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NCLB Outrages

Between the lines of Pass or fail

Ohanian Comment" This detailed account of a real classroom, recorded by a respectful reporter, shows what the corporate-politico standardistos supporting NCLB miss. The reporter pays readers the respect of letting them see what's happening, letting them draw their own conclusions.

I'm impressed that a reporter took this time to look closely--and that his paper gave him the space to tell what he saw.

And this is only Part 1.

By Pete Sherman

On the third day of school in August of last year, Daquarion Banks, a third-grader at Harvard Park Elementary School in Springfield, wrote a letter to his teacher, Michelle Cano.

It began:

"Dear Mrs. Cano over the summer I went to texes. Frst me and my gandma rietented a van then we went home and got some sllp We got up in the moring then we got on the hiewae It tuke thirteen horer to get ther. We order a holtel the holetel had fish in the flor."

The entry was Daquarion's first inside his spiral "Writer's Notebook," a place where Cano allowed her students to write freely, without the pressure to craft perfect sentences. Putting thoughts to paper and getting used to it are the notebook's primary purposes. Grammar, punctuation and spelling - Cano would get to them in many other ways. First, she had to get the children to think.

As a first-grader, Daquarion, a lanky boy who grins widely and loves sports and complex models, was far behind schedule. He could not read, a skill today's kindergartners, if not preschoolers, are expected to develop. At age 8, by the start of third grade, he still had a lot of catching up to do.

But as the school year neared an end, he was within striking distance of grade-level work.

His grandmother, Theresa, a giving, religious woman, is a big reason why. She and her late husband legally adopted Daquarion three years after he was born, when traces of drugs were discovered in his system. She kept all his doctor and therapy appointments and sheltered him from the world that had ensnared Daquarion’s mother.

Another reason is Harvard Park, 2501 S. 11th St. If any one person there deserves credit for Daquarion’s academic progress - and Harvard Park’s high level of teamwork makes this a difficult choice - it’s Cano, who has been Daquarion’s teacher each year since the first grade.

For the past few years, Daquarion and a handful of his other classmates have “looped” with Cano, one of a few teachers at the school who have moved with their students from grade to grade. It’s not an easy assignment. This past year, Cano, a teacher with 14 years of experience, reluctantly took on the third grade for the first time in her career.

Its demands pushed her to her own limits. Still, she allowed a State Journal-Register reporter and photographer to spend a few hours a week throughout the school year in her classroom, documenting the journey she and her students would take as they prepared for a crucial set of state exams in the spring.


THIRD GRADE WAS an important one for Harvard Park last year. Along with all of Illinois’ public school fifth- and eighth-graders, third-graders took the state’s reading and math exams, known as the Illinois State Achievement Tests. Eleventh-graders take a separate state test.

ISATs are used to determine whether a school is succeeding or failing. Schools that receive federal Title I funds and do not meet ISAT expectations can be penalized by the state and federal governments. Those steps can range from giving students the freedom to attend another school to restructuring the entire building, replacing staff members and allowing the state to take over operations.

Title I funds go to schools with large numbers of low-income students. For Harvard Park, where nine out of every 10 students come from low-income homes, Title I funds are a lifeline. The school will receive about $250,000 from Title I for the 2005-06 term, which will pay for reading and math specialists, literacy coaches, books, technology upgrades, professional development and tutoring.

Harvard Park also has benefited from numerous grants that have targeted student discipline and cutting-edge reforms. But, in other ways, the school struggles with resources. In Cano’s class, the dictionaries include short biographies of American presidents - up to Ronald Reagan. It is not uncommon for Cano to stop, mid-lesson, and repair the binding of what was once an $80 textbook.

“Anything new you see in here, I paid for,” she once told her class.

By the 2004-05 school year, Harvard Park had been on the state’s list of underperforming schools four years in a row - tying with Feitshans-Edison School for the unfortunate distinction of being on the list longer than any other in the Springfield School District. (Feitshans, operated for the past five years by a private company, New York City-based Edison Schools, decided to revert back to district control at the start of the current school year.)

