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NEWARK—This is what Erskine Glover considers a lazy Wednesday morning: He wakes up at 5 a.m. instead of his usual 4:30, flips the television to SportsCenter on ESPN, and eats a fried egg white and a toasted waffle before leaving for work at 6:45. By then, the principal of Quitman Street Renew School normally would have spent at least an hour responding to emails.

“This morning I was a lazy bum,” Glover, 43, says on the Wednesday two weeks and two days before the last day of school on June 28. He’s wearing white and beige striped pants with a matching, thicker-striped shirt and solid beige bow tie, his long dreads pulled neatly back. With hip surgery impending this summer, he selected light brown sneakers to color-coordinate in lieu of dress shoes.

Newark schools
Erskine Glover, making an announcement over the school loud speaker, had to trade dress shoes for sneakers as he’s facing hip surgery. (Photo by Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight)

Glover is curious what schedules are like for principals in places that don’t face as many challenges as Quitman, one of eight Newark schools targeted in a turnaround effort this academic year. Glover had to reapply for his job last spring to continue leading that effort at Quitman, where he has now completed three years. It’s not a responsibility he takes lightly, and he feels guilty when he isn’t being productive, even as the school has started to show some successes.

After driving nearly an hour in his silver Volkswagen Passat from North Brunswick, Glover arrives in Newark’s impoverished Central Ward, where his pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school’s facility draws community members with its medical clinic and new playground. He discovers that he left his lunch, a takeout salad, at home. He’s been trying to eat lunch these days because he knows he should, but he’d prefer a leisurely meal to a scarfed one, even if it means waiting nine more hours to get it.

In his cluttered office, he spends a precious few moments alone reviewing a brochure for an open house Quitman will hold for families at a nearby charter school being shut down for poor performance. Some of the charter school’s students—how many, Glover does not yet know—will end up at Quitman in the fall. So will some from a school across the parking lot that serves behaviorally challenged children and is being closed, too.

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In the sea of royal blue polo shirts and khaki pants and skirts streaming into the halls at 8:25 a.m., the presence of two young boys out of uniform catches Glover off guard: Their mother, Laqueebah Murray, was killed two weeks earlier in a shootout in the courtyard of her sister’s apartment complex, not far from Quitman. When he visited the family at home, Glover asked the boys’ father to let him know when they’d be returning to school so he could have a counselor ready. But there they were, one brother returning to his second-grade classroom, the other to first grade, and the social worker was off site for a training session. Glover would have to wear the counselor’s hat himself.

At the daily morning convocation in the “cafetorium” (combined cafeteria-auditorium), he congratulates the girls’ basketball and cheerleading teams, which will be honored at a banquet at Rutgers that night. As the convocation is dismissing, a boy throws a cup of yogurt. Glover makes him clean up the mess on the floor and directs staff to call his mother.

At 8:58 a.m., Glover goes on the loud speaker explaining logistics on a book fair in the gym where, thanks to a donation, everyone can make four summer reading selections today. He announces a cake celebration in the library for the classes that met independent reading goals this spring. He pauses. A half-dozen middle school boys are playing in the hall. “Who’s the teacher with them?” he asks. There isn’t one. He ushers them upstairs. Back on the microphone, Glover announces that for the first time in the school’s history, nearly every eighth grader passed a New Jersey test for technology proficiency.

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Erskine Glover gets a hug from a student following an assembly. About three-quarters of Quitman students responded in a survey that they feel welcome in the school and they believe staff members care about their success. (Photo by Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight)

In the minutes and hours ahead, circumstances will demand Glover’s metamorphosis over and over again. In addition to social worker, cheerleader and disciplinarian, he’s an instructional coach, a visionary, a paper-pusher and a micromanager of things he’d rather not be worrying about, but someone has to. “What do I look like, Office Depot?” he says to two girls coming to him for a stapler. He knows that many of his 556 students, most of them African-American like he is and nearly all of them poor, look to him to fill another role: dad. He does what he can, but his priority must be his own teenage son and daughter as well as his wife. His daughter, 13, was still in bed when he kissed her goodbye that morning.

