more irritated than afraid. He has been shoved by two students, he says. Once was during a fight between two girls outside his class. He couldn't identify the girl, so he didn't report it. The second time was inside his class: A guy was distracting a girl who was taking a final and shoved Lee several times when Lee asked him to leave. Lee tried to call security over the intercom, but the boy drowned him out. The student never returned to his class. Lee didn't follow up.

Sometimes students barge into Lee's room. "Where was y'all at?" they'll yell to friends. Or they'll come to sharpen pencils and linger to socialize or hurl insults. "Mr. Lee, you look just like that dude who shot up everything," a student in a white tank tells him a week after the Virginia Tech shootings.

Lee used to pull the sliding door lock, but a student rammed his shoulder into it and broke it.

A football player once strode into the middle of a class and tried to press his math paper into Lee's hand as he was writing on the board. "We'll talk about this later," Lee told him.

"Naw, man, just give me my F now!" the student said. "You're going to fail me anyway, just give me my [expletive] F. Give me my [expletive] F!" He towered over Lee. The teacher paced back and forth, trying to avoid him. Lee finally called out to a passing security guard, who escorted the student from class. "I hate this [expletive] school!" the student yelled as he walked out. "Leave, then," the guard said. The class looked on without reaction.

"The class is disruptive to begin with,"; says Derrick Walker, who sits in the front row and tries to pay attention, but Mr. Lee, "he's not vocal enough -- they don't have no respect for him." Walker is failing the class. "I really try to focus, because I be worried about tests and quizzes," he says, but "he talks low and probably goes too fast. I just try my hardest. That's the only thing I can do."

Much of the time it can seem as if students aren't bothered by the chaos around them. They join in the jokes or stare straight ahead, seemingly oblivious. It's a posture some say they learned when they got to Coolidge.

"A rose that grows in concrete is stronger than a rose that grows in soil."

-- Ibijoke Akinbowale, 17, senior class president

D'Angelo Andrews is in the same second-period algebra class as Jonathan. His brother, Everett "T.J." Bolden, is in Lee's third-period algebra class. They disagree about whose fault it is that Lee's class is so chaotic.

"He needs to get more bass in his voice or something," says Andrews, who might get an A.

"I told him he has to slow down so that it can sink in," says Bolden, who might fail. Bolden runs interference when kids give Lee a hard time. "I got to make kids sit down and do they work like I'm their father," he says. "They shouldn't do him like that." Bolden's aunt is a teacher, he says, and "I don't think that's right to treat teachers like that."

Andrews tells him that it's not his business. "He's a grown man, dog." Andrews always sits in front, earphones in, working on equations, drowning out everything.

Ibijoke Akinbowale is one of the most popular students at Coolidge, a good writer, charismatic, with a news anchor's diction, but she hasn't done as well academically as she would have liked. It's easy to get caught up and just slide by, she says. There are "tons of bright, talented, intelligent kids like myself graduating with a 2.0," she says. Kids want to hang. They want to be cool. Some don't "have the motivation to be here, so they do whatever," Akinbowale says.

She doesn't want to blame Coolidge for her GPA but says "kids go through a lot of things." Maybe if there were a mentor or a buddy or someone who could "help you from ninth through 12th and make sure you're staying on top of your academics," things could be different.

Hood, the top-ranked senior, says she wants teachers who don't just give busywork; she wants a science or business club and a senior trip; but more than any of that, she craves order. "Coolidge will cripple you if you don't know what to do," she says. If you're not hyper-focused, "Coolidge will swallow you alive. I've seen it happen so many times."

A lot of students care, she says, but they have to learn to "roll with the punches" to deal with everything. Including an out-of-control classroom.

When Lee began struggling, Burton assigned veteran teachers to work with him on teaching methods and classroom control. They told him to speak up and to pace his lessons so students could engage with the material. Get involved in an after-school activity, Vice Principal Scudder told him, so kids could relate to him outside of classes.

