This story was part of a special section of the July-August, 2010 edition of the Washington Monthly magazine that was guest edited by Richard Lee Colvin, editor of The Hechinger Report.
Jayquan Hyman, a gangly fifteen-year-old ninth grader, seemed destined to drop out after starting high school last September.
He failed fifth grade and was older than his classmates, had spent years in special education classes, and cut classes throughout middle school. He was suspended within weeks of the start of school for cursing at a teacher. He was sullen and angry. He was also black, male, and living in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in America.
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The one person in his family who had gone to college was an aunt, now deceased. He was the sort of student that a principal might hope would quit to spare the school the trouble.
A decade ago, Jayquan would have been enrolled in South Bronx High, a school of about 1,000 students in a neighborhood of rusted train trestles and abandoned lots. Back then, the school had a reputation as a dumping ground for some of the borough’s worst students, and it’s likely Jayquan would have ended up among the one in five who dropped out every year.
But South Bronx High had been closed. Instead, Jayquan, a basketball player who hopes to make a career of it, enrolled at Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports, one of three small schools installed in the old South Bronx building. Principal Felice Lepore understands the importance of engaging ninth graders quickly, before they have a chance to falter.
Studies in a number of cities have found that failing even one ninth-grade class drastically reduces a student’s chance of graduating. In the typical large high school, teachers with more seniority opt to work only with seniors and juniors. But Lepore says that at Urban Assembly the school’s most effective teachers, regardless of seniority, are assigned to teach ninth graders. The school puts its “best foot forward” for freshmen, she said.
The school uses sports—batting averages, the arc of a basketball shot, the biography of Jackie Robinson—to teach math and history. Ninth graders research careers and apply for internships with the New York Yankees. Twice a week, teachers gather in intense meetings to hash out lessons and debate how to help struggling students.
Jayquan was frequently a topic of discussion. None of what they tried seemed to penetrate. The breakthrough came when Lepore created a program just for him: he was given a campus job after school in the main office. But he was only allowed to work if his conduct that day was perfect.
Jayquan pulled ahead. He began handing in his homework and passing his classes, which had a mix of special education and regular students, and even got 80s in his history and business classes.
This special report was made possible with the generous support of (in alphabetical order):
The Boston Foundation
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Nellie Mae Education Foundation
William Penn Foundation
By March, his conduct reports were mostly positive. Jayquan is an example of what can happen when a school knows the history of entering students, monitors their progress, and provides them with help tailored to their needs.
The school’s population is one that, statistically, is less likely to graduate. More than 80 percent of its students live in poverty, 100 percent are black or Hispanic, and nearly 85 percent are male, who are slightly more likely to drop out than girls. But Urban Assembly’s formula seems to be working. Its four-year graduation rate is more than 80 percent, compared to 46 percent at the old South Bronx High.
Lepore, who worried that Jayquan wouldn’t last a year, now believes he’ll make it all the way to graduation. The job seems to have made him more serious about school.
What’s the job? Every day, he calls the students who haven’t shown up for school—in effect, becoming the enforcer of rules he once broke.
Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report