Time. Glover doesn’t know where it goes, but he knows he needs more of it. On the walls of a small conference room where he’ll conduct teacher meetings today are eight pieces of yellow poster paper where he’s mapping out next year’s professional development schedule. He knows teachers won’t necessarily like it at first, but he’s going to require that they do certain things during their planning period each day: Tuesdays and Thursdays review student work, Wednesdays prepare for implementation of the national Common Core curriculum, Fridays plan together with colleagues, and Mondays everything else, from training in technology to a positive student behavior reward program. Since teachers’ time is so crunched, not everyone is completing required tasks. He needs to spell out a schedule. He’ll also require teachers to work another half-hour next year, increasing slightly a stipend they already receive for a longer day than most Newark schools. Instruction will start and end earlier for students, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with the staff continuing until 4.

Focus and distraction

Glover’s first meeting of the morning is with Rosemary Coyle, the seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher. Coyle, who was new to the school last fall, turned into one of his stalwarts when four other middle school teachers quit midyear, frustrated and overwhelmed.

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Social studies teacher Rosemary Coyle has maintained high expectations for her students amid staff changes in their other classes. (For NJSPOTLIGHT/Amanda Brown)

Glover asks Coyle, dressed in the same colors as the students, if she is recommending anyone to be held back a year. She mentions two girls in seventh grade and two girls in eighth, though one of the seventh graders has already been retained once before.

They discuss the suspension of a girl who hit another girl who falsely accused her of stealing money from Coyle’s desk.

Most of the conversation is about a multidisciplinary project that Glover is requiring of all students at the end of the year. Seventh and eighth graders are building two- and three-dimensional representations of monuments with the theme of Quitman creating globally conscious citizens. They’re using geometry in the design, and social studies and English to research and write essays, all to persuade the principal to commission the construction of their monument outside the school. (The exercise is theoretical, but Glover says he’s open to the idea.)

The meeting is interrupted by a distraught woman in hot pink pants, mother of the boy who threw yogurt. “He had his medication this morning,” she says, appearing defensive. Glover directs her to the boy’s classroom to check on him, then turns back to Coyle to discuss the rubric, or grading scale, she’s developed for the social studies portion of the monument project. He’ll be reviewing teachers’ project rubrics throughout the day: He wants to make sure his staff is setting high expectations and communicating them clearly to students. He’s required everyone to read the book “How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading.”

He calls in an order for 60 Quitman T-shirts for the open house to entice families from the closing charter, who can choose among neighborhood schools. He makes his way through a stack of state evaluation forms mandatory for the seven teachers who were new to the profession this year or from states without licensing reciprocity in New Jersey. If he signs off, as he does for five of them, the teachers get their New Jersey teaching credentials. If he doesn’t, they get another year to improve. He goes that route for two teachers after consulting with Maria DeRios, who was his vice principal last year and now holds the position of “chief innovation officer.” They joke that the title means she does whatever work he doesn’t want to do. DeRios and Glover were vice principals together at Peshine Avenue School before Glover was hired at Quitman, and he trusts her implicitly.

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Vice Principal Evelyn Vargas, with Glover last fall at a back-to-school barbeque, says Glover’s expectations of his staff are high for good reason. “There is a sense of urgency here, and we have to do hard work, work long hours for these kids,” she says. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Evelyn Vargas, Quitman’s current vice principal, pops in to tell Glover to look at the cakes for the reading celebration: DeRios had emailed images of four popular book covers, from “Green Eggs and Ham” to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” to the bakery at ShopRite. The images have been recreated in meticulously detailed frosting.

Coyle returns to show Glover revisions to her rubric. Vargas is back with an incident report about a fight in the neighborhood involving sixth-grade girls. “What do you want to do about this?” she asks. “The mom can file a police report,” he replies. The fight happened outside of school. It isn’t Quitman’s responsibility.

Next come two first-grade teachers, Annie Kim and Planties Simon, whose classes are building a replica of the solar system hanging from the ceiling in the second-floor hallway. Glover will deliver the good news that he’s selected them for a summer academy at Quitman to prepare instructional leaders in science, technology and math—news that will cause Simon to shriek with joy. But first, Glover checks in with Kim, who has the younger of Laqueebah Murray’s sons in her class. She says the other kids were happy to see him, and he seemed fine until about 15 minutes ago, when he began to look sad. She asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “I miss Mommy.” She told him that’s a normal feeling, and she’s here for him. He’s playing a math computer game now while they’re meeting.