There are different ways to make the warning list, but the usual causes for elementary schools are substandard reading and math scores, not testing enough students and not maintaining a high enough attendance rate. Each of the first three categories is broken down into subgroups by race, economic status and students with learning disabilities. If a certain percentage of one subgroup fails to meet state standards, the whole school goes on the warning list.

During the 2003-04 school year, Harvard Park met its targets in 16 of 17 tracked categories and subgroups. The one that kept the school on the list of sanctioned schools was the reading scores of its black students. At Harvard Park, only 28 percent of black third- and fifth-graders read at or above grade level. State law required Harvard Park to get at least 35 percent to hit the mark - and even that was the “Safe Harbor” number, which is lower than the 40 percent most schools needed to shoot for.

Due to the federal No Child Left Behind law’s requirement that schools to do better and better year after year, the state increased its standard expectation from 40 percent to 47.5 percent for the 2004-05 term. That meant Harvard Park had that much more work to do.


KERRY PURCELL, Harvard Park’s principal, looked to this year’s third- and fifth-graders to help turn the school around. That meant choosing her best teachers to lead those grades.

One of her fifth-grade teachers, Kathy Fox, was nominated, along with five other teachers throughout the district, as Horace Mann Teacher of the Year this spring.

Cano was another obvious choice. Many of Daquarion’s classmates were as far behind as he was when she took them on in the first grade. But their progress, whether or not the ISATs could ever measure them, had earned the students special recognition at Harvard Park.

“They are the role-model class for the building,” Purcell said after the 2004-05 school year ended. “While we didn’t tout or sell that openly, I still think there was an underlying message there that (it is) the classroom that we are proud of.”

For many teachers and principals, the ISATs get in the way of true learning. Teachers find themselves emphasizing only what students need to learn to pass the exams. And they resent that this one test will determine whether their school is labeled “good” or not - and, by extension, whether they did their job.

That was why Cano did not want to teach third grade.

“Automatically, when you tell someone you’re a third-grade teacher, the first thing you think of is ISATs,” Cano said. “I think it’s a huge weight on your shoulder. It’s a huge pressure, even if you weren’t a (No Child Left Behind) school. And then add being an NCLB school and having almost met all areas, but didn’t. And then be a third-grade teacher. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Cano, who has been teaching for about 14 years, the past seven at Harvard Park, is a disciplined, emotionally guarded teacher. She is a huge NASCAR fan who plays Norah Jones CDs in class during momentary downtimes. She claims she has never seen a “Star Wars” film. She admits to dying her hair blond since it started turning gray when she turned 30.

That Purcell hand-picked her for third grade didn’t make things any easier, nor did the presence of two journalists watching over her shoulder.

“Because my boss thinks I can do this - um, it just makes you very nervous because you, of course, second-guess everything you write and every lesson that you do,” said Cano, midway into the year. “That is kind of nerve-wracking. And it’s a little frustrating. The stress some days is difficult.”


SOME DAYS, life can be difficult for nearly everyone at Harvard Park.

Many parents lack health care. It is not uncommon for teachers or others at the school to call around town looking for someone to donate glasses or provide free dental care. The school has a full-time employee who tracks such needs and chases after the school’s chronic truants - or, just as likely, their parents.

More than a third of Harvard Park students are “actively mobile,” meaning they will leave or join the school sometime during the year. The more mobile a school, the more difficult it is for students to make friends and for teachers to keep everyone on schedule.

The school itself can be part of the problem. Built in 1912, Harvard Park lacks air-conditioning, and temperatures can be nearly unbearable for the first and last weeks of the school year.

Cano’s class is in the school’s basement, which she and her fellow teachers call “the Garden Floor.”

“It’s much nicer than ‘the basement,’ don’t you think?” Cano said.

