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Lessons in Reality
Young idealists arrive to teach at Washington's Coolidge High. And learn how frustrating efforts at reform can be.

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

A hush came over the parents and visitors who filled the makeshift rows as Calvin Coolidge Senior High School Principal L. Nelson Burton took the podium. Along the wall, dozens grew still. Bright lights cast a sheen on the brand-new paint job, and the new hardwood floor gleamed with high polish.

"It's an exciting year in D.C. public schools!" Burton told the Back to School Night crowd, and there were nods and murmurs of assent.

He ticked off an impressive list of Coolidge's new and improved. A renovated teachers' lounge; a new community resource center; $1.3 million in paint, plumbing and roofing; almost $3 million for a new track-and-field area. Six Advanced Placement classes were added, and $15,000 was found to send almost 20 percent of the teachers to AP training. Zero tolerance was the new law -- no phones or iPods -- and for the first time, Coolidge required uniforms.

"Our kids look like ladies and gentlemen when they come to school," said Terry Goings, president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization.

Yes, yes they do, the crowd responded.

"Thank you for your faith in public schools," said Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education.

"This is going to be the best high school in the District!" said Greg Roberts, a 1975 Coolidge alum whose D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust donated funds.

"There's a new energy level in this hallway," said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), posing for pictures at the resource center. He has made school reform the top priority of his administration. "You can just feel it."

There is a struggle going on at Coolidge, and at schools across Washington. A battle every day for the will to be something better against a mud-suck of chaos.

Both sides are powerful.

Sometimes it's hard to say which is winning.

Sometimes it is frighteningly clear.

A Promising Role Model

Fredrick Willis stands outside his corner classroom answering students' questions. W here is Social Studies? Where's Miss Florindi? His voice rings out in the noisy halls. He waves students along. Let's please move toward our class. A sharp crease runs the length of his black slacks, and even though it is August in Washington and Coolidge has no air conditioning, his long-sleeved green shirt is top-buttoned and his tie is knotted.

Burton has made teachers the centerpiece of his efforts to reform the school, and Willis is one of his most promising new hires. A young black man -- one of three added this year -- to be a role model in a school full of young black boys. One more voice to set a tone of rigor and help dispense with the nonsense.

The new school year had begun with an assembly. On stage in the auditorium, Burton spelled things out for the 710 students. If you see someone marking up the walls, "don't accept it," Burton urged. "Do not dillydally in the hallways. No one is going to be allowed to leave class for any reason."

From the floor, Maj. Allen Banks, a Junior ROTC instructor, spots a student on his cellphone. "We got somebody who wants to leave," he calls up to Burton.

"Who wants to go?" Burton yells, his sudden sharpness startling the teens. "Raise your hand and make yourself known! Show yourself so everyone can see what we're going to do with folks who demonstrate inappropriate behavior."

The students go quiet. Most are in uniform. There's not a hat, cap or do-rag in sight. This year, students won't be allowed in the building if they don't follow the dress code, everyone is told.

"Freshman and sophomore classes will be on the third floor," Burton says. "When I see you on the ground floor and it's not lunchtime, there's going to be a problem."

Downstairs are the 18- , 19- and 20-year-olds. But the third floor houses the Freshman Academy, where Willis teaches algebra, and students seem uniformly young and malleable.

"They're not immediately thrown into classes with seniors and other upperclassmen, which tends to intimidate them," Burton says. "All the classes are right there together. They don't have to travel."

Coolidge began the academy last year after a mandate from school system officials. Ninth grade is when about 35 percent of the students who don't graduate fall through the cracks. In inner-city schools, "easily half of the kids who fail to graduate don't make it from ninth to 10th grade," says Christopher B. Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Freshman academies are designed to aid that transition. They limit electives and keep students largely bound to a small group of teachers. There are signs it's working: Almost 80 percent of last year's 300 ninth-graders were promoted, a slight increase from the previous year, when just more than 70 percent of 289 were promoted.

Still, Burton was dissatisfied with that inaugural year. More than a dozen fights broke out -- at least 20, some teachers say. "It was my fault," the principal says. He had divided students into six groups that took every class together; too much time for antagonism to fester. "I scheduled them. It was a bad idea."

This year, students mix among classes, and Burton capped the freshman body at 185 to keep individual classes more manageable.