Joyce Henry-Faller, a reading intervention teacher and the building’s union representative, files in. She’ll deliver some of Glover’s best news of the day with individual assessment results for a few dozen struggling young readers. They have improved dramatically.

“Can you believe it?” Henry-Faller says, referring to a second-grade boy who began the year far behind.

“You’ve got to highlight this,” Glover replies, asking her to prepare a report so he can spread the word.

After the meeting, Glover checks his Blackberry for the time. “Eleven o’clock?” he says in disbelief. “I don’t feel like I accomplished anything.”

Newark schools
Erskine Glover spends much of his time visiting classrooms.(Photo by Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight)

In the hall, he stops a fourth grader, one of the award-winning cheerleaders. Out of uniform, she explains that she slept at her aunt’s house last night. “You’re supposed to be a smart, highly-educated student,” he says. “Planning is important.” He notes two cell phones in the back pockets of her jeans. She says one belongs to a friend who doesn’t have a pocket in her uniform pants.

He passes by the cake celebration, where multicolored helium balloons have been imprinted with “BOOKS ROCK!” and other such sayings. He stops to check in with the second-grade teacher who has the slain mother’s older son in her class.

As he walks, he picks up the occasional chip or candy wrapper from the floor. The third floor is unusually quiet, with the sixth grade on a field trip to the Bronx Zoo.

His hip hurts. Last September, he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a disease that restricts blood flow to his left hip joint. He said his doctor attributes the condition to a medication he took for bronchitis. He’s been on and off crutches all year, walking at times with a limp. Though his stride appears almost normal today, the pain has been intensifying the last few weeks. He’s scheduled for surgery the last Monday in July, likely a total hip replacement, but he’s still hoping to get by with less invasive hip resurfacing. At least he’ll have time to work on his Columbia doctoral dissertation during four weeks in bed. It’s been sitting stagnant for months.

Waiting to exhale

Being an inner-city principal is arguably one of the hardest jobs in America, and getting an underperforming school to turn around is harder work still.

Assuming the position at Quitman in the fall of 2010, Glover inherited some of the lowest test scores in New Jersey. Only about a quarter of students were reading at proficiency levels. He is charged with personally galvanizing a staff and a community, yet the changes must be able to outlast him. He is responsible for everything that happens in his building, yet a person can only operate at his current pace for so long. And so much is beyond his control.

Newark schools

For this academic year, in launching a signature reform initiative, Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson put something big in Glover’s control, something he had felt trapped without: hiring power. Glover spent the entire summer of 2012 conducting interviews as he replaced more than half of his teaching staff of about 60. He felt squarely to blame, then, when three of his hires quit midyear, creating significant disruption; all his middle school math and science classes had to be staffed by substitutes.

But at least one key factor in the departures was out of his hands: The district and the teachers’ union agreed to a stipend for participating in an extended school day that the recruits saw as offensively low. The longer day began at the eight “renew schools” in January. (A new union contract provides opportunities for further compensation based on student growth.)

Another six of the new hires are opting not to come back next year, and Glover is not renewing the contracts of two others. In all, about a third of those he selected didn’t pan out. He expects he’ll need to make about 15 hires this summer, at the same time that budget cuts have required him to eliminate the positions of a clerk, a bilingual-education teacher, a computer teacher and a first-grade teacher. (The first-grade and computer positions are already vacant, staffed by long-term substitutes. Next year the remaining two first-grade classes, Simon’s and Kim’s, will be larger.)

Glover’s wife reminds him to give himself some credit when he comes home hyper-analyzing what he could have done better. “He’s very self-critical, and I have to tell him, ‘You’re doing a great job,’” said Yolanda Glover, who met her husband when she was a freshman at the University of South Carolina and he was a junior, and they tutored grade-school children together. Being an educator is “part of his DNA and his destiny,” she said.