"When they brought it to my attention, it was one of two things, raise my voice, and two was to address other sources of noise that came from the classroom," Lee says. Perhaps the students are just used to loud environments, he suggests. "Louder speech might be the norm to them."

Tenth-grader Brandon Long sits toward the back in Lee's class. He joined it three months late after sitting in a trigonometry class for half a semester, thinking it was Algebra II.

On a day when Jonathan was absent and others who sit in the back had been suspended for fighting, Long frets about his grade. Lee asks Long about a coordinate plotted on a graph. Long doesn't know but takes a tentative guess. Correct. He gets Lee's next question right as well.

If Long had been in class all semester, he thinks he might be doing better. If he had sat somewhere less disruptive, or if kids didn't burst through the door, or if he could hear the teacher when he talked, he might be doing better.

Coolidge is full of ifs.

"Instead of having someone call them stupid, they just don't try at all. Maybe it's because they didn't learn it before, in middle school, but there are definitely holes in their education. . . . It's just the education system. It lets them down in a way."

-- Nicholas Peters, 19, senior transfer student from Landon School in Bethesda

At 9:10, nearly 20 minutes after the morning bell, Jonathan knocks on the door to Tiffany Cruz-Gonzalez's class, History of African American Music.

A student this late often has to spend first period, all 80 minutes, in tardy hall, in the old gym just past the metal detectors. No desks, chairs or teachers, just a big empty space where kids sit on the floor talking and the clock is stuck at 10:30.

Cruz-Gonzalez, 22, who came to Coolidge through Teach for America, undoes the lock to let him in. The warm-up -- explain the roles of funk and soul in society -- is over, and Cruz-Gonzalez is asking about their jazz papers.

She had planned to go to law school. But she graduated from a large public high school in San Francisco, and in college she had to play catch-up for years to learn things she didn't even know she didn't know. She says she didn't want to be one of those people who talks about how bad things are but does nothing. For her, the most wrenching part of teaching has been "to realize how much my students weren't getting, how far behind they were academically in writing and reading and fundamental skills."

And not just in school.

Students are close-minded, Cruz-Gonzalez says. "There's no sense of reality all the time." They're stuck in a bubble where all the world is D.C. It's an insular place, where the notions they already have are constantly reinforced. It's segregated, defensive and intolerant of disrespect, real or perceived. It's a place with kids who can't fathom the relevance of any world beyond, especially because that world rarely turns their way.

"They don't understand what they need to do on a larger scale," Cruz-Gonzalez says. "They just don't realize the connection between coming to class, doing your work and graduating."

Jonathan settles into his chair, looks around for a few minutes, then interrupts to ask Cruz-Gonzalez if he can borrow a pen. Cruz-Gonzalez slides Sam Cooke into her CD player, and the room fills with "A Change is Gonna Come."

"That's my jam," Jonathan says, nodding.

Cruz-Gonzalez asks Martique Vanderpool, a 6-foot-2 football player, how the song makes him feel. Vanderpool's arms and torso have more than a dozen tattoos: dollar signs, M.O.B. (Money Over Bitches) and teardrops for his older sister, who died in her sleep when he was 5. His shoulder is scarred from the time he says a group of boys knocked him off his bike and stabbed him, then didn't even take his bike. He works full time in the produce department at Safeway and, with the AP classes he has taken, has a 4.5 GPA.

"It touches you deeply or something," Vanderpool answers. "It's a feeling, but I don't want to express it. It makes me sound like a punk."

Cruz-Gonzalez plays "Minority Report," a rap song about Hurricane Katrina.

"How has funk and soul been a foundation for hip-hop" asks Cruz-Gonzalez, and Jonathan starts to write.

"It influences rappers to sample beats," he writes.

Cruz-Gonzalez, who always tells the kids how smart they are, how far they can go, who says "I like your hair, baby," and cries when students write notes about how she has touched their lives, is Jonathan's favorite teacher.

Even though he hasn't turned in a single paper for her class.

"I like her," he explains, "but for real, I don't need this class to graduate."

Tomorrow: The last push of the school year -- can Jonathan do it?

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company