Monday, November 12, 2007

DC Schools Via a Case Study--Not the Intended Lesson.

The problems with case studies in reporting is that they demonstrate the problems one student faces as some sort of shorthand for larger problems. While larger problems are mentioned, what you reall get is a story about a young person, and in the case study of Jonathan Lewis, a kid who went to Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, DC, the case study, in two parts, is not about DC schools failing, but about one student failing.

The Post's Lonnae O'Neal Parker's profile of young Mr. Lewis is more a case study of one young man's apathy than about the notoriously inept DC school system. The two part study began on Sunday, with a lengthy peice on Mr. Lewis. The series concluded today, with what was all but a foregone conclusion of Sunday's article. Jonathan Lewis was a B student up through about the 10th grade, by his own admission. But in his junior and two senior years, he all but quit.
"I started having problems about 11th grade, started, like, skipping class and stuff," Jonathan says. "I didn't want to go to class, didn't want to write, didn't want to do work."

"He got in with the wrong crowd," his mother chimes in.

That's part of it, Jonathan says, "being influenced by them sometimes, wanting to do what they did, walk the halls and stuff."

Maybe if more teachers had been like Ms. Cruz-Gonzalez, things could have been different, he ventures. "She takes time to, like, help you understand. Like if she went over something, she'd go over it again till you get it." Not like some teachers, he says, who just pass out work sheets. "You ask a question, they, like, brush you off. They just catch attitudes, like you wasn't paying attention or something." It makes you say, "Forget it. I don't even want to know."

It makes you "feel like nothing."

As to why he didn't graduate last year: "I just got lazy."
While Jonathan doesn't live with his father, his father is nearby and involved in the boy's life. His mother is on his case and clearly involved in his education and has regular conversations with his teachers and the school principal.

But throughout the story, there is but one inescapable conclusion about Jonathan Lewis I keep coming to--he just doesn't care. A quote by his principal, L. Nelson Burton, himself a Coolidge graduate who nearly dropped out, says it all:
"I don't think you're going to meet a student, or anyone, for that matter, who doesn't want to graduate from high school. They all want to. Everyone wants a diploma, but not everyone wants to do the work required for it."
Burton, who is only 34, is the seventh principal at Coolidge in nine years. He has made some changes, but must, like all DC school administrators, fight with a number of issues, from fights and poor teachers to apathetic students to systemic failures--the scheduling and transctripts matter described in Part 2 is simply frightening in the age of modern computers.

Still, I find it hard to feel sorry for Mr. Lewis, if that is what I am supposed to feel. A classmate of his says this:
You have to be on top of your own stuff. . . . You have to look out for yourself, because there's really nothing you can do, for real. . . . It's not like someone tells you that. You have to figure it out yourself. Ibijoke Akinbowale, 17, 12th grade
That is it in a nutshell. A young man at Lewis' age should have learned this lesson, if not for himself, at least for the effort his mother and father have gone through to see him complete high school. While Jonathan finally did graduate after summer school following his fifth year in high school, it is very hard to feel sorry for this young man. His teachers all but bent over backward to help him. His mother was apparently a fixture on the phone and in person at the school. His father incentivized him in legitimate ways. Yet he took advantage of none of these offers of help and assistance.

While some of the fiasco's described in the stories are systemic and are being addressed by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, it is very hard to see how and why Jonathan should be viewed as a symbolic case of the poor condition of DC schools. In his story, he was not screwed by the system. The powers that be did not make mistakes that brought him to the brink of dropping out. The school system did not cause him to fail his senior year--twice. Calvin Coolidge, while it has a share of fights and problems, is not the worst school in the district. To be sure, there are real problems in the DC school system and it may be that those problems contribute to a poor education experience for many, if not most students. I have no doubt that Chancellor Michelle Rhee is working on the systemic problems, poor teachers, lack of proper facilities, lack of proper administrative tools and programs, textbooks and the like.

In the end, what Jonathan Lewis' long story did for me was to remind me how young men and women can be excused for their own behavior by society. That is exactly what this Post writer did, probably without even realizing it. But even if the DC school system was as good as say Montgomery County Maryland or Fairfax County Virginia, it is hard to see what could have been done to prevent Jonathan Lewis from screwing himself up and over. In teh end, the DC schools did not fail (though they may have tried), Jonathan Lewis did and in the end, that is all that matters.


Joanne Jacobs said...

I agree completely.

Anonymous said...

Yes, of course Jonathan had responsibility. But let's explore the key elements of HS reform; rigor, relevance, and relationships. Were Jonathan's courses rigorous, demanding excellence? I do not think any course is rigorous when you can skip half a semester and still pass.

Was the coursework and high school experience relevant? No, seemed like (remember, this is last school year, things are better now) school climate was chaotic, there was not much attention to inspiring Jonathan through showing the connection between education, jobs, and future well being. It seemed the like the coursework was not innovative, not establishing connections to the real world.

Were there several significant relationships that Jonathan had with caring adults in the school . . . adults that would follow up immediately if Jonathan skipped classes, adults that would help fix course schedules, adults that would connect Jonathan with tutoring and appropriate services? Does not seem so.

High schools that are dramatically improving student success are doing these kinds of things . . . DCPS schools should too.

Matt Johnston said...

Assuming the rigor, relevance and relationships are important, explain to me why Jonathan Lewis was a B student for two years in high school, and suddenly went down hill. The school didn't suddenly get more chaotic between his sophomore and junior year. What the argument Anonymous and the Post is saying above is that the system screwed Jonathan Lewis, but his example is not very good at making that case.

I am not excusing the DCPS for their failings. Schools constantly argue that parental involvement in education is important and Jonathan's mother was very involved and to a lesser extent his father. Yes, teachers have certain duties, but Jonathan was offered multiple opportunities for additional help and declined to take advantage.

Finally, Jonathan Lewis, by his own admission, got lazy and stopped caring. When school officials are confronted with that attitude in a 16 year old boy, how much of the student's failing should be attributed to the school and how much to the student.

That may seem an inconsisten position with some of my prior statements, but in reality, there is only so much we can expect of a school when the student fails. Dozens of Jonathan's classmates made enough of an effort to get to class, study and do their work. If one of those students had been profiled and the DCPS screwed them over, you would have a much more powerful story.