Amid school's struggle, a reach for redemption

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 7, 2008

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Last in a series

It was "senior sign out" at The English High School in Jamaica Plain, the last day of the year for 12th-graders and a time of reckoning. Nearly a third of the school's seniors were at risk of not graduating, many of them because they were failing English.

Which explains why so many students were crowded around Junia Yearwood as she sat resolutely at her desk at the head of the class. Students were frantically rummaging through notebooks, furiously typing at computers along the wall, and pleading for clemency.

Yearwood was not in a merciful mood.

An advanced placement English teacher, she had begun the year with plans for her students to dissect the language of Frederick Douglass and explore themes of isolation in novels by Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway. In some ways, a year is a long time, in other ways not nearly enough, and now what Yearwood demanded for a passing grade was proof that they could execute basic functions of the language - grammatically correct sentences, paragraphs that communicate simple ideas.

The bell rang. Fred Daniels, a tall, handsome student who had been sitting in the back of the room, hurried to Yearwood's side with a folder of overdue assignments. She knew him as a smart student who too often substituted charm for work. The few assignments he had completed over the course of the year showed a poor grasp of grammar and construction. She handed the folder back to him and told him to revise six essays before the end of the day.

"When you get serious, come back and see me," she said. "I have no problem with giving a fair F."

It was not the way things were supposed to be going for Daniels, or, for that matter, for English High. English was supposed to be the school that finally saved Daniels and hundreds of other lackluster students like him. And Daniels and all those students, transformed by stricter rules, reenergized teachers, and a renewed sense of mission, were supposed to be the salvation of English High.

The headmaster, José Duarte, who at the beginning of the year had pledged to save English from closure by the state after years of decay and declining test scores, had also vowed to put Daniels on the path to graduation - even to get him into college. He had made a project of him, occasionally driving him to school, seeking him out for pep talks and, sometimes, a brand of parental wrath.

It was part of Duarte's scorched-earth battle to restore the academic standards of America's oldest public high school. With unprecedented control given to him by the state, he had extended the school day, hired extra social workers, added tutoring centers, and reexamined virtually every aspect of English High's approach to teaching.

But days before the close of school and the end of the yearlong experiment to turn around English, the high school and Daniels each seemed perilously close to falling short.

School staff were already assembling statistics, and the numbers were showing less-than-stellar gains.

Nearly a fifth of students had failed three or more classes during the spring term. Daily attendance - a key indicator tracked by the state - had inched up just five percentage points from the year before to 89 percent, shy of the state's 92 percent standard.

Perhaps most disheartening, an all-out drive to enroll each graduating senior in a four-year college had fallen far short. Just 36 percent of the graduating class had been accepted - two percentage points more than the previous year.

For Daniels, there was still a chance to redeem the year. He had passing grades in four classes - A's in two of them - but he was failing math and English. He had sworn to himself that he would finish high school this time. He took his folder of drafts from Yearwood and walked across the hall to Spanish class. With less than five hours left in the school day, he found a computer and began to work.

One day after school in May, English High's governing board - a group of teachers, parents, students, alumni, and Duarte - gathered in the school library. Over slices of pepperoni pizza, they confronted one of the most sobering realizations to come out of the English High experiment: Their students were harder to motivate than they had ever imagined.

Duarte had begun the year believing that if teachers and staff held themselves to impeccable standards - dressing sharply, keeping their classrooms in order, being prepared to work every day - students would follow their examples by working harder, too.

But time and again, that had proved not to be the case. Too many students coasted, doing only enough work to pass with a D-minus. The headmaster was increasingly dismayed by the responses he got from students he tried to nudge toward higher aspirations.

"If I hear one more 'But I passed, Mr. Duarte,' I'm going to throw something at them," he told the group.

The question was, what to do?

Duarte proposed raising the bar for passing classes, from a D-minus, or 60 percent, to 70 percent - a C-minus.

"We have kids graduating from our school with a 1.1 GPA," Duarte told the group. "What kind of college is going to accept that child?"

A chorus of voices rose in support. But then a teacher raised a concern.

Racheting up standards surely would mean more failing students. It would hurt morale, wiping out any gains the school had made in convincing students that they could be successful in school, the teacher said. Those who didn't quit school altogether would probably transfer to other public schools that still required only a D-minus to pass. A similar exodus had already happened when English extended the length of its school day this year. "I'm not suicidal," the teacher said.

