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Originally published in the Winter 2001 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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Succeeding against the odds

A graduate student’s research showcases an educational enterprise that works

By Julie Kane

Fourteen-year-old Simeon sold drugs, had spent time in an adult prison, and was failing in school. Colin was not a disruptive student, but he was withdrawn and rarely did his best work because of the anguish over a painful and broken childhood.

Both of these young black men were strong candidates to eventually drop out of school, but both were able to turn their lives around. Why are some able to make it while others continue to fail?

This was the subject of a careful study by Jacquelyn Boddie, a doctoral student in teaching and learning at Virginia Tech who presented her findings in her dissertation in 1997. Her study was motivated by her own experiences as a student and a teacher.

Boddie, an African American who attended a segregated school system, recalls, “Not only was our instruction excellent, but our teachers built a buffer that protected us from and prepared us for the harsh realities of racial prejudices in society.”

Later, as a teacher and administrator in integrated settings, Boddie witnessed the disappearance of that buffer and, with it, the disappearance of the academic self-esteem of young African American students, particularly young black men.

“But, in (the school in the study), we focused on successfully providing interventions and support systems to academic self-esteem that resulted in improved student attendance and better academic performance,” she explains. “This was a cohesive, integrated faculty that delivered a unified message of care and commitment.”

In her research, Boddie wanted to document the methods and outcomes in order to share them with other educators facing the same awesome responsibility. “The possibilities are infinite,” she says.

She began by studying a group of 10 black youths in a high school in Maryland, and focused on two students, Simeon and Colin, whose transformations were most dramatic. Boddie found significant factors that led to their turnaround — in school, in the extended family, and in the community.

Boddie’s study relates American history and institutional failures that have resulted in high rates of unemployment, delinquency, crime, substance abuse, and suicide among a disproportionally high number of young black men. One of the key elements of the turnaround of the two students in her study was their school environment, despite being seriously overcrowded, with approximately 2,700 students housed in a building designed for 1,800. The school was founded in 1993. The principal was a middle-aged black man who projected high levels of confidence, strength, and commitment to the education of youths.

One administrator described the leadership of the principal: “The most important thing is that he cares, and he communicates to the staff that he cares; it is in everything he touches. His principles are steeped in a philosophy and a deep commitment to the kids and to education. He is a person of few words and profound action.” The principal’s philosophy was to educate all students to their potential, so they can develop fully — socially and academically. Be sensitive to their needs. Keep them in school. Prepare them to be self-sustaining, self-sufficient.

When data indicated that large numbers of students were not successful during the man’s first year as principal, he established the idea that teachers have the responsibility to take students from wherever they are, at whatever level, and move them further in the educational process. “Thus, he put the responsibility in the classroom with the teacher. The focus on teacher effectiveness and accountability had a positive impact,” writes Boddie.

Ninth-grade teachers discussed problems with motivation, specific students, and teaching techniques during staff development sessions. “This effort had an impact on the entire ninth grade. Social, remedial, and academic programs were offered in a structured fashion that was designed to make it impossible to fail. As a result, students were motivated to set goals, and the programs helped them to achieve them,” Boddie reports.

Specific programs

Students attended a special program instead of being suspended if they broke school rules or if they had three or more failing grades. They were given time to do school work before a period of open discussion. A peer mentoring group of 150 upper class students was developed to assist ninth-graders’ transition from middle to high school. A peer tutoring group of 100 students provided assistance during lunch periods. A group of 67 students provided peer mediation, resolving almost all of the conflicts that occurred at school.

The Youth 2000 Program for grades 9 and 10 was designed to help at-risk students students make the transition from middle school to high school. The focus included academic achievement, personal development, parental involvement, business involvement, successful transition from school to work, and staff development. If students had three or more “D”s or “F”s, they were assigned to an after-school tutoring program or afternoons in academic detention.

The Student Referral and Intervention Center served as the school’s in-house suspension center. Students were kept there until parents came in for administrator conferences. Parents were an integral part of a student’s education. If students were failing, the parents were required to help structure a program for their children’s success. Once parents learned what programs were available to students, they cooperated with the school to help change student attitudes and performance.

These were the programs that helped Simeon and Colin. In addition, family members and the community played a role in their development, Boddie explains.

Simeon

Simeon is about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, slight of build, quiet, dark-skinned, and handsome. He lives with his mother, to whom he is obsessively devoted, and his stepfather, whom he has chosen not to emulate. When Simeon enrolled in the academy, he had been released from a three-month sentence in juvenile detention and a four-month sentence in an adult prison facility.

The principal enrolled Simeon in the at-risk program, Youth 2000, in the smaller building on campus known as the ninth grade annex. Its size facilitated a more closely-knit staff and student body where students were known by the faculty and administration. The teachers met every other week to work together to improve teaching of the ninth-grade students.

Before Simeon enrolled in the academy, he was failing eighth grade. “He was seeking independence from his mother, reconciling the pain of abandonment by a father he never knew, forming his own image of manhood, and releasing rage,” Boddie wrote. “He had resolved to use any means to gain and use power for domination.”

At 14, Simeon was looking to young men of 19 and 20 for guidance and leadership. His mother’s attempts to control his behavior went unheeded. When he did right, it was to win her approval and affection, and when he went against her wishes, it was to assert his own manhood. His rage constantly created problems in school.

Simeon admits that he sold drugs and that he thought killing people could win him respect among peers. He had not gained a sense of self-worth or self-respect at home.

