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Class Notes
DCPS needs to create continuity
(Published May 15, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

This column is dedicated to Portia Williams. I met Portia five years ago when I was teaching at Eastern Senior High School. Portia was a ninth grader in Mr. Rubalcaba's Algebra I class, right next door to mine. It's often gossiped among teachers that we remember only two types of students: the superstars and the crazies. Portia was a superstar, to be sure, but I really didn't know her all that well. Portia, to me, represents a different D.C. Public Schools species: the gypsy.

This time of year, administrators and counselors change gears from testing to promotion and graduation who will pass the year, who's going to college, who should go to summer school, etc. It's often all about attrition. How many kids are failing? How many kids will we have back next year? How many new students will we attract?

What gets missed in the numbers game is that we are experiencing not so much a loss but a tremendous migration of students and teachers, and lost with them in the debates about graduation rates is that many of these "gone" kids didn't drop out. We face a tremendous influx of new students throughout the year while, at the same time, one kid a day is walking out the door with transcript in hand to transfer to a new school.

Last week we had our annual Africa Club assembly, in our wonderful new auditorium. The place was packed with our students. I've been teaching at Bell Multicultural High School for the last three years, yet I was stunned by how many faces I didn't recognize. And there are also at least 20 names I can tick off as having known personally at school this year, but now are gone. I run the Hiking Club at Bell, and I get to see kids literally outside of the normal context. If I haven't seen someone in a while, I can ask the hikers; the answer is often, "Oh, he's in Maryland now" or "She goes to Cardozo."

There's an army on the march, across D.C., and increasingly across Montgomery and Prince George's counties in suburban Maryland. During each school year and only slightly intensified over the summer, thousands of kids (and teachers!) change schools.

Ten years ago there were no charter schools in the District; now, over 10,000 kids go to charters. Six years ago, a family could afford an apartment in Mount Pleasant on $8.90 an hour. Four years ago, I was at Eastern. And three years ago, when I got to Bell, I was stunned to see Portia. Since then I've learned that it's not uncommon for kids to bounce around to two or three schools on their way to graduation another student of mine at Eastern went on to M.M. Washington for a year and later joined me at Bell as well. This wreaks havoc on the planning that counselors and principals have to do this time of year -- but more importantly, what happens to the kids?

The reason why this column is dedicated to Portia is because she came back. I recognized Portia in the hallway last week. Returning home from college, she gave me a smile and a hug as she described completing her freshman year at North Carolina A&T and making the Dean's List. She was excited to come back and see graduation for all of her friends in the class of 2005. I'm super proud of Portia. Seeing her again, and thinking about all the kids the opposite way, the ones I don't recognize in the hallways, made me wonder how kids make connections to Bell, or any school for that matter in the midst of this massive exodus and diaspora.

This column isn't really about transfers but, actually, graduation. For Eastern, Portia didn't hurt the graduation rate (transfers are not counted against a school), but she didn't help it. And of the kids who bounce around, I would say that Portia is the exception, not the rule. As kids move from school to school, they lose credits granted by one school that the receiving school does not accept, they lose friends, they lose books. Often, transfer is a prelude to academic difficulty and dropout. It's in their and our interest to create continuity.

Lots of studies have shown that kids who have a personal connection to a school, especially to an adult in the building, stay in school, and kids who don't have that mentoring figure drop out of schools in large numbers. Some of this is self-selecting it's hard to have a strong relationship with someone if you don't come to school or you get suspended a lot. Yet some of it, the school has control over. Why did Portia leave Eastern for Bell? Why do students leave Bell for other D.C. schools? It's not simply the academics. For example, Eastern has a strong law and legal services academy that routinely gets kids into Georgetown, much like Bell regularly gets kids into George Washington University.

This is why I'm excited by something that three years ago filled me with dread. It's called "advisory." When I first started at Bell, we had an advisory period once a week where we would meet with about 20 students and do team-building and peer-communication activities. It was hell I didn't know what I was doing, the kids didn't necessarily want to communicate with me and everyone knew that they weren't going to get a grade for it. Advisory was put on hold this year as we moved into our new building so that teachers could focus on the logistics of the move, but we're planning to reinstate it for next year, and finally I "get" it.

Personalization is so important. Our kids need someone who is not their teacher to whom they can talk. And with students arriving every day, it's vital to have someone who is responsible for checking in with a kid, making sure they're going to class, that they're not getting left behind in a very different way than that referred to by standardized testing.

I hope that our advisory groups are a bit smaller than 20, as it's hard to really get to know 20 people on a once a week basis. But if we're going to turn the strangers in the auditorium into graduates, it's vital that someone knows who each and every one them are. I know Portia, and I love her. Who loves the rest?

***

Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

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