Most of the school is lined with old, musty brown carpet, which, on humid days, brings out the bugs and the smell of damp socks, especially on the Garden Floor. The carpet was supposed to have been replaced by tile, but the project keeps getting pushed back because of other priorities, such as replacing old roofing and windows.

Roughly 375 students attend Harvard Park, which routinely struggles with discipline. On Sept. 14, Purcell and her assistant principal, Chad Rosebloom, wrote a letter to all classrooms, challenging the students to analyze the 1,288 “behavior incidents” from the 2003-04 school year and create a plan for doing better 2004-05 year.

DeAndre Alexander, one of Cano’s students who eventually turned mobile before the year ended, responded to the data by writing a letter to Rosebloom. He tried to suggest that all classrooms need to be good to solve the problem.

But it didn’t quite come out that way.

“If I was principal,” DeAndre wrote, “I would sof the prim like this all the classrooms nide to be good.”

Tia Mac, one of Cano’s most reliable - and humorous - students, whose parents speak Vietnamese and a little English, addressed her solution to Purcell:

“If I could solve the problem I would solve it by teaching them how to get together. I want to teach them to get together because some kids don’t like each other. I am glad you are my principal. Getting together is very important. I would solve it by making them say nice words to each other and watch them play together till they are friends.”

Disruptions at Harvard Park aren’t always the students’ fault. There can be a lot going on at home.

After Harvard Park’s first day of school last year, an article appeared on the front page of The State Journal-Register featuring a photograph of several students in Cano’s class. But the biological father of one of the students had been on the losing end of a heated custody battle and wasn’t supposed to know which school his daughter was attending. In such situations, the custodial parent usually signs a form forbidding the media from interviewing, photographing or filming the student. But the form had been overlooked in this case.

Soon after the article ran, the father showed up at the school, demanding records and access to his daughter. Purcell and her office staff, used to aggressive parents, refused. She and others took turns walking the girl home from school that week.

“The school was awesome,” said the girl’s mother, whose husband recently adopted her daughter. “Kerry called a lot to reassure us that (my daughter) was safe.”

It’s not the first time the school had lent a hand to the family. The previous summer, the mother went through a tough five months due to complications from a gastric bypass procedure. Cano let the girl and her two sisters stay at her house for a few days.

“They go beyond their duties,” the girl’s mother said of Harvard Park’s staff.

Daquarion and the other girl aren’t the only students at the school with troubled backgrounds. It seems every other student has a story of abuse or trauma. Some cases are too sensitive to print.

But despite the trauma and the warning list, Harvard Park’s staff has earned the trust of its parents, who show up in the hundreds for evening school functions. Harvard Park’s community pride comes out in other ways too, such as a defiant attitude toward its status as “failing” school.

Years ago, when Harvard Park first got on the state’s warning list, Donna and Jesse Smith were given the choice of transferring their three daughters, including Eyenesia, one of Cano’s students, to a different school, at the district’s cost. They refused. They had settled on Harvard Park after several disappointing experiences elsewhere. “The choice was never considered,” Donna Smith said.


CANO SKIPPED the usual “let’s just get our feet wet” period that often marks the beginning of the school year.

During the summer, after finding the will to teach third grade, she sorted hundreds of books by subject and reading level. The books would be loaned during the school year to her students, who would take a different set home every week to practice reading.

Shortly after the bell rang on last year’s first day of school, Wednesday, Aug. 25, Cano asked her students to turn in their summer journals and reading logs - assignments she had given to the former second-graders before the previous school year ended.

She read a welcome-back letter she had written to the class, which explained why her last name wasn’t Franklin anymore (Cano had gotten married during the summer). But about half the class wasn’t listening. Some students looked sleepy. Some stared longingly through the windows on the west side of the room. Out there, it was still summer.

One advantage of looping is that it takes less time to reacquaint the students with names and classroom rules. Cano already knew most of her students, and the old-timers could help the new ones learn the ropes.

