By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007
Second of two parts
If Jonathan Lewis is going to make it out of Calvin Coolidge Senior High, he has to pass Harold Cox's U.S. history class. And Mr. Cox has a reputation for being one of the school's strictest teachers.
In Cox's class, students sign roll, take their assigned seats and write their warm-up. No one is allowed without pen and paper. Cox confiscates cellphones, iPods and hats. He takes pictures of students acting out in class and e-mails them to parents. He doesn't let students laugh at others who stumble when reading. Cursing is not allowed.
"Children want structure," he says. "You establish that early on."
It's an environment students either love or hate, Cox says. The ones who hate it avoid his class for as long as possible. For Jonathan, who is trying for the second time to graduate, it's spring, and time is up.
He had Cox for world history in fall 2006. He nearly failed, but Cox let him make up a missing report, and he passed with a D. Cox told Jonathan to expect no further favors.
Then Cox failed Jonathan for the first half of U.S. history this spring because he didn't show up. Not once the entire nine weeks. Jonathan swore he thought the schedule was wrong. When he saw Cox's name, he assumed it was for the world history class he had already taken.
That wouldn't be far-fetched. Of all the challenges facing Coolidge -- and the D.C. public schools system -- schedules and records have been among the most entrenched. Students, parents and teachers say kids frequently have been put in classes they have already taken, scheduled for two classes at the same time and not scheduled for classes they need.
Derrick Walker had been in Advanced Placement English for nearly three months when a counselor noticed that he needed English 4 and switched him. Walker doesn't know if he'll still get credit for AP English.
Martique Vanderpool, a transfer from Prince George's County, says it took more than a year to get his schedule and records straight. "They had the wrong rank, the wrong cumulative, the wrong classes, the wrong attendance," he says.
Kellyse Hood, the top-ranked senior, says her fall schedule was wrong two years in a row. She was put in algebra in 11th grade even though she had taken honors algebra in 10th and needed pre-calculus instead. In 12th grade, she said, she needed only two classes to graduate and wanted a half-day schedule so she could work but was given a full schedule with electives she didn't need.
Math teacher Dara Zeehandelaar says she had a student in a class he had already passed. His schedule had been corrected, "but nobody told him."
Teachers and students say the counselors who make schedule changes, Phyllis Kemp and Marcia Roper, are overextended. Roper declined requests for an interview. Kemp says there are overlapping challenges: New schedules have to be completed before spring grades are finalized, introducing guesswork. The new citywide tracking system sometimes can't incorporate transfer students' records accurately. Various faculty members are authorized to change schedules, often without coordination. Transcripts from the registrar's office can be so horribly wrong that there is no way to determine what students need.
"A lot of times things are missing on transcripts, and I have to go hunt it down," Kemp says. "We're the cleanup people."
Principal L. Nelson Burton found transcripts to be "an absolute mess" when he arrived in 2005: data-entry problems, missing final grades, students who transferred without the correct paperwork. Inaccuracies were rolled over into the new system and had to be fixed one at a time. "It's not like we had one problem that affected everyone. It's a million problems that affected each child uniquely," Burton says.
But he says things are getting better. He has sent transcripts home and asked parents and students to correct them. Some have.
Jonathan's mother, Kathryne Lewis, found out he was missing the U.S. history class when she accompanied another parent who had to meet with Cox.
"I mentioned that Jonathan was on my roll but I hadn't seen him all semester," Cox recalls. Lewis was furious that he hadn't e-mailed her. But because he hadn't seen Jonathan once in the nine weeks, Cox assumed his roster was wrong. Students drop and add classes all the time, he says, and teachers don't get updated class lists.
Cox assumed his roster was wrong but does not accept that Jonathan thought his schedule was. Coolidge is full of mistrust. A better student would have checked with him anyway, Cox says.
Regardless of who is to blame, Jonathan failed the first nine weeks. He now needs a C to offset that F. But by mid-May, he has missed 20 more days.
* * *
This video stuff, emphasizing being hard-core, it's really, really affected their brains.
* * *
Books and pictures of Jonathan and his older sister line the Riggs Park apartment he and his mother share in Northwest Washington. In a well-ordered burgundy and beige front room, a framed 8x10 of a 5-year-old Jonathan grins from an end table.
In fifth and sixth grades, Jonathan mostly brought home B's and C's. If he got a D, "I wanted to take away the video games until the next report card," says his father, Allen Putman, but Jonathan lives with his mother, and "mothers are different."