Again, he has staffed the academy primarily with young teachers. "They tend to relate to kids a little better," Burton says.

Willis, 28, had come up from Charlotte a week before.

Burton was excited to have him on board.

Setting Down His Rules

Willis had always wanted to teach. "I was the explainer in my group," he says. "Politics, religion, hip-hop, life." Growing up, he was a cutup who skipped school -- in third grade. When his mother found out, "she took me into the book room and wore me out with switches. I never skipped school ever again, not even a class. Not Senior Skip Day."

Willis grew up in Greenville, S.C., and after graduating from South Carolina State University taught algebra and honors pre-calculus for a year at a rural high school. He moved to Charlotte and taught for two years at a high school for students who had been expelled from regular classes. He switched to a private high school, where he also became a director of discipline. He focused on consequences and counseling.

He wanted a change and had friends in the District, so he applied for a teaching position online. He prayed for direction, and the same day, a D.C. recruiter called about a position at Coolidge, a school in Northwest trying to rebound. She asked whether he was certified. She asked about his classroom-management skills. She named a salary and said she'd call within a few days to confirm.

It seemed unorthodox at the time, odd to get a job offer sight unseen. A test of faith, Willis thought.

The first week of school, just after lunch, nine students head into his third-period class fanning themselves. The class roster lists 22 students.

"Welcome to Success!!!" Willis has written on the whiteboard in cheery black cursive.

Most students sit quietly. One boy drums on his desk. Willis walks over and shakes his head to tell him to stop. He goes over his class rules, posted on the bulletin board: Respect yourselves and your school. "If someone is saying something bad about your school, stop them," he urges. "Tell them the good things you see."

Next rule: Always be prepared for class and life. "You can't really come through my door if you don't have paper or pencil, because that tells me you're not here to work."

Next rule: Take responsibility for yourself and your actions. "Just say, 'I was off my game for a minute.' It happens. I'll be the first to tell you that I'll make mistakes," Willis says.

He walks the room, handing out a syllabus with letters for students and parents to sign, affirming that they read it. He stands behind a lectern with a Garfield poster taped to the front -- "Math is the Problem, Thinking is the Solution" -- and takes questions.

"Man, you can't move that fan (from the hall) in here?" a boy asks. Air conditioning won't come until the next wave of renovations, in a few years.

"I'm going to get a fan as soon as I can," says Willis. "I didn't know this school wasn't air-conditioned."

"Me neither," says the boy.

"Well, they're working on it -- that's one of the good things," Willis says, upbeat.

"Yeah, but by the time they get air, it'll be winter. We'll need heat," the boy responds.

The next day, Willis divides students into groups and asks them to act out different scenarios. He likes to get kids to anticipate potential sore points and think about what they'd do. Willis asks: Should a student shut down if a teacher can't get to him right away?

"Yeah," says one boy, uninterested in role-playing.

"Should a teacher get upset if a student is truly seeking help?" Willis asks.

"I don't know, I'm not a teacher," says the student, shrugging. "Ask somebody else." He puts his head down.

A group does a skit in which the boy pretending to be the teacher yells at everyone. The class gets into it. "That teacher came in and started arguing," said one boy. "He was pressed, for real, for real. He started giving him a thousand."

"What's 'a thousand'?" asks Willis.

"Words," says the boy. "Like he wouldn't shut up."

"I get it," says Willis. 'Now what could (he) do differently so y'all wouldn't go crazy on him?"

The class goes back and forth. They talk about keeping problems contained. I'm from the South, Willis explains. "I want to greet you at the door," a personal welcome and a way to trouble-shoot student moods. "If I can stop things right here, it can't infect everyone."

They talk success. "How many of you want to be successful? Willis asks. Two of the 12 raise their hands. What's your definition of success? Willis asks. Money, they say.

"You gotta have bacon," says one.

"When you can drop money like bam, bam, bam , that's success." They talk up rappers P. Diddy and 50 Cent.

The next day, complaints about the heat intensify. Temperatures have climbed into the mid-90s. Kids slump in their seats. They fan themselves. Perspiration dots foreheads. Shirts are wet and clingy.

"I ordered a fan," Willis says. "Come on, sit up."

"When it's hot, all your body wants to do is chill," says one boy. He starts griping about one of his teachers. "He was giving me a million. I was about to smack him."