The dilemma struck at the heart of English High's mission to turn itself around: Any effort to raise academic expectations could be thwarted when students who had been neglected for years - students with difficult lives outside of school and little academic discipline - simply gave up. Even the small gains posted by English this year had required herculean efforts by teachers to keep students in school and on track.

State education officials monitoring English High's performance had recently recognized that and concluded that the school should stay open at least another year.

"Important forward motion has taken place in the school this year," said Juliane Dow, the Education Department official overseeing English's reform. "The question is always whether you can get everyone headed in the same direction, and whether you can change the perception students have about their expectations for conduct and learning."

The group around the table in the library came to no conclusions; the governing board voted to put the matter of raising standards off until next year.

In the dark of a cold morning in January, a fleet of Boston police cruisers crept to a white three-family house in Hyde Park, and dozens of officers in Kevlar surrounded it. Officers at the front door knocked. When the door didn't open, they kicked it down and rushed inside. They carried with them a warrant for the arrest of Fred Daniels.

The charges included assault with intent to murder in the daylight robbery about two months earlier of a couple who were held up at gunpoint on a Dorchester street, robbed of cash and a diamond watch, and stabbed. Two men had already been arrested in the crime. One of them told police that Daniels was also involved. One of the victims identified him in a photo lineup.

Daniels says he had nothing to do with the crime, that he was in school at the time it happened. But as officers seized him that morning and ordered him to sit on the couch while they searched the apartment, a single thought whirled in his mind:

"I thought I left all this stuff in the past."

Daniels' high school life had been peppered with jail time and behavior problems. Over four years, he had cycled in and out of seven high schools, with trouble following him at every stop. He arrived at English in the fall of 2006 - 18 years old, on probation for assault and battery, and with a tracking device around his ankle that relayed his whereabouts to Boston police.

Duarte had called Daniels into his office. He was the kind of student that Duarte didn't need as he tried to salvage the school - a troublemaker who could help doom his hopes for improvement. But the fact was that many students were similarly troubled, and Duarte had to reach them if he was to be successful.

The headmaster told Daniels all the ways the school could support him. Take advantage, Duarte advised.

Daniels said he would and, for the most part, was true to his word. He even found his way onto the honor roll from time to time. But he also had problems. He coasted in subjects he didn't like or didn't care about. He sometimes got angry or spoke inappropriately to teachers and staff members.

Duarte and teachers tried to adapt.

"Rather than go to him and say 'Hey, you're done, you're out of here,' I knew that for him, the issue was his temper and some of his personal problems," Duarte said. "I would play the other side with folks and give him solutions on how we're going to solve it."

On his way to school in the morning, Duarte would sometimes drive by Daniels' bus stop and pull over to pick him up. When Daniels didn't show up for school, a secretary called him. That secretary once gave him money for clothes. At Duarte's urging last fall, Daniels ran for student body president and won. He started participating in school events, often helping the school secretary set up beforehand or clean up afterward. In a yearbook poll this year, his classmates voted him "most popular" and "best all-around."

But all of that seemed far away the morning of the arrest. Daniels was put in a holding cell for three days, and the walls closed in. It was the end, he thought. In some karmic way, it was where he belonged. His father had been in and out of jail. So had his older brother. A younger brother had been shot dead on a public bus. Why should his fate be so different?

At Daniels' arraignment the following week, an English High counselor and assistant headmaster were there. So was a crowd of students. Teachers and administrators had signed affidavits vouching that Daniels was in school at the time of the crime. The judge set Daniels free, but with a requirement that he again wear an ankle bracelet and report to a probation officer.

As Daniels looked out at the students and school staff who had come to the courtroom, he felt a wave of gratitude.

"I felt like I could breathe again," he said.

Fred Daniels walked into the nearly empty school auditorium in a freshly pressed pair of slacks, a purple dress shirt, and matching tie. It was senior awards night, two days before the end of the school year. He had arrived early. He was not sure why his guidance counselor had asked him to show up.

In front of the stage, next to a lectern, stood a table draped in a blue cloth, topped with flowers and a stack of certificates. A handful of other students and their parents were already seated. Daniels sat alone in the back row.

Earlier in the day, he had visited his probation officer in a downtown courthouse. Weekly visits were a condition of bail from his arrest in January.

The arrest had unsettled him. He could be still put on trial for the crime, and the prospect made future plans seem useless. The headmaster had harassed him to make post-graduation plans, but he had not bothered to apply to any colleges or taken the SAT. His guidance counselor arranged a meeting with Daniels and Duarte to push the issue. Daniels said at the meeting that he was discouraged about some of his classes; on top of his struggles in Yearwood's English class, he continued to fail Algebra II Honors.