He thinks Lewis is too lenient, that she believes her son too easily. The truancy system calls when Jonathan is absent, and he'll tell his mother the system had him caught in some loop.
He can stick with a story until the second he gets caught, Putman says. "Jon can look you in the eye and say 'I'm graduating' and make you believe it."
After his son failed last year, Putman was angry but resigned. "Anyone can make a mistake," he told Jonathan. "Let's see what you do now."
He's hopeful. He has put $20,000 in a college fund and bought his son a 1993 Buick Park Avenue with chrome wheels and leather interior. It's all Jonathan's -- if he finishes.
Lewis took Jonathan's failure hard. She blamed herself. She has to work. She can't monitor her son all the time. "He told me he was doing okay," she says, "so I let everything go."
She had graduated from Coolidge 30 years before. Jonathan's sister had graduated four years before. Jonathan should have been graduating from high school just as she was graduating from college. Now Jessica is a preschool teacher and production assistant for a cable TV station in Greensboro, N.C., and Jonathan is still trying to finish at Coolidge.
When Jonathan was in 11th grade, school officials told his mother that he was skipping classes; he was absent more than 70 days that year. She was stunned. "He just knew better, you know? And I just thought that I had such a strict hand on him that he just wouldn't hook classes like that."
Jonathan is a good kid, she says. "I think so anyway. I just didn't think that my child was going to go that way. I don't know why, but I didn't. He liked school, or so I thought. But they change, that's all I can say."
Jonathan had gone to Hope Christian Academy in Beltsville for kindergarten and first grade. Lewis pulled him and his sister out because she was working in Virginia and the commute was difficult. She thought it would be okay. Now she wonders if things could have been different.
She says she used to spoil Jonathan. She would give him $200 or $300 a pop, buy him new sneakers, give him his own credit card. She has cut him back this year.
Jonathan snickers at this. But standing in the kitchen of his mama's house, he is a softer kid than in the halls at Coolidge. His disquiet is calmed, and he tries to be expansive.
"I started having problems about 11th grade, started, like, skipping class and stuff," Jonathan says. "I didn't want to go to class, didn't want to write, didn't want to do work."
"He got in with the wrong crowd," his mother chimes in.
That's part of it, Jonathan says, "being influenced by them sometimes, wanting to do what they did, walk the halls and stuff."
Maybe if more teachers had been like Ms. Cruz-Gonzalez, things could have been different, he ventures. "She takes time to, like, help you understand. Like if she went over something, she'd go over it again till you get it." Not like some teachers, he says, who just pass out work sheets. "You ask a question, they, like, brush you off. They just catch attitudes, like you wasn't paying attention or something." It makes you say, "Forget it. I don't even want to know."
It makes you "feel like nothing."
As to why he didn't graduate last year: "I just got lazy."
* * *
English 4 warm-up: What type of report would your teacher write to your family?
When I come to class I do my work, I do talk a lot and make jokes but I know when it's time to do my work and stop talking.
I read very well. I have a lot of bass in my voice and can speak loud and clear.
She would [say] 1 of my weaknesses is homework. I don't do it and that's a major problem. I need to start doing, she will say, but I know when I get home, I'm goin get influenced and start doing something else. But overall, I'm an OK student. Just need a little work.
Jonathan Lewis, 18
* * *
It's early evening in mid-May, and Jonathan and his mother are sitting across from Jonathan's teachers in the hot cafeteria at Coolidge. Kathryne Lewis is having a hard time believing what she's hearing.
"He's never there," says Susan Gordon, Jonathan's English 4 teacher. "I tell Jonathan, 'How are you supposed to learn if you never come to class?' "
Lewis says little.
They move to the center of the cafeteria, where Tiffany Cruz-Gonzalez, who teaches History of African American Music, beckons them to sit.
"Hi, Jonathan, baby, how are you?" she asks. "Jonathan, tell your mother about my class."
Jonathan is silent.
"We've had three papers, and Jonathan hasn't done any of them. He rarely comes to class, and when he does, he's late."
"What?" Lewis asks. "He's still doing that mess? Jonathan, what did you say about her class? He loves you. He said you're the best teacher he's had."
"They all love me," Cruz-Gonzalez says. "That doesn't mean they'll do the work. He's capable. He's very smart. He just never shows me anything."
Lewis takes a deep breath, folds her arms and looks away.
