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Student 'superstar' on brink of dropping out

Ohanian Comment: Greg Toppo paints a clear picture of "situations" over which schools have no control. We have a 16-year-old new mom in our family. I remember what a voracious reader and great airplane travel companion she was at age 8. . . and I don't hold the school responsible for her tragic deterioration in middle school and high school. But an alternative high school is offering her a chance. They offer students "packets" that they can work through at their own pace. This means a student is never "missing work" and trying to play "catch up." She can work at her own pace. I taught at an alternative high school with a similar curriculum plan. Instead of being put on a one-sze-fits-all treadmill, students could pick what they would do and when they would do it. The result may not be a Harvard prep education but it sure is better than no education.

by Greg Toppo

BALTIMORE You are smart and talented and pretty, but you are failing ninth grade for the second time.

Your mother works two jobs and is gone most days by 6 a.m., but you still live in grim public housing. And you're exhausted all the time because you are pregnant and expecting a baby girl the first of March. Most days it's easier just to skip school altogether.

You are 15 years old, and your name is Mariya Tarrant. And right now you are this close to dropping out.

This is how it happens.

It's a story about an unusual high school that seems to do everything right, from keeping everyone's shirts tucked in to making a field trip detour past the million-dollar homes of black entrepreneurs.

It's about a mom working hard to extricate her family from one of the city's bleakest neighborhoods.

And it's about a girl whose writing teacher says she has enough talent "to fill stadiums" but who seems intent on thwarting predictions of a promising future.

It shows just how hard it is to keep some kids in school, even when that school is clean, personalized and inviting. Lately, school has been decidedly optional for Mariya.

She has missed 35 of 62 days this semester at Baltimore Talent Development High School. This presents something of a puzzle to the staff, who see the school as a haven for children like Mariya.

Like virtually all of its 400 students, she chose to come here a smaller, quieter, more orderly place than most. One of the city's five "innovation high schools," it operates through a cooperative agreement with Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Principal Jeffrey Robinson has stayed on Mariya's case all semester her home number is on his cellphone speed dial and teachers have knocked on her door several times this fall. These days, he leaves messages almost daily.

"I just think she doesn't want to come," he said one morning last week. "She doesn't want to get up."

He's slightly encouraged lately she came to school two days straight last week and he's holding her spot open, but he has a waiting list and two other students who are also chronically absent. His goal of raising total attendance to 94%, which once seemed easy, is proving anything but; he just cracked 91% this week.

His problem: the freshmen. "They're just pulling us down."

They come to school only 86% of the time as if each one were ditching three Mondays a month.

It's more than just a number. With research showing that freshmen are the most at-risk students, the school works to keep them in class and shore up their skills.

Teachers have been handing out lollipops and free hall passes for perfect attendance, and next week Robinson will start handing out cash. Every child who hasn't missed a day in the past five weeks gets his or her name in a hat. A name is drawn, and one student from each grade wins a $20 bill. He's also giving away a 19-inch TV with a DVD player. "We're thinking of all the things we can do," he says.

But Robinson concedes that, in the big picture, he can't compete.

One recent afternoon in Mariya's small apartment, dueling big-screen TVs compete for attention one with Dora the Explorer entertaining her 3-year-old sister Bre'ona; the other, with sound off and captions on, flashing Dr. Phil for her grandmother, who is deaf.

Grandmother Cecilia, known as Lady, sits alongside Bre'ona and smokes a cigarette from a box of Newport 100s. In another room, a smoke alarm peeps now and then, its battery dying.

Mariya had hoped to do well enough this fall to move up to 10th grade in the second semester, but it's unlikely now. At this rate, she will have to work hard just to make it out of ninth grade.

'If I fail, I fail'

"I want to go to the 10th, but if I fail, I fail," she says, sitting back and stretching, her tiny belly peeking from beneath her shirt. She's tired, she says. "I don't feel like going to school."

To Bob Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins researcher who helps design the school's instruction and support programs, words like these are both bleak and predictable.

"Most kids don't want to drop out," he says. But once they begin missing school, they begin missing material. The more material they miss, the more tests they fail.

"They accumulate more and more failures, and they accommodate by attending less and less," he says. "They get themselves halfway out and wake up one day and feel that there's no chance."

The rare times when she's in school, Mariya shines, says history teacher Jerrell Baker. "She comes in, she finds out what's going on. It doesn't matter what everybody else is doing she very quickly copies down the drill she'll ask me questions up and down to try to catch up very quickly."

A talented poet, she has so impressed writing teacher Olu Butterfly Woods in the past two years that the teacher, a poet herself, calls Mariya a "superstar."

"I told her she has enough talent, she could fill stadiums I love her to death."

