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Remarkable Student Is Used to Send a Standardisto Message

Her own F was bad enough, a failing mark in driver's education. Such a blemish had never marred one of her report cards.

Karis Chandler cried over it, convinced it made the A's and B's in other courses look ugly. Then she stashed the card in her purse, confident she would shake off her first failure.

She was less sure about her school, Jones High, which got its own F from the state last summer. The second in two years, the failing grade seemed to tar everything and everyone at the Orlando school.

That pained Karis -- junior-class president, accomplished singer and good student -- but she knew some of that stigma was deserved. Some students didn't care about school. Many scored badly on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, used to grade public schools.

Still, Karis didn't want to leave. Jones High was her school, where she fit in, felt at home. It was a family thing. Her mom, her aunt and her sister had all gone to Jones. F or not, Karis wants a Jones diploma.

"I really love that school," she said. "It has a great spirit."

So when the school year started in August, Karis was back at Jones. Feeling her way through student government. Trying to manage precalculus and her first Advanced Placement classes. Taking on a bigger role in the school choir.

Her school made plans, too. Getting rid of that F -- which had chased nearly 150 students to other schools -- was a top priority. Jones got a new principal, new teachers and new rules.

"We just need that," Karis said. "We really need that."

Jones High has long history

On a recent afternoon, Karis sat by a keyboard in a small practice room, picking out notes from Handel's The Messiah, the Baroque classic the choir performs every year. The performance is a Jones tradition, part of the school's 100-year history.

Karis is to sing a solo in the December concert. She had eaten her chicken nuggets on the walk over, so she could spend most of her lunch period rehearsing. She has never studied piano, so it was slow going.

"I mess up quite often," she said. But she kept going.

Trying harder is the watchword these days at Jones.

The school sits off Gore Street in the shadow of the East-West Expressway. It has been there since 1952, although Jones High, in some form, has existed since 1895. After two years in portable classrooms, students and staff moved into a new -- but unfinished -- campus in August.

For much of its early history, when segregation ruled, Jones was the high school for Orlando's black students. It remains a source of pride for the black community, and local families count many Jones Tigers among their ranks.

Despite a 30-year-old integration plan, Jones in 2003 still is a nearly all-black school.

With fewer than 1,200 students, it also is the smallest regular high school in Orange County and the poorest. When the student government collects donations for Thanksgiving baskets, it doesn't look far for needy families. At Jones, teens more likely have bus passes than car keys tucked in their backpacks.

Last school year, 92 percent of Jones students tested could not read at grade level. Just 45 of about 230 10th-graders passed both the FCAT exams needed to graduate, among them Karis Chandler.

'No Excuses, Just Results!'

None of that changes Principal Lorenzo Phillips' mission. Despite their hardships or poor preparation in earlier grades, Jones students must master what Florida wants all students to learn, Phillips insists.

The school's motto this year is "No Excuses, Just Results!" Phillips, appointed in June, cracked down on students who showed up late, skipped classes or flouted the dress code.

Between classes, the former Army platoon leader stands in the center of campus, greeting students and bellowing, "You're late!" if any walk by after the second bell rings.

Mostly, though, the new principal focuses on academics.

He ushered about half the school's freshmen and sophomores -- about 350 students -- into intensive-reading classes designed to boost basic skills.

He required all students who play sports or do extracurricular activities to attend FCAT tutoring every day. All teachers must work reading and FCAT practice into their lessons.

"We've just got to teach them," Phillips said. "Kids know that I want them to learn."

But there is little time to make an impact. FCAT testing resumes in February.

Once Jones earned its second F in June, students had the option of switching schools, as state law allows. In the end, 148 left, departures that stung the Jones community.

Karis never thought about leaving. But she kept trying to figure out why that F had happened, how students who had heard "FCAT this, FCAT that" all year had failed the exams.

She blamed their upbringing, figuring they had no one at home to encourage them, to focus them on school. She has her mom, her older sister and the man she calls "Dad."

7 people under 1 roof

But she hardly has it easy.

Karis lives with her mother, three sisters and her older sister's two little girls. It's seven people and, she jokes, "a lot of estrogen" in the rented three-bedroom home. She doesn't know or see her biological father. Her "dad" is a family friend who lives in Eatonville.

Her family moved into the house -- one of the nicer places the family has lived -- this summer. It is neat but sparsely furnished. Karis is grateful for her own room. That's where she escapes to do her homework, closing the door to keep out the four younger kids, ages 2 to 9.