Cruz-Gonzalez leans into the moment. "Jonathan, come on, you can still pull this off," she says earnestly. She starts writing numbers on scratch paper. "If he does the final paper -- it's on hip-hop; I know you have plenty to say about hip-hop -- if he gives me a 300-point paper, then does one of his two other papers, he can still pass the class."
She starts adding up points, then frowns. Okay, "the paper isn't due until Tuesday," she says. "I'll give you 20 points extra credit if you give it to me Monday. This is a deal, Jonathan. You know that."
"You going to do it?"
"I know you can do it. I have faith in you."
Jonathan refuses to accompany his mother to see Aaron Lee.
"Okay, give me the news," Lewis says, sitting across from the math teacher. Her arms are folded, and she presses her lips into a tight line.
"Jonathan never comes to class. He doesn't do homework. He never came during lunch hour or after school" for tutoring, Lee says.
Lewis says nothing.
"The other day, he was listening to an iPod in class," Lee says.
Lewis has heard enough. She thanks Lee and heads over to Harold Cox.
He reaches out and grabs her hand. "Lord, give us strength," he jokes. Jonathan hasn't come to class. He has missed a paper, daily warm-ups, quizzes. "I e-mailed you last week and told you he wasn't coming," Cox says.
"Jonathan said he was in peer mediation," Lewis says. The mediation, for a feud between uptown kids and the kids from Southeast, took place every afternoon for two weeks.
Cox says he asked Principal Burton, who said Jonathan wasn't in peer mediation.
Standing nearby, Jonathan scrambles to explain. Yes, he was, he insists. He turns to a nearby security officer. "Hey, what was it, you know, that mediation thing, what's it called?"
Suddenly Burton appears at the table and leans close to Lewis. "He's lying," Burton says emphatically. He laughs.
Lewis laughs uneasily.
"Are you calling my baby a liar?" she asks.
Burton shakes his head and walks away.
Lewis continues trying to construct a theory of how her son could plausibly have been where he said he was when Cox says he wasn't.
She argues the small points -- which class, on which day, at what time -- because the larger points -- that Jonathan doesn't always tell the truth, that he doesn't go to class, that by extension there's something profoundly troubling going on with her son's education and quite possibly his future -- are too big and too scary to wrap her mind around.
And because her son needs all the small points he can get.
"Well, I know he's going to graduate. I just have to keep the faith," she says. "And I'm going to walk right across that stage with him."
"They want a magic bullet, and there is none," Cox says out of Lewis's earshot. "It's not about the Jonathan that I see in class. He's clever enough to do the work, to pass. It's about the Jonathan I don't see. The one in the halls.
"Jonathan says he wants to graduate, but you have to do more than say you want it. You have to do the work."
Jonathan walks toward the cafeteria doors. A question follows him: If you want to make your mother proud, if you know you can do the work, if you swear to everybody you see that you want to graduate, why don't you go to class?
Jonathan stares silently for a few moments.
"I don't know," he says quietly. "I really don't know."
* * *
After he gets across this stage on June 12th, then Phase 2 of his life is going to take over, and he's going to be a new man. He's really going to show me what he wants to do.
* * *
On the day of Jonathan's U.S. history final, several guys from the Rittenhouse neighborhood allegedly jump one of his boys, and the halls become a kaleidoscope of anger and surge. Nearly a dozen D.C. police officers join school security guards trying to keep the teens apart.
It's after lunch. Jonathan has just arrived. He skipped his morning classes but is showing up for English and history, two of the three classes he needs to graduate.
In the final few weeks of school, he has scrambled to turn everything in, but he has left himself no margin for error. All year he has aimed for the minimum needed to pass. Teachers "ain't going to fail me, 'cause they don't want to see me back here," he would say. Or: "I'm not worried, because I know I'm going to graduate."
Jonathan and his friend Deonte Keitt are supposed to be in English. But they hear the clamor and run toward the fight. Sweat beads on Jonathan's neck and forehead. Kids all around are roaring. "They jumped my man!" Jonathan yells.
Police push the fighters back. Jonathan stands just behind their line. He raises his arms and slowly begins to applaud, taunting the other side. A kid pulls out a cellphone. "We could get some guns up in here!" the kid hollers. Jonathan, who believes in fists, not guns, walks slowly toward the fighters. Deonte walks next to him, silent, sipping from a McDonald's cup.
Police hustle the fighters away. Burton stops Jonathan: "Boy, you better find your class quick!" Deonte keeps going down the hall.