How long will his destiny be at Quitman?

Anderson said she intends to give the renew school principals time to demonstrate results before determining whether to keep them on. “If you look at the research on turnarounds, three years is the amount of time that is required to see major gains, and I would expect there to be variations in the pace of those gains depending on a lot of factors,” she said. “One thing we know about turnaround work is that it doesn’t happen overnight, and if it does, then probably something’s not right.” She called Glover a “transformational leader.”

Glover hopes he’ll be able to see the work through. He’s open to future positions as a central office administrator or as a professor. (This spring was the first time in years that he did not teach a graduate-level course in early childhood education at Kean University.) But one thing he knows for sure: He does not want to restart another school. That means Quitman will be his only shot as a principal.

It’s too soon to say what the outcome will be—for Glover, for Quitman and for Newark school reform over all.

Newark schools

Results of the state’s standardized tests aren’t due back until mid-summer, but online national assessments administered for internal use at Quitman show major progress, particularly in the early grades.

State standardized tests in New Jersey and nationwide have long been criticized for rating schools based on the number of students at grade level, rather than the amount students improve in their care. For example, if a sixth grader begins the year reading like a second grader and makes three years’ worth of growth, he still won’t pass a grade-level exam despite having made tremendous progress. Glover is wary of the state standardized exams for that reason, which is why he opted this year to also administer the Measures of Academic Progress. MAP is a well-regarded online national exam that sets an automated goal for yearly progress for each child based on where she began in September.

A whopping 94 percent of Quitman’s kindergartners met their yearly growth targets in English on the spring MAP exam, as did 9o percent in math, according to preliminary results that have yet to factor in makeup tests. By sixth grade, 67 percent met targets in English, and 51 percent met them in math.  

The data are hugely promising, but looking at the number of students on or above grade level on the same test still tells a sobering story.

Again, the best news is in the early grades: In math, 40 percent of kindergartners began at or above grade level, a figure that grew to 62 percent by the end of the year. In reading, proficiency percentage among first-graders rose from 37 to 55.

Among the graduating eighth graders, however, only 5 percent began the year at or above grade level in both subjects. By the end of the year, that figure had increased to 13 percent in English and 14 percent in math. Their proficiency rate had more than doubled, but Glover still has far to go before he can exhale.

‘The End of the Rainbow’

Next academic year, Anderson is expanding the turnaround strategy to three high schools that will join the original eight elementary/middles. The strategy gives principals autonomy, added resources and training, with participating school leaders meeting regularly.

Anderson said she’s pleased with the quality of leadership in the first crop of renew schools and with the community engagement that those principals have inspired. She’s impressed, too, with their stringent new hiring processes—even if not everyone lasts. “There’s only so much you can assess in an interview,” she said. Of Glover and others, she added, “They’ve created a culture of excellence where teachers who may not want to work that hard or who are not as committed to maintaining a level of excellence don’t fit, and I think that’s great.”

Newark schools
Erskine Glover helps a kindergarten student with his writing. Many students look to Glover as a father figure. (Photo by Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight) Credit: Photos: Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight

Evelyn Vargas, Quitman’s vice principal, said a lesson she’ll take away from this year is that “we have to be more transparent in why there’s a sense of urgency … in why what we’re asking you to do not only needs to get done but it needs to get done well.… Oftentimes you don’t understand while you’re in the classroom why you’re asked to do the thousands of things you’re asked to do.” She said some of the new hires didn’t understand what they were getting themselves into.

“Not only are we a renew school, but we’re Glover’s school,” said Vargas, who taught for seven years in New York City before Glover hired her last summer. “He has very high expectations. I don’t think they’re unreasonable. I think once you understand them and you live that vision and that mission, you get it. There is a sense of urgency here, and we have to do hard work, work long hours for these kids.” She kept hours comparable to his this year while planning her Memorial Day weekend wedding in Mexico.

Glover, Vargas and other key staff members are fueled by optimism that their work will pay off.