The new school would help him learn to value himself and his skills. But finding the right role models was complicated by the pain associated with his absentee father. Four actions that met Simeon’s needs in the Youth 2000 Program were strong discipline, guidance, role modeling, and mentoring by six African American males. Simeon felt he had to live up to the super bad-boy image to prove he was a man. However, the school-based professional men who would become role models to Simeon were also street-wise. Unlike other models in his life, they had also mastered the mainstream America game, Boddie explains.

“Simeon was challenged, counseled, mentored, and motivated by the teachers’ interpersonal care, personalized instruction, and his mentors’ ability to appreciate and relate to his experiences,” Boddie says.

Simeon won a social studies certificate, a perfect attendance certificate, and an achievement award in career development. And he made the honor roll each marking period in the ninth grade.

Colin

Before coming to the academy, Colin had lived in several foster homes. By age eight, he was a ward of the state and was living in a group home. After moving into foster care again, he attended three elementary schools. His third foster mother adopted him.

When he was 11 years old, he was evaluated by a psychologist. He was diagnosed as a sad little boy who was extremely distraught, depressed, anxious, and confused over the broken ties of his real family. He was especially traumatized when his mother’s boyfriend raped his 8-year-old sister. The mother was out with another boyfriend when the rape happened. Then the children were taken away from the mother because she was on drugs.

Colin’s adoptive family provided him with stability and caring. His adoptive mother is warm-hearted, sensitive, caring, and religious. Besides providing the family with a nice neighborhood house, Colin’s adoptive father has little impact on him.

Colin continued to struggle with feelings about his real father, who is on parole from a 15-year sentence for an armed robbery/murder conviction he received in high school. Until Colin was 12 years old, neither his birth mother nor his father had been very involved in his life.

The church also played a major role in Colin’s development. He admired two people: his paternal grandfather and the bishop of the church. He felt his grandfather was just like him, but the bishop represented power, pride, achievement, respectability, and wealth.

Colin’s birth mother lives near the church and is the reason Colin began attending there. Although he exaggerates the bishop’s powers, Colin is learning the values of responsibility, work, and self-expression in church music. He also enjoys friendships with other African American urban young people in his age group who are trying to do the right thing. He finds girls to date at church and young men with whom to play basketball nearby. He plays trombone in the marching band, which travels to convocations throughout the southeastern part of the country. Through her involvement in the church, Colin’s mother and he have rekindled their relationship.

Colin was not disruptive in school. He was withdrawn and rarely motivated to do his best work. During his seventh-grade year, he was referred for special education and categorized as a learning disabled student. He received special education until the ninth grade, when he was placed in the Youth 2000 Program for students at risk of not graduating from high school.

One day in his third or fourth week in the ninth grade, Colin vented his anger to a ninth grade teacher, Felicia Fishbourne, in after-school detention. He expressed his painful background — his sister’s rape, his mother’s abandonment, his foster homes.

“His outburst helped the staff reach past barriers he had created to keep people from the raging pain he felt,” says Boddie. “After that incident, he shared his need for care in other ways. Often, he stopped to talk with Ms. Fishbourne, and he began to seek out his teachers for encouragement, praise, counsel, and affirmation,” explains Boddie. “Colin finally found a support system that worked for him and adults he could trust.”

During the beginning of the ninth grade, Colin expressed affection for his adoptive parents. That changed when his mother appeared after her successful completion of a drug treatment program. The two mother figures were in constant conflict. Colin’s father credited the adoptive mother for keeping Colin focused academically. His adoptive mother, in turn, used Colin’s father’s influence to help discipline him. Under his adoptive mother’s tutelage, Colin learned to manage his money, cook, and to clean up behind himself. Colin also decided that he wanted to start a sand and gravel company. Boddie reports that Colin’s adoptive mother told him, “If you want to go open up your own business, you’ve got to make good grades.” He started to improve.

Talking about his problems at school helped Colin deal with them. Boddie explains, “The teachers knew that students’ behavior — their ‘acting out’ in the classroom — reflected something that was going on in their lives. Knowing a lot about Colin helped his team of teachers know how he would deal with them and how to help him. The assistance that Colin was provided kept him focused on learning.”

Family and church were also important influences for Colin. “His positive relationship with his father gave the team another resource to help motivate and keep Colin focused,” Boddie says.

Colin’s father is a certified public accountant who finished high school and graduated from college with a bachelor of science while incarcerated. He went to the school periodically so he and Colin could have lunch. When Colin’s name was not on the bulletin board as an honor student, his father encouraged him to try harder to gain that measure of success.

“Colin works hard to overcome his challenges. All those involved in his life know he will not be successful without praise and encouragement,” Boddie says.

The academy created many ways to help him achieve his potential and his goals. Each time Colin earned at least a 2.5 G.P.A., he was recognized in an achievement assembly. In his own words, Colin expressed how the program helped him the most: “I feel like I am somebody now; someone finally noticed me.”

Boddie concludes that Simeon and Colin changed their attitudes toward learning and succeeded for a number of reasons. “There were care systems in school that supported their efforts to change. Their positive identities were revealed to them, and they were pushed to higher standards of learning. The teachers were genuinely committed to working with all children,” she says. “Because of the faculty’s strong commitment to care, trust was created and student confidence was enhanced. Sensitive male role models were available as mentors. Staff development initiatives addressed the socio-economic and cultural needs of impoverished urban black male adolescents. These two youths responded favorably to their parents’ positive participation. Finally, a smaller school structure magnified interpersonal care and accentuated the processes that brought a positive turnaround for each student.”