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Fixing D.C.'s Schools

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Will Jonathan Graduate?

His D.C. High School Needs an Overhaul of Attitudes, Academics and Expectations. He Needs Three Credits.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007; Page A01

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.

Fixing D.C.'s Schools

Narrated Photos: Inside Coolidge

At Calvin Coolidge Senior High, the principal, teachers and hundreds of students struggle to rise above a culture of mediocrity. But some realities are hard to change.

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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.

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