“I believe at the end of the rainbow, there’s gonna be a pot of gold,” said Stephanie Ruff, the school’s parent liaison, who lives in the neighborhood and spends nights banging on doors to get families involved. She’s constantly on the prowl for partnerships and donations to help mitigate the blows of poverty: After Hurricane Sandy, which hurt Quitman’s attendance through the end of 2012, she secured meals, bottled water and blankets for nearly 200 families at the school and helped parents apply for additional food stamps. Every Friday, a partnership with a local food bank enables her to send a child home with a backpack full of meals to last the weekend. She collected $500 for the family of Laqueebah Murray, including a gift card to a store that carries Quitman uniforms.

Maria DeRios, who oversees many of the school’s operational aspects while Vargas focuses more on instruction, said people often ask her, “Why are you always smiling?”

“Why not?” she asked. “To every problem there is a solution.”

Most of the time. Glover felt powerless and deeply pained last week when an 8-year-old student was reported missing by his mother. (The boy was found with a neighbor late at night, as Glover waited anxiously at school for an update.) The following evening, as he chaperoned the eighth-grade dance, he stood back feeling good about Quitman’s prospects as he reflected on individual students’ growth.

Newark schools
Stephanie Ruff, the school’s parent liaison, provides families with various social supports and spends evenings door-knocking to get parents involved at Quitman. “I believe at the end of the rainbow, there’s gonna be a pot of gold,” she says. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Glover considers improvements in school culture his biggest success thus far. When he started, the building was neat, with the hallway walls lovingly painted by a Spanish teacher. These days, the hallway bulletin boards have come alive with student work. Current displays include a pre-kindergarten art project about fish under the header “GOODBYE TO A FINTASTIC YEAR!” While disciplinary incidents still consume a disproportionate amount of time, they tend to involve the same relatively small group of students. Many children have bought into a culture of positive reinforcement for being good students, diminishing the need to act out to get attention.

In a recent survey of a few hundred Quitman parents, 91 percent said they receive positive feedback about their children through notes, emails or phone calls. Ninety-four percent said they feel welcome at Quitman. About three-quarters of students, taking a similar survey in class, agreed that they feel welcome and that staff members care about their success.

To keep reform sustainable, Glover knows he must find a way to distribute Quitman’s workload more evenly. He’s trying to seek out leadership roles for more staff members so that projects and extra assignments don’t always fall to the same group. On the day I followed Glover, Vargas was busy running the book giveaway, a responsibility that she hopes to be able to delegate in the future. She would have otherwise handled some of the disciplinary incidents that fell to him.

Overloaded as he is, Glover insists on carving out time for his family on the weekends. His 16-year-old son is on a traveling soccer team, and as a former athlete, Glover finds great joy in attending nearly all his boy’s games, even if doing so adds to his exhaustion with weekends out of town. He scheduled his surgery for late July to ensure he can finish out the season. He also maintains a position organizing his town’s youth soccer league. Last weekend, he refereed a charity basketball tournament run by his wife’s friend: half court, so he didn’t have to attempt to run.

As Glover is home recovering in August, with hopefully all his hiring completed, he’ll have seven teachers attending the science-technology-math intensive at Quitman and 10 beginning a 47-week program for “Black Belt Certification” in the Common Core curriculum standards. He’s recommended another three for a yearlong emerging leaders program run by a national nonprofit.

If given enough time, Glover is confident that Quitman can become an institution of academic excellence, yet a sense of urgency is continually looming in his world. What eats at him isn’t so much that this is his one opportunity to prove himself as a principal. It’s the fact that his students don’t get another shot at elementary and middle school.

From day to night

On that Wednesday in the waning days of the school year, Glover continues with his daily rounds of the building. As noon approaches, he finds a special education student getting help from his teacher during lunch. The principal, who was an undergraduate statistics major and often gives his own kids late-night help with math homework, helps the boy to reduce the fraction 3/12 to 1/4.

Moments later, he comes upon three third graders—two boys and a girl—standing in the hall after being kicked out of class. The boys had punched one another. The girl, in maroon leggings beneath her khaki skirt, was disrespectful after perceiving the teacher as ignoring her complaint that a classmate shoved her in the lunch line. She is crying.

Glover ushers them back into their classroom, where he asks students for an update on their project making rock candy. One of the boys from the hall struggles to answer questions about the scientific experiment.