“The number of truly instructional days we got out of Michelle is higher than any other room,” Purcell said. “There wasn’t that two-week period at the beginning of the year when you were figuring out, ‘This is how Mrs. Cano likes me to sharpen pencils, and this is how Mrs. Cano likes me to go to the bathroom.’”

Of the 17 students who started in Cano’s class, five would leave it before school ended in June. Four others would arrive. But she had looped with a core of 11, some since first grade, some since second and some for first and third grades.

Cano estimated that a little more than a third of her 17 students were reading at grade level at the beginning of the year. While most of those students are black, some of her other black students would prove to be among her brightest. Three students in her class were performing above grade level by the start of school.


BY SEPT. 1, Cano’s 36th birthday, the class was knee-deep in big third-grade concepts: predicting, inferring, monitoring, clarifying and decoding. A student who can read a story and predict what might happen next has a good grasp of what the story is about. So does the student who can take an aspect of the story - something about a character or an event - and compare it to something in his or her own life. Third-graders are expected to use prior knowledge to figure out the meaning of an unknown word or stop reading something that doesn’t make sense and flip through previous pages to fill in the blanks.

Cano’s class is in a nook of the Garden Floor with one wall of windows that looks out onto the school’s west-side playground, off Yale Boulevard.

On Sept. 1, the windows were closed in mid-morning while Cano led the class in an exercise designed to test their reading comprehension.

The temperature was in the mid-80s, warm enough that open windows would have helped. But another class was using the playground and the rusty, squeaky swings, along with screaming children singing “ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” were too distracting.

In new school buildings, classrooms are placed away from noisy areas, such as playgrounds, gymnasiums and cafeterias. Studies estimate a well-designed school, with quiet areas and lots of indirect light, can improve average test scores by several points.

Eventually, the playground emptied out. But its noise was replaced by a ruckus coming from the hallway. Cano’s aide, Vashion Horton, a former assistant basketball coach at Lanphier High School who changed jobs to help young, at-risk students, moved to close the door. Cano cracked open a window and started a fan.

The class, once animated by the distractions, suddenly settled down.

In his writer’s notebook, Daquarion wrote Cano a birthday letter:

“Dear Miss Cano

“I am gelaed that it is yuore birthday I am sorry that I dident rite you a lider. But I now how old you are you are thered three I hop I am rite. Wath cained of braukesfast misder Cano mak.

“Love Daquarion.”

Watching over her students as they worked through a reading exercise, Cano cautioned them to read deliberately, to refrain from rushing past what they did not understand.

“Don’t go on, third grade,” she warned the class.

“There are going to be harder words this year.”


HARVARD PARK held an open house for parents on Sept. 28. Purcell and her staff, anticipating a large crowd, folded out roughly 200 chairs on the gymnasium’s brown-carpeted floor, where everyone would watch a short presentation before visiting classrooms and teachers. The school provided free pizza, drinks and cookies.

By the time the presentation began, parents and their kids had packed the seats. Late-comers joined a standing-room crowd spread along the sides and back of the gym.

Droves of parents flock to such events at Harvard Park. Early in the school year, one event for fathers of Harvard Park students was so heavily attended that some dads had to park their cars illegally. To Purcell’s horror, Springfield police issued about 30 parking tickets to dads that day.

“It was a very good problem to have, at first,” said Purcell, who later persuaded the police department to drop the charges.

During the open house, Steve Collins came with his mother. Steve recently had been named student of the week. But curiously, he had not told his mother about the award. Cano, who had seen this type of reaction to academic success before, particularly among black males, gently got on his case.

Black third-grade boys “want to be men,” Cano said. “They have to show it’s not cool to be smart.”

Cano had taught most of her students in previous grades and knew them well. That’s why Purcell wanted her to follow them to the third grade.

Cano also knew her students’ parents, and, in some cases, their aunts and grandparents. From the first day of school, nearly everyone knew Cano’s rules and high expectations.

Some students, like Steve Collins, would struggle with finding the right attitude. And he, like several others, would leave Cano’s class before the end of the year.