Willis shakes his head. "No, we don't. Not at any point in time." The boy gets quiet.

Willis unbuttons the top button of his shirt.

By early September, Willis is reviewing variable expressions.

He passes out new algebra workbooks. How do you solve two-thirds over x, when x equals 7? Willis asks.

"You multiply by 7 over 1?" one student asks tentatively.

"You got it, brother!" says Willis. The student nods. He's reaching them.

The next week, during his planning period, Willis passes out. He comes to on the floor and goes to the nurse's office. He passes out again. Later, another teacher passes out.

Everyone speculates it's the heat.

Who's in Charge?

Willis's class was supposed to start 10 minutes ago, but there is no teacher. It's mid-September, and Willis is still in the hospital. No one at school knows exactly why. The guy who has been subbing hasn't shown. Special-education teacher Ashley Johnson comes in to ask a question, sees there's no teacher and stays.

"Do you all feel comfortable with Chapter Three?" she asks, attempting a lesson on the fly from the last notes on the whiteboard. "NO!" answers one kid. New algebra textbooks haven't come in, so the 15 students work from an old set.

Yelling drifts through the open door. For weeks, the halls had been largely clear and quiet, but kids are starting to linger between classes. Security guards are assigned to walk each floor, but students duck into stairwells or wait until they pass.

"Don't be distracted by those kids in the hallway. They are not learning anything," Johnson says.

A kid with short locks who belongs in the class peeks in. "Who here?" he asks. He sees Johnson and keeps walking.

Another kid walks in. He doesn't belong.

"Why are you late?" Johnson asks.

"I don't know," the kid says, then claps hands with a boy in the back.

Johnson tells the boy to sign in, and he walks out.

She talks through equations while a student in the first row digs through his backpack. He has candy, and his classmates are bugging him for it. One kid takes his shirt off, revealing a sleeveless tank. Students had been customizing their uniforms -- turning up collars, wearing beads -- but increasingly some are abandoning them altogether, showing up in jeans and T-shirts. Teachers mostly say nothing.

Out-of-uniform students "are supposed to get a call to the parents or sent home," acknowledges Vice Principal Samuel Scudder, but because the goal is to keep students in school, the policy is not strictly enforced. Still, even out of uniform, most students dress more conservatively than last year.

A girl pulls out her cellphone, and Johnson takes it. A boy uses his phone while Johnson is distracted. Teachers say the no-cellphone, no-iPod rules are more aggressively enforced this year, but students keep trying them every chance they get.

The class remains largely unsettled until the bell rings, and the students take off.

Eleven or 12 Coolidge teachers -- a fifth of the faculty -- are absent every week, says business manager Alexis Richburg. One substitute teacher is stationed at the school daily; another one has just been hired. For the rest, the secretary calls DCPS as needed. The school system has about 375 substitutes. Subs with bachelor's degrees can fill in anywhere, anytime, but "limited-term" subs -- those with no degree but having at least 60 hours of undergraduate studies -- may work only 90 days a year.

A list of subs is sent to schools, but it doesn't spell out which type they are or which grades and which subjects they teach. Also, there's no mechanism to recruit, train or evaluate them. DCPS doesn't know how often substitute teachers are used. "There's no system in place that captures that information where you can generate a report," said Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Burton is frustrated with chronic teacher absenteeism. "You see trends in the way people take their leave," he says, sneaking in long weekends, extra days off at holidays. "It's like, come on -- what are you in it for?"

Relying on subs often leads to a breakdown in discipline and academics. "You expect certain misbehaviors when subs come in," Burton says. And that's made worse because "no one wants to cover high school. Some of them come in and they want to babysit."

Freshman world history teacher Harold Cox says he has come back to find his room trashed. "You really cannot fault the sub," he says. "Sometimes they are placed in situations and predicaments that are not of their doing. Sometimes they don't want to work because it hasn't been impressed upon them (from downtown) that either you do this or you get to stepping."

Cox teaches in an airless room with a decomposing rat on the skylight. One afternoon in September, he goes to a dentist appointment. A young sub sits at his desk.

"Did he leave you all with any work to do?" she asks the students. Cox says he left work with a school secretary and in his mailbox, but the sub has nothing.

Students stare at her. She is wearing black satin pants and periodically adjusts her shiny black tube top. She looks like Tina Turner, one kid whispers.