After the meeting, Duarte enrolled him in an easier math class for students who needed to make up credits. Duarte instructed Daniels to go to both math classes, but only one class would count on his transcript - the one where he earned the highest grade.

Now, Daniels was sitting among honor roll students who were receiving scholarship awards. As he flipped through the 10-page awards program, he discovered his name near the end. He had been chosen to receive an Excellence in History award.

He was taking two history classes, getting A's in both; he was the only student receiving an A in his US history class. His teachers praised his insightful essays and analytical abilities rarely seen in other students. Still, he had not expected this sort of recognition.

"I never even knew what senior awards night was really about," he said. "I was like, 'Me? An award?' "

The headmaster rushed into his office and reached into a desk drawer for a royal blue silk necktie with an embroidered E on it - his "special occasion" tie. Outside, on the school's athletic field, a stage had been erected, with blue bunting and an English High banner. Parents, alumni, and about a hundred others had gathered in front of it. Graduation day.

He knotted the tie, smoothed his collar, and walked briskly down the hall into the din of the school gymnasium. He paused for a moment as he came through the door onto a balcony overlooking the sea of students in blue gowns on the gym floor. Cameras flashed. Students whooped. He searched the crowd, spotted Fred Daniels, and called to him through the noise.

"This is it!" Duarte shouted, pumping his fist. "This is what you worked for."

Daniels beamed back at him and raised a fist.

A week before, on the seniors' last day of school, Daniels had sat at a computer typing essays for more than five hours. At the end of the day, he had returned to Yearwood's classroom. She had been surprised to see him. She had imagined that, like many students, he would put off the work, or simply decide not to do it.

She had looked at the papers in the folder he handed her. It was not Shakespeare. And some assignments still were not finished. But he had done an impressive amount of work for one day. Some of it, if not always correctly constructed, showed originality and clarity. She gave him a D-minus and signed the slip of paper he needed to graduate.

Duarte was in a good mood on this graduation day, for good reason. A week before, more than 50 of English High's 172 seniors had been failing a class and at risk of not graduating. All but 24 of those were now cleared for commencement. Among the people wearing caps and gowns were students like Jennifer Smith, who had come to the United States as a 13-year-old, struggled with a troubled home life, and ended up pregnant. During her time at English she had lived in a group home for teen mothers and juggled doctors appointments for her toddler son and night school. But she had made it, and she had received a full scholarship for a single-parents program at Endicott College in Beverly.

Another was Valeria Cabrera, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in the eighth grade and became one of English High's most promising students. Her dream of attending Princeton had ultimately faltered; she wasn't accepted, but in any case she had begun to balk at the prospect of moving away from her family. She was graduating a salutatorian at English, with a stack of awards and scholarships, including a full ride to Boston College.

Duarte roamed the crowd for a moment more before disappearing outside to take his place behind a lectern on the stage. The crowd grew quiet while a school administrator struggled through Pomp and Circumstance on an electric piano. Seniors filed out of the gym and into folding chairs. Fred Daniels, because he was student body president, mounted the stage and sat with Cabrera and others graduating with academic distinction.

After a procession of speeches, Duarte called Daniels' name, handed him a diploma, and put his arms around him. Daniels left the stage, jubilantly clutching the blue leatherette diploma jacket. With the names of his classmates echoing from the stage, Daniels slipped between police barricades surrounding the ceremony and walked through the crowds of people. He was looking for his mother - the mother who had lost one son to violence and another to jail, who had dropped out of high school herself all those years ago because she was pregnant. To the extent he had done this for anyone, he had done it for her.

She walked toward him, arms outstretched, her face trembling with emotion. They stood for a long time in one another's arms.

A few hours later, after the sun had set and most of the graduates had gone home, Duarte was alone in his office. He pulled a blue tassel from his pocket and pinned it to a bulletin board next to a row of tassels from previous years. He was exhausted. He felt relief - and some sadness. Graduation days always brought tangled emotions.

He believed he could feel good about what his school had done, and what he had done for his school. It was true that not every goal had been achieved.

But he, and the school, had survived to fight again next year. And perhaps not every success could be seen in the statistics.

He thought about Fred Daniels and felt genuine pride. Daniels had worked hard - not always consistently, and not always to his potential, but in some essential way he had embraced the principle of achieving a better life. He had overcome long odds, and that was something. Maybe it was enough.

Tracy Jan can be reached at