FOR SOME of Cano’s students, the problem was not about attitude. It’s hard to find a student at the school who tried harder than Daquarion Banks. Recent studies indicate that children born with drugs in their systems are not necessarily destined to fail in school, as once was thought. But they still face plenty of obstacles.

“They cry all the time,” his grandmother, Theresa, said. “They cry a lot, if they’re upset for any reason - an ongoing cry. You can’t soothe them.

“Daquarion stopped crying that way around 4. He still gets upset. It’s still easy for him to cry.”

At the same time, Daquarion’s reflexes seemed slow and he struggled to pay attention.

“You’d say, ‘Boo!’ to Dae-Dae (Theresa’s nickname for him) and he wouldn’t hear,” she said.


LESS THAN two months into the school year, three students had left Cano’s class and she had gained two others, one of whom would move again within a few weeks.

On a mild, damp Wednesday in late October, Cano’s students were reading a story together out loud, along with an audio recording she played from her stereo. As they read, she moved past each student.

She was listening for “fluency,” the ability to read with expression.

Fluency also is a leading indicator of reading comprehension, which Cano measured in various ways throughout the year, graphing correct words read per minute and scientifically mapping - with charts and tables - how the children’s fluency lined up with tests measuring other language skills.

“Fluency is kind of the root of everything,” Cano said. “If they can read it (fluently), they’ll understand it, they’ll comprehend, they’ll be able to do more.”

That week, Cano also rearranged the desks, tables and furniture in her classroom, something she did many times throughout the year. Her reason for doing so was always the same.

“If I’m bored with something,” she would say, “they must be bored.”

After the fluency exercise, Cano split her class into three groups. Seven filled out a vocabulary worksheet. Five were sent to work with Horton, one of a handful of rotating aides who routinely pulled out small groups of kids for more intensive help. The rest read with Cano.

As Daquarion took his turn, she asked him to define a “furnace,” a word that appeared in one of the story’s significant passages.

“It’s like a couch,” Daquarion said.

“No,” Cano said. “A furnace keeps you …”

“Warm,” Daquarion answered.

Sometimes, it was difficult to tell whether a student simply didn’t know the answer or wasn’t taking the time to think through the question. In this case, Cano’s knowing prompt indicated the latter. Daquarion had simply confused “furnace” with “furniture.”


THERE ARE many other reasons a child might be struggling in class. Often, it’s up to the teacher to figure them out.

During a lunch break, Cano made about a dozen phone calls to find a vision center that would donate a free pair of glasses to one of her new students. She did the same thing for two others last year, including Steve Collins. In this case, it’s Brandon Martin, who will turn out to be one of her brightest pupils.

“After a few bumps in the road with him and adjusting things for his schedule and what his needs were, he just took off completely for me,” she said later in the year.

There were clues early on about Brandon’s intelligence. He was the only student who came up with “nocturnal” after Cano asked her class for a word describing animals who slept during the day. It’s not a word most third-graders would know.

But Brandon also had problems focusing mentally.

“He couldn’t write,” Cano said. “He’d give me one or two sentences, but they were disconnected. They were just kinda out there. His math skills were poor. He just ... he’d typically play with his shoelaces all the time. He was kind of all over.”

Brandon’s parents were concerned, too. But at the time, they lacked insurance. Cano figured out Brandon’s problem was partly visual.

“No one told me he needed glasses,” she said. “I had to pick up on that on my own. And that’s something you have to do very quickly. The glasses were critical to his success. He has just blossomed into someone who’s going to be really bright, I think.”

At times, Cano said she feels more like a social worker than a teacher, because she finds herself addressing so many of her students’ nonacademic needs. She ended up getting glasses for Brandon’s siblings, too.

“I wish I could do more for more of them,” she said. “You can’t get to every student. It’s impossible.”