She asks how many students have textbooks, and three raise their hands. There are 20 students.

"Can you all break up into groups of seven?" the sub asks.

The class gets loud. "Do you work out?" a girl yells.

Two boys share an iPod. Another one pulls a cap down on his head.

The sub socializes with a group of girls while the rest of the class do whatever they want.

She has to leave for an appointment, and Vice Principal Scudder arrives with a tall guy, the substitute's sub.

There is instant silence. Scudder asks why only three students have books.

"Because everybody didn't get one," one boy answers.

He gives them an assignment: Write what you were doing during the 9/11 attack. He says he's going to pick them up after class. He leaves, and the tall guy takes a seat. The class disintegrates.

The most gifted boy in freshman algebra moves the time forward on the clock on Cox's desk. "Hey, there's only 20 minutes of school left," he calls out. Cellphones come out. A boy throws a girl's pen out the window. Several boys toss a girl's shoe back and forth. A boy rolls a chair across the room and crashes it into Cox's desk. Another takes the globe apart and puts half of it on his head.

Kids leave.

Time crawls.

The substitute, who never introduced himself, says nothing. No one comes to collect their 9/11 essays.

One day, Willis's class simply had no coverage. Another day, a teacher told them to list 10 things they could do to graduate. "This is child's work," complained one boy. A week after Willis fainted, students walked in to find a small woman standing at the front of the class.

"You two over there talking: Cut it off," she says. The class goes silent.

A boy raises his hand. "What do you need, sweetie?" the sub asks. "I'm here to help."

She is personable. She speaks authoritatively and has good classroom control. What she doesn't have is an aptitude for math. She has a master's degree, she says, but she has failed the math test to become a certified teacher seven times.

Students go to the whiteboard. Their assignment: Solve "y{+2} plus 2z all over x when x equals -3, y equals 5 and z equals 1." One boy gets 9. The correct answer is -9. He gets the next equation wrong, too.

"What (he is) doing, write it down, 'cause you're going to need it to help you tonight," the sub tells the class.

Students copy the incorrect work.

It is tough to say which is harder to watch: Kids acting out because no one is supervising, not understanding that it's much later in their futures than they think, or kids settling in to do work, thinking they are accomplishing something when they aren't doing anything at all.

The rest of the week, the class works problems at the board. "Should there be something on the other side of the equal sign?" a boy asks one day.

"You don't understand how to do this?" the sub asks. "Most of my other classes are a little more advanced."

"Normal problems have an equal sign," the boy continues.

"This didn't have an equal sign to make it hard so you have to pay attention."

"But I just don't know why the answer is 9," insists the boy.

"Pay attention!" the teacher says.

The boy watches kids at the board for a few minutes, then raises his hand. "I'm lost," he says.

"You just want somebody to do it for you," the sub says.

"I can't do it," he says.

"Don't ever say you can't do it. You can," insists the sub.

The boy stops talking.

Reprimands, Repercussions

Willis returns in late September. Someone had erased "Welcome to Success!!!" and on another board had written "Today we will be learning how 2 Do Nothing!!"

He had had a seizure, Willis explains to his third-period class. They found a small growth, he says, but he's fine.

The sub "said we could listen to MP3 players," one boy tells him.

"We won't be listening to MP3 players," Willis replies.

His students are in a different place from where he left them. They've had two weeks, 85 minutes a day, without structure. He's starting from before scratch. He goes over the classroom rules again. A boy interrupts, saying he has to go to the restroom.

The restroom doors are locked during classes. "You won't be able to get in there," Willis tells him.

"I don't care," the student says and walks out.

Willis gets on the intercom. A student has walked out, he tells the main office. He's going to send him down if he returns. He starts reviewing math.

An hour later, students volunteer to go to the board.

" I want to do the second one."

"I want to do No. 4."

"Let me get 6."

Willis passes out markers, and six boys stand at the board. They argue about which problem is the hardest. The door is closed, but a steady stream of students in the hall wander past and peer through the window.