“It’s interesting. You have a project up there, and you’re not in class enough to know the facts,” Glover says. “I have a fact… Students who tend to consistently get in disputes usually don’t make it to the next grade level in a timely manner.”

He keeps the three children behind as he sends the rest of the class and the teacher to the cake celebration, where those who logged at least six independent reading hours—14 of 16 in this group—will get Six Flags gift certificates through an incentive program the amusement park chain runs.

Sitting at a small desk beside his charges, Glover asks the trio what happened. Each of the boys accuses the other of starting the pushing, which also transpired in the lunch line. “Both of you are not telling Mr. Glover the truth, and I don’t like that,” Glover says. He sends one of them in tears to the nurse for a small scratch on the top of his chest that’s showing above his gray T-shirt. Then he takes the others to join their classmates in the library. Returning with a Band-Aid, the boy collects his Six Flags ticket. Now his nemesis, who didn’t earn one, is crouched in the corner crying.

“How does it feel to be recognized for something good?” Glover asks the first boy as he escorts the pair to his conference room. The second boy is crying hard now, his little shoulders rounded so far forward that the logo on his T-shirt (which is at least the correct color for a Quitman uniform) is blocked. The first boy extends his bottle of water: a peace offering. “Thank you,” the second boy says, gulping his words. Glover decides to call their parents but refrain from suspension. He takes them to the gym to collect their books for summer reading. They both select installments from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.

Across the hall in the cafetorium, he questions the kitchen workers about the wrong food order arriving for an upcoming outdoor activity day in a park. He pulls a janitor aside and points out water on the floor. It’s unacceptable, he says.

He goes outside to visit a vegetable and herb garden that pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes are planting by the playground.

Walking through the main office en route to the conference room at 12:50 p.m., Glover finds Michael, the older of the brothers whose mother died, sitting with an ice pack on his leg. He says he injured it playing at home. They talk.

In the conference room, one of the school secretaries hands Glover a bag of honey-roasted cashews. That will be his only lunch. His wife used to pack him meals, but he would come home with them uneaten. He munches on the nuts, hoping to at last turn to the school’s strategic plan, which is due to the district office the next day, as is his own self-evaluation for his annual review.

But first, he’s called upon to help find the lost keys to a room storing electronic equipment. And then, a social worker for children with disabilities enters with a new crisis: A third-grade student announced in class that he wants to kill himself. The staff member talked to the boy extensively, and she doesn’t believe he is in danger. Nevertheless, someone needs to call the child’s mother. Glover agrees to do it.

He heads to Michael’s second-grade class to make sure he got back all right. While out in the hall, he stops in a handful of rooms to check lesson plans. He asks all his teachers to keep a binder by their classroom doors so he can come check their plans at any time. In Annie Kim’s first-grade class, Glover sits in the back of the room with her binder for awhile, keeping an eye on Michael’s little brother. The boy, who has dreadlocks hanging over his eyes just like Michael does, uses his mouth to blow up balloons for the solar system project while his classmates take a test on material that he missed. On the wall, a poster Kim made lists things they learned in first grade, like how to count to 120 forwards and backwards.

School is dismissing at 3 p.m. today, instead of the usual 4, for professional development. In the cafetorium, Glover introduces representatives of the YMCA who will train staff in a curriculum promoting healthy eating and exercise. Afterward, he meets with a few dozen teachers in the library and discusses more project rubrics. They adjourn at 4:45, giving him an hour to check email and work on the strategic plan and self-evaluation before leaving for Rutgers, where Quitman’s cheerleaders and basketball players are among numerous teams being honored at a banquet. He doesn’t get far, pausing to discuss the incoming assessment results with the school technology coordinator.

“Principal Glover needs a nap,” he says at 5:15, yawning. On his self-evaluation, he lists time management as an area where he can improve.

After the banquet, where he eats a salad, Glover returns to Quitman and spends more than an hour working, grateful for the silence. He leaves the school around 9:30 and arrives home at 10:15 p.m. His wife and son are still up. His daughter is asleep. At last, he sits down to a pasta dinner.

The next morning, he sleeps in until 5:30.

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