BY MID-DECEMBER, Cano and the rest of the staff had discovered some good news. Schoolwide, fluency rates seemed to be climbing. Way back in September, every student took a writing test. The idea was to determine how well they could explain the underlying message of “No, David!” a simple, award-winning children’s book about a boy who constantly gets in trouble, but whose mother loves him in the end.

The students were assessed according to grade-level expectations comparable to ISAT benchmarks. The teachers did their own self-assessments, looking for ways to adjust their methods, checking if what they thought they were teaching was showing up in students’ responses to the “No, David!” exercise.

On the whole, Cano was pleased with her students.

“Our grades are going up,” Cano declared on Dec. 15, the day before winter break. “We’re not going to stop.”

But Cano had some bad news for her students.

“You’re not getting a break in my class,” she told them.

She assigned each student two sets of reading assignments over break. For the first set, each student chose about 10 books to take home to read, picking from the hundreds of books that Cano kept in her room, organized by subject and reading difficulty. They also were assigned specific books challenging their reading skills. Some students were given worksheets to describe information about the chapters of each book they were to read.

Cano felt guilty about the assignments at first.

“Isn’t that terrible?” she said. “I’m a terrible person. Over Christmas break!”

But then she changed her mind.

“But you know what? They have to keep reading. If they stop reading over break - a lot of kids don’t have books at home - that backs me up two whole weeks or more on fluency, on practice. And they have to practice.”

Cano also decided she will probably reward her students if they bring all the books back. And she wanted to make sure she didn’t assign them too much work.

“Homework shouldn’t be more than 30 minutes,” she said. “If they’re spending more than that, that tells me they are struggling with what I sent and I need to do more teaching before I send it home.”

As for her winter break assignments, she stood her ground.

“They need to keep reading,” she insisted. “It’s the only thing that’s gonna keep them learning and keep them motivated and keep them excited.”


DURING THE SCHOOL YEAR, teachers don’t have a lot of time left in the day for long-term planning. Sometimes, they arrange to meet in groups to talk about how they are all progressing.

Cano usually arrived at school about 7 or 7:30 a.m., leaving usually no later than 3:45 p.m., to pick up her daughter, Alyssa, a kindergartner last year at Sandburg Elementary School. After putting her daughter to bed, between 7:30 and 8 p.m., she’d start working again - grading papers, evaluating her assessments, e-mailing colleagues and planning for the following week’s lessons - often until 10 or 11 p.m.

The winter break allowed her time to figure out what she needed to do when classes resumed in January.

“I’m really going to do a lot of focus (those) next couple of weeks on extended response. I’m finding my kids are weak,” Cano said while finishing some paperwork a few days after winter break began.

“Extended response” requires students to answer a question about a story, using detailed information from it to support their answers. It’s a writing tool the whole school uses to teach reading comprehension, inference and analytical skills. Students even wrote extended-response answers to math problems.

“When we get back from break, we’re going to do a lot of thinking about the deep meaning of the story and talking about it. And that’s where my kids struggle. They are very concrete learners. They can’t infer certain things. Inferring is really hard for them - and one of those skills we work the most on, off and on throughout the year.”

Extended-response type questions feed right into what Cano’s students will find on ISATs in the spring.

It’s also the skill they are least likely to have developed, given their backgrounds.

An exercise she gave to her students, borrowed from the previous year’s third-grade ISAT test, asked them to reflect on the meaning of a story about a grandmother who was forced to consider leaving her lifelong home.

Many students in Cano’s class, having lived transient lives, struggled to relate to the grandmother’s predicament.

“Their life experience is completely different,” Cano said of her students.

A typical student from the suburbs or a small town would have little difficulty relating. Cano suspected the state’s test writers shared the same background.

“(My kids) are expected to take the exact same prompt as everybody else - as the kids who have lots of money, as the average kid. That’s where I think we’re at a disadvantage. We have to work twice as hard to make up twice as much ground with these kids.

“If you don’t have a lot of life experiences, or no one has ever talked to you, no one’s ever read to you, or expected that from you, it’s really difficult,” Cano said.