On the walls of her small room, Karis has hung a poster from the movie The Little Mermaid -- her favorite film -- snapshots of friends and honor-roll certificates from Princeton Elementary School, Howard Middle School and Jones.

Karis always has done well in school, even when her family moved so often that she attended six different elementary schools. She can still tick off all six names -- including the one she attended for a single day.

By the end of her first and only day at Grand Avenue Elementary School, a fight had sent her family packing from the relative's home where they had just moved. By nightfall, the Chandlers were in a homeless shelter, in a different school zone.

Minnie Chandler, Karis' mother, regrets those memories. She wants her girls to have a stable home. But with little money back then, the family moved frequently, often from one run-down place to another.

FAMU in her plans

None of it shattered Karis' ability to do well in school.

"If I had to use a word to describe that kid, it would be determination," her mother said.

If all goes as planned, in May 2005, Karis will be the first in her family to graduate from high school. She would like to go to Florida A&M University, probably to study pharmacology. She wants a decent job, one in which money isn't a worry.

Right now, Karis just wants to survive precalculus. The class turned out to be "Oh,my God!" hard, leading to a C on her first report card.

But mostly things are going well. She has been selected for the National Honor Society. She really likes her Advanced Placement language-arts and composition class.

The class is taught by Mary Louise Wells, who loves students such as Karis. They're bright and energetic, no different from peers at more-affluent high schools. Except affluent teens don't worry about the electricity getting shut off at home.

Wells, a former Orange County teacher of the year, also was hurt by the second F. But now, in an odd way, she wonders whether it will help.

It has meant lots of extra assistance -- from the school district, from Tallahassee and from the community -- new teachers and smaller class sizes. The 24 students in Karis' class are the most Wells has this year. Last year, her biggest class had 39.

And the faculty meeting this year, to Wells' joy, focused not on administration but on what's happening in classrooms.

"It was all about the teaching," she said.

Wells feels hopeful and a little helpless. She teaches only 11th- and 12th-graders. Although some of her students must still pass the FCAT, only ninth- and 10th-graders' scores count toward a school's grade.

'The door is there'

Karis can't help her school's grade, either. She passed FCAT already, scoring at grade level in reading and better in math. All she can do now is encourage other students, which can be harder than precalculus.

Being a leader, she has learned, means dealing with people who don't always want to follow.

When 15 girls in alto section practiced for their first concert, Karis -- one of two students in charge -- got angry when the whispering started.

"The concert is, like, in no time," Karis said. "I'm not going to deal with talking. I'm done. The door is there."

She joined the choir as a ninth-grader but was so scared and so quiet that it was months before director Darlean Coleman realized how well she could sing.

"You barely knew Karis was in the room," Coleman said.

By 10th grade, Karis had a duet in The Messiah and was tapped to sing a solo in the regional choral festival. Karis practiced hard but backed out of the solo. Singing in front of crowds gives her joy but also fits of nerves.

This year, she vows to sing alone. Her Messiah solo is memorized already, though Karis still clings to the music during rehearsal, waiting for the confidence to put it down.

In choir, she found a home that connected her tightly to Jones traditions. The group has been winning awards for years.

Last year, the choir earned a "superior" rating at the district and then the state choral festival. So did the six-girl ensemble in which Karis sang. On the score sheet, the judges wrote "Beautiful, ladies!," "Very impressive" and "Sensational."

At a recent rehearsal, Karis sat straight, her eyes on Coleman, who led the 40 members through a section of Messiah. Karis sang with confidence, holding the music book but barely glancing at it.

"Tenors, you were off there," Coleman said.

They started again.

"That's it. Sit up, guys," she said as the students continued. "You've got to breathe. You've got to pull that belly in."

For Coleman, a Jones graduate, it's a wonderful thing to take students, untrained when they arrive, through such a difficult piece of music.

But even among the lovely voices, surrounded by photos and plaques that testify to past successes, there was a reminder of what Jones High faces.

"Young people, please take the FCAT seriously," Coleman said after the singing. "The principal talked to us yesterday. The state of Florida doesn't care how well you sing. We've got to pull those scores up."

Choir members always end rehearsal by linking hands and singing their motto. Karis, wearing her orange Jones High T-shirt, stood tall.

They sounded as though they could shout away the F: "Think superior! Be superior! Act superior! Sing superior plus!"

— Leslie Postal
'F' is for fortitude
Orlando Sentinel


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