Later that week, two girls dart into class to borrow an MP3 player. Willis blocks one. She falls and gets up cursing. "In all my 28 years, I've never had to stand there and listen to some of the things she said," and from a 14-year-old child no less, Willis says. " 'Who the (expletive) do you think you are? I'll slap your ass.' I said, 'Young lady, go to class. If you have a complaint, you can go to the office.' She said, 'You can't tell me what the (expletive) to do.' "

Willis signaled for a nearby security officer. "I'm like, 'Are you not going take them to the office and get them suspended immediately? Will you please take them to the office and get them away from my class.' " After a few minutes of profanity, the girls leave, threatening to bring someone back to deal with him.

Later they return and throw a bottle of tropical punch on him.

By the next week, Willis is oozing frustration. It's one distraction after another. A student in the hall pulls at the side door. Someone else drums sticks on it. He is angry at the traffic in the halls. "I've never been part of something so disorganized," he rails.

In class, Willis reviews for a test but has to stop frequently to reprimand students. "I'm not asking you -- I'm telling you -- to move to that blue chair right now," he tells one.

They argue, and Willis orders the boy to the office.

Later, the boy returns. "Ain't nobody in the main office," he says. Willis makes him leave again, and again the student walks out, cursing.

Willis waves another student away from the door.

Suddenly, someone yanks the door open, and there's a loud pop. The kids jump up yelling and scramble to the back. The smell of rotten eggs fills the classroom.

Willis opens a window to air out the room from the stink bomb. Calm down, he orders his students. The day before, Cox's history class was hit.

Two boys appear outside the door. One has been kicked out of Cox's class for being disruptive. The other is a student of Willis's. They peer through the window and laugh. They bang on the door. Willis shoves the metal door open, and it hits his student. A knot swells on the student's forehead, and blood runs down past his eye.

A deep sense of inevitability descends on the afternoon.

"Why you hit me? Why you hit me?" the boy screams. "Look what the (expletive) you did to my head." The bell rings. Students file out. The boy continues yelling and cursing. He is stomping up and down. A crowd gathers, egging him on. You can't let him do that (expletive)! Steal him, so n ! kids yell.

The two boys push into Willis's class. Other students follow. The one who is bleeding turns over desks. He knocks over a computer. He tears apart the bulletin board that told them to respect themselves and their school.

All around, kids shout for vengeance.

Willis rushes out and down the stairs. The two boys follow him. The crowd follows them, 20 kids or more, running and jumping down the steps. Everyone is hollering. The last of the crowd gets to the first floor and rounds the corner.

Suddenly, kids are running back against the crowd. As he flees, one boy yells: "He put that nigga to sleep!" His voice echoes. Bodies blur in a rush. Seconds later, the hallways clear, the yelling grows distant and a surreal scene comes into focus.

On the floor, a few yards from the main office, Fredrick Willis lay crumpled. He is not moving.

Seemingly far off, someone starts to yell. "Get the (expletive) to class."

Pleading for the Parents

After all the promise of Back to School Night, Terry Goings was sure the first Parent Teacher Student Organization meeting would be packed. Instead, there was the usual turnout: fewer than two dozen parents.

Goings graduated from Coolidge in 1977 and has an 11th-grade son at the school and a daughter who graduated in 2006. He is confounded. The first meeting usually has the most people, "then we start going downhill." Goings wants parental participation to be mandatory. "Grandparents, uncle, aunt, guardian -- somebody who can represent that kid -- got to spend some hours at the school on a monthly basis."

He heard that the student who hit Willis had maybe been going through some things at home and that Willis could have apologized sooner. Regardless, he says, it's inexcusable to hit a teacher.

"African American kids come with anger that comes from longtime situations," Goings says. "We're angry folks, and most times that's the only way (kids) know how to deal with anger is violence. How can we deal with them before they become violent?"

It's all parent participation, he says. Go to the suburban school meetings -- "the parking lots are full."

Sgt. Franklin James, head of Coolidge's seven-person security detail, patrols the same third-floor hallway he walked as a Coolidge student a decade and a half ago. On the day Willis was hit, he says, classes were changing and guards were switching posts. The officer on the second floor was on the way to the third floor.

Security officers get blamed for what happens in the halls, but the problems go much deeper, he says. "Extra manpower would be good," he says, and finding money so guards could have two-way radios would be even better. But for real, "all the weight can't just fall on security," he says. "If you have teachers here on time, the kids wouldn't be in the hallways. It's a team effort."