Cano rearranged the room again.

She told her students, who had barely returned from winter break, that there are “only eight or nine” weeks left until the ISATs.

That morning, she focused on antonyms.

They also read another book out loud together, “The Mysterious Giant of Barletta,” by the well-regarded children’s author Tomie DePaola.

“A couple need to pick up the pace a little bit to be fluent,” Cano said. But even those students were showing improvement.

Some students, during the lesson on antonyms, wrote pairs of opposites on a marker board: north and south, sad and happy, good and bad, cloudy and sunny. But some added pairs that weren’t technically opposites: sandals and shoes, mass and volume.

While Cano had the class sit down on her large, square, multi-colored reading rug, she pulled up the Internet on her laptop, which was connected to the TV in her room, and began searching for a Web site that offered ISAT-like sample questions.

For no apparent reason, one of her more disruptive students decided to stand up from her place on the reading square. For the second time that morning, Cano ordered the girl to sit alone for two minutes.

As she disciplined her, she reinforced why the girl needed to pay attention.

“You’re going to college,” Cano said. “It’s not a choice.”

Poverty researchers note the heavy focus on “the present” among multi-generational, low-income families, most of whom struggle to pay the rent, find rides to work and prepare healthy meals. Many such families simply are not hard-wired to make long-term plans. This makes it difficult for low-income children to succeed in school or take it seriously. Education, after all, is all about the future.

Cano struggled to load the Web site, which was accessible through the district’s own home page, and the girl acted up again. Cano had the girl sit right next to her and gave her a “3,” which meant Cano would be calling home later that day.

The girl chose the wrong day to mess with Cano, who had been struggling with what she figured was a cold or flu. Her stomach also was bothering her.

Cano began talking about fluency again.

“I know I say that a lot,” she said. “But it’s important.”

A couple weeks later, Cano announced the likely cause of her flu and stomach problems.

She was pregnant.


LATE IN JANUARY, Cano reviewed her class’s Developmental Reading Assessment scores, or DRA levels, which helped her identify how close her students are to grade-level reading. A score of 38 is third-grade level. A few of her students are at 44. Some are at 38. Others are at 28, which is the score expected of a second-grader toward the end of the school year.

Daquarion started third grade at a 20, but has advanced to a 28.

“I never expected him to get that far,” Cano admitted.

She left school at 4:30 the night before, an hour later than usual. She had to get her second-quarter report cards filled out before she created her lesson plans for the following week. Normally, she would be further ahead at this time of year. Cano began to worry about her pace.

“I might spend the weekend working on math charts,” she said. “The kids are weak in math. I’m aware of that. I think I’m really concerned about how we’re going to do on the ISATs.”

She looked at the DRA sheet of a student she thought was moving too slowly.

“I need to light a fire under your heinie,” she said, presumably to him.


THE IMPROVEMENT in Daquarion’s skills since the start of the year was evident.

Attempting to explain a story about a farm girl who adopts a dragon, Hank, but must return him to dragon land when it’s apparent the arrangement isn’t working, Daquarion wrote, “In the story ‘Raising Dragons’ Hank hade to leve the farm. He had to leave the farm because he was to big and ther were to much other dragons. But at the end the girl was sad to let her frand go aywy.”

Mariah Davis, one of Cano’s brightest and most ambitious students, had written, “In the story ‘Raising Dragons,’ Hank has to leave. The little girl thought with all the other dragons it would be the perfect place to be. I thought that she left him with the other dragons because he wouldn’t be able to have lots of other friends. The dragon felt gad about leaving the farm. I think he felt sad about leaving the farm because he probley love spending time with the little girl. This is why he had to leave. And felt like.”

In contrast, another student, with much more work to do, had written, “He have’s to leave the farm because hank is groing up to a big dragon. Hank felt said for leaving the farm from ham.”

As February neared, Cano began to notify her parents about an upcoming ISAT test prep night for elementary students and parents at Southeast High School. She gave the students several notices to take home and mentioned the event as often as she could.