Jonathan wants to run past Burton but thinks better of it. He heads to English class, where Susan Gordon is collecting papers. The class is quiet. Jonathan paces nonstop.
"I gotta roll," he tells Gordon.
"There's nine policemen, and more cars just in case, down in the lobby. You've got to stay put before you get in some kind of trouble," she tells him, standing in the doorway.
"I can lock the door," she says, so no one barges in looking for a fight.
"I ain't no punk," he tells her.
Back and forth he walks, trying to decide whether he should leave school. "If I stay, I'mmo fight, [expletive] up my chances to graduate," he says to a student nearby.
"Leave, then," the student tells him.
"I would leave now, but I got me a final exam."
"Just dust it off, get in the car and leave," the student repeats.
"No, I'm smashin' somebody," Jonathan says. "I'll get put out of here anyway before I let somebody [expletive] play me. . . . I need a phone. I gotta call Boogieman."
"As soon as the bell rings, you can leave," Gordon tells him.
"Aw, [expletive]!" Jonathan says.
"Watch your language there, son," Gordon says.
"I'm sorry," Jonathan apologizes and paces and stays.
The bell rings. Jonathan gathers with nearly a dozen students to talk about how it's all going down after school. Then he heads to Cox's U.S. history class to take his final.
Afterward, Jonathan has to give a makeup presentation on Walter E. Fauntroy, Washington's first elected congressional delegate. If he just reads his notecards without looking up, the highest grade he can get is a C.
"I'm going to tell you right now, I didn't study it. I'm going to read it. Can I just get the C?" Jonathan asks Cox.
"It doesn't work like that, Jonathan," Cox tells him.
Jonathan begins reading fluently, then looks up to make eye contact with Cox. He continues to read and look up, trying for a higher grade. When Cox walks away to put something on his desk, Jonathan keeps reading and looking up at his back. He needs to finish strong.
After class, he walks out of school. Deonte is waiting. Police and security officers blanket the parking lot. All is quiet. The two get in Deonte's car and drive away.
* * *
You have to be on top of your own stuff. . . . You have to look out for yourself, because there's really nothing you can do, for real. . . . It's not like someone tells you that. You have to figure it out yourself.
Ibijoke Akinbowale, 17,
* * *
At the end of the school year, a chronically absent teacher retired, at Burton's urging, as did seven others. Lee resigned and took a teaching job in California. In fall 2007, Coolidge had uniforms, six new AP classes (bringing the total to nine), a parent-teacher resource center and a new track. The library was reopened. The clocks still don't work.
Burton says he learned a lot. In English, Coolidge missed making mandated Adequate Yearly Progress goals by less than two percentage points. The school missed in math by .42 percentage points. "That's less than a student," Burton says.
"Our gains were considerable," he says. "We reduced the number of students that scored below basic in math by [nearly] 60 percent" -- from 50 percent in 2006 to 27 percent in 2007. He thinks momentum is on their side.
There's a climate of reform in downtown Washington, but it's unclear how deep it'll go.
Some schools can turn a student around. Teachers show up to work, transcripts are correct and hallways are clear. Students' flaws -- not wanting to work, lacking certain skills, being immature -- don't automatically calcify. Some schools can carry students until, maybe, they grow into something better. Some schools aren't there yet.
In a two-week scramble, Jonathan spent a few hours at his computer, skipped a couple of nights out with his friends and cut back on the video games. He turned in his final paper on hip-hop (three pages and late and just because he likes Cruz-Gonzalez) and got a D in History of African American Music.
He took his final, turned in a term paper on Jonathan Swift -- undersourced and short -- and got the D he was shooting for in Gordon's English class.
He failed Algebra II but fulfilled his math requirement by working with a freshman teacher in an independent study a school counselor negotiated.
In his last class, Cox's U.S. history, Jonathan got a B on his Fauntroy presentation and a D on the final. He scored a 71.5 for the second half of the semester. A D. Three and a half points shy of the C he needed.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty stopped by Coolidge's graduation ceremony June 12, the day he took control of D.C. public schools as part of an ambitious reform effort. One hundred students sang and celebrated and walked across the stage.
For the second year in a row, Jonathan Lewis was not one of them.
Postscript: Jonathan took U.S. history in summer school at Dunbar Senior High. He got a B and graduated Aug. 3. He has accepted a job as a baggage handler at Reagan National Airport and is considering applying to the University of the District of Columbia. His father won't give him his car unless he goes away to college for at least two years.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.