He leans against a radiator near a window. A freshman teacher steps outside her classroom and beckons him. One boy has accused another boy of taking his video game, and it has erupted into yelling. She wants help sorting it out. James shakes his head. He's not getting in the middle of it. "DCPS rules say no electronic devices," he tells her and walks away.

"She doesn't have good classroom control," he mutters.

James continues down the hall. He passes the math chair's classroom; a guy who always helps security clear the halls, he says. If something were to go down, "Mr. Krook-Magnuson would be right out here with us. . . . When I was going here, the gym teacher, the custodian, they would have said, C'mon, son, pick that up. Do you do that at home? No running in the hallway. Get to class !"

It's the kind of all-oars-in-the-water spirit Coolidge used to have, he thinks, but lost. Like a lesson from the most basic civics class. But that's a course that hasn't been required in D.C. public schools in almost 20 years. James keeps walking.

First-year teacher Tony Olson says he saw Willis lying on the floor that afternoon. The image haunted him. How had it come to that? he wondered.

"I knew some of the kids," he says. "They weren't bad kids. They weren't hostile kids, at least in my interactions. Mr. Willis seemed like a nice guy. It didn't make sense to me."

When Olson doesn't make progress with students, he asks himself what he needs to change. It does no good "just to wander in circles and complain." He tried to apply the same reasoning to Coolidge. The night Willis was hit, Olson had a class at George Mason University, where he's getting a master's in special education. His professor told him about a behavior-management system that relies on agreement and participation from everyone involved. It emphasizes clear rules, procedures and consequences, and it seeks input from parents and students. It calls for community.

Olson went to the administration with his thoughts. He tried to get veteran teachers involved -- "I didn't want to be perceived as this first-year teacher trying to change everything." He invited the entire faculty to a meeting. Twelve showed up.

They formed the Committee of Concerned Teachers. Each member talked to three others about implementing the program. It was met with skepticism. There's a new program every year. "But just because something doesn't work doesn't mean you stop trying," Olson says. They went person-to-person to generate enthusiasm.

Olson says Burton was "very positive."

Burton acknowledges that there are problems. "We aren't as consistent as we should be in dealing with students," he says, "for some good reasons and for some unclearer reasons." They put a discipline plan in place last year, Burton says, "but to be quite honest, we didn't follow it to the letter, because if we had, the consequences were a little too high" -- like automatic suspension for cursing. Or pointless -- like calling parents when sometimes parents were in no position to help.

He applauds Olson's efforts. "Right now, he's taking the lead," Burton says.

Earlier this month, faculty and staff members voted 52 to 8 to implement the new program. They hope to have it ready when students return next month.

'I See a Change'

Two days after he was hit, Fredrick Willis returned to give a test. Kids pointed at his swollen lip and the two stitches in his bloodstained eye. They gathered at his doorway to gawk. He handed out the tests, huddled with a sub and left before classes changed. He took the following Monday off. When he returned, he had decided to apply for a job in a nearby county.

But he still teaches at Coolidge. He never finished the paperwork for the other job. The two students in the Willis incident were expelled from Coolidge. One has been charged with juvenile assault; the other is now at an alternative high school in Southeast. Coolidge officials say it was the only assault on a teacher there in two years, although two teachers who have since left say they were also hit or shoved. DCPS says that 65 assaults, including two with a deadly weapon, and 127 fights have been reported systemwide since August.

Sometimes, kids continue to harass Willis. Last month, he shooed a student away from his door, and the kid taunted: "Touch me -- hear? I'll black that other eye."

But inside his class, where he double-locks the door and barricades it with a desk and a chair, he's teaching algebra, and kids are learning it. "Those who come, I see a change," says Willis. One of the hardest-to-reach kids in third period, a boy who stood yelling with the crowd, has gone from an F to a low B. Grades for his classmates have all gone up one letter. It's not something that would happen if they had had a sub for the rest of the year.

Willis's mentor has told him he should leave. Says "DCPS will never change." Sometimes Willis wonders whether he's being stupid, but he stays. He doesn't know for how long. A journey of faith, he thinks.

And part of the everyday struggle at Coolidge, at many schools.

Sometimes, school neighbors call Burton to complain that students litter on their grass. He wonders why they don't simply put out a trash bag.

Burton has a neighbor. When he rakes his yard, he rakes mine, Burton says. "Because our yards are connected. Because if he rakes his yard and I don't, all my leaves are going to blow into his."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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