On the night of the training session, she came wearing her Harvard Park sweatshirt as a show of support for her students and as a resource for parents with questions.

Only Theresa Banks, her fiance, Myrel Simmons, and Daquarion came.

“I sent home so many reminders, it wasn’t even funny,” Cano said. “There are a few I thought should’ve showed.”

The district held multiple ISAT test prep nights, each one hosting about a half-dozen schools. Harvard Park joined Butler, Laketown, Sandburg, Black Hawk and Owen Marsh elementary schools.

Nearly 40 families came, with the most, 17, from Butler Elementary School. The fewest number of families, three, came from Harvard Park, which had held its own, shorter ISAT test prep earlier in the month during a lunch period.

Principals, teachers and administrators led parents and students through lessons in study tips and games like ISAT Bingo. Dinner was provided and door prizes were awarded.

Surveying the crowded commons area at Southeast High School, where the families gathered at first, Bob Mitchell, Black Hawk’s principal, said the night was important.

“It’s one of the best things we do,” Mitchell said.


ABOUT A WEEK before the ISAT test prep night at Southeast High School, Daquarion sat at a table in Simmons’ kitchen, matching science words and definitions.

“Size and color are examples of …”

“Luster,” Daquarion wrote, picking from a list of several terms.

Next, he tried “liquid.” Finally, after Simmons’ prompting, he arrived at the correct answer - “properties.”

It was 7 p.m. and, after an hour and a half of work on other subjects, Daquarion had just finished question three of seven on this science exercise. Before beginning it, he had read a short passage that defined all the words on his list.

Theresa’s late husband, Clarence, died in 1999, when Daquarion was four. Clarence had just taught him how to golf. A few years later, Theresa met Simmons at a political fund-raiser, and they started dating.

Simmons, a state retiree with three grown children, took an interest in Daquarion and his golfing. He built a putting range for Daquarion in his basement. One night there last winter, Daquarion demonstrated his putting skills by repeatedly sinking golf balls from 20 feet.

Simmons also took on a larger role as Daquarion’s mentor, guiding - sometimes pushing - him through his homework night after night.

Nearly every day after school, Daquarion and his little brother, Carl, walked to their home near Bunn Golf Course, a few blocks from Harvard Park. The three would then leave and spend most nights at Simmons’ house, in a quiet subdivision behind Montvale Plaza on the west side of town.

“Myrel helps,” Theresa said, regarding Daquarion and his schoolwork. “He’s no-nonsense.” At that moment, Simmons, who has a master’s in public administration, was digging out his old science textbooks for Daquarion.

“I don’t know anything about solutions and matter,” Theresa said. “I’m scared when (he will) get into algebra. I’m 52, and I don’t remember half that stuff.”

On his own terms and at his own pace, Daquarion can be methodical. As he worked on his science homework, a model of a Ferrari F1 race car sat nearly complete in Simmons’ living room. The car came in 719 pieces and with a thick instruction manual. Theresa had purchased it for Daquarion at Toys R Us and said a customer at the check-out line joked that Daquarion should be playing basketball instead of being interested in models. Daquarion, she said, turned to the man and assured him that, not only could he play basketball, but that the Ferrari would be a snap.

If Daquarion was to do well on the upcoming ISATs, he would need the same focus he used to assemble his race car.

Cano told Theresa and Simmons as much at the Southeast ISAT event in early February. He must not rush. He must search through the text for answers after reading the questions. He must re-read the questions.

“He can go back and look at the story,” Cano said to them. “That is crucial. If he doesn’t, he’s gone.”

Theresa, who thought the sample third-grade questions district officials gave to parents that night looked too hard, asked Cano what were Daquarion’s chances of doing well.

“If he slows down and concentrates, stranger things have happened,” Cano replied.

Part two will appear in Monday’s State Journal-Register.

— Pete Sherman
State Journal-Register


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