A lefty with a knack for poetry and a smooth silver grille covering her front teeth, Mariya dreams of being a rapper. But she hasn't written much lately, her mother says and don't ask to hear her spoken-word rap CD. There's only one copy, and she can't get her ex-boyfriend to part with it.

Seated in a circle of metal desks one afternoon earlier this fall, she cracked up the class with a funny poem about how hot the classroom was. She'd have riffed on all afternoon if Woods hadn't gently silenced her.

The class continues to meet, but Woods says she has rarely seen Mariya. "She would be around enough for you to be really impressed with her and then she would disappear."

A vicious cycle begins

You could actually say this story began 15 years ago, when Trina Elliott gave birth, at age 15, to Mariya.

It was 1991, and Elliott was in 10th grade. She dropped out by year's end and supported herself by styling hair. At 18, she took a job as a waitress at a truck stop off Interstate 95. Two daughters later, she works two jobs: at a nursing home as a certified nursing assistant and, on weekends, turning down beds at a downtown hotel.

But despite her best efforts to be an object lesson in Mariya's life, this March, Elliott will become a grandmother at age 31. And Lady will be a great-grandmother at age 49.

By some estimates, only about four in 10 Baltimore students graduate with a regular diploma and though the school district disputes that figure, graduation rates in big cities across the USA hover at 50%.

What's perhaps most surprising is who drops out. A national survey commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this year found that more than six in 10 dropouts were earning C's or above when they quit school and nearly two-thirds said they would have worked harder if expectations had been higher.

Elliott's expectations seem clear: Mariya will graduate, baby and all. Dropping out "is not an option."

But teachers say they haven't seen Elliott lately either. They waited a few days for her to come in for a conference and pick up Mariya's report card, then mailed it home.

Principal Robinson has come to expect low parental involvement only 30% of parents attend conferences. "That's how it is in a lot of these cases," he says. "The parent will talk tough, but no action."

The ones who do show up, he says, are usually the parents of the kids who are doing fine.

Mariya's homeroom teacher, Veronika Hayes, knows it's hard for parents to get their children off to school. "A lot of my parents, they work really strange hours, so they cannot be there like they would like to be," she says.

By turns charming and forceful in her colorful nurse's aide uniform, Elliott talks about finally getting both her GED and her driver's license at age 30, buying her first car (a Mitsubishi Galant), about planning to use next April's tax refund for a down payment on a house. They can all live there: Mariya, the baby, Mariya's two sisters and Elliott perhaps something with four bedrooms in the suburbs. But for now they get by in a second-story walkup apartment in what even Elliott calls "the projects."

In a perfect world, Robinson could send a social worker to keep Mariya on track his tie to Hopkins allows him to work out a plan by which she could miss classes and keep up with schoolwork.

With a few exceptions, he must also work within the budget the city gives him and he can't afford another social worker. The one he's got already has her hands full helping the one in five kids with learning disabilities. "We don't have the resources we would need to reach every single kid," Hopkins' Balfanz says.

On Halloween, Mariya was planning to dress up as the Bride of Chucky from the horror movie series, but she never got the chance. That evening, she ended up in the emergency room after riding on the back of a dirt bike, racing through city streets. She slammed into the side of a school bus and was treated for minor neck injuries doctors gave her a neck brace, but she wouldn't wear it.

Elliott shakes her head and wonders what's next.

"I was trying to explain to her that that was a wake-up call and she needs to calm down especially since she's expecting."

Days later, when it's quiet, Elliott thinks about the reality of a new baby in the house. Mariya has decided on a name, Aniya, which she made up, and as Elliott speaks, her voice softens.

"I don't want to make the same mistake I did with Mariya and them as far as spoiling them and letting them have whatever they want.

"I want to be firm yet lenient with this grandbaby. I want to give my grandbaby whatever she want, but I want to be firm with it. I want to go to PTA meetings and all of that when the little one goes to school."

Fewer teenaged mothers

The baby wasn't planned, but in the odd logic of a 15-year-old, it wasn't exactly unplanned, either. "We got caught up," Mariya says, smiling. "You might as well say we planned it, because I never used a condom."

Though Mariya can and does point to Elliott as a model of a teen mother who has pulled through, she's far less likely than her mother was to see a classmate with a baby. Teen birth rates in Baltimore, as elsewhere, have dropped steadily, from 112.5 per thousand in 1993 to 66.2 per thousand in 2005, a 41% drop.

Experts credit large-scale education efforts focusing on both sex education and abstinence, as well as easy availability of contraceptives in school and elsewhere. The city maintains a health center at Talent Development, and Robinson has urged Mariya to stay in school to take advantage of it.

Elliott took Mariya twice to get an abortion, but the teenager couldn't go through with it.

"What's done is done," Elliott says. "I have to support her now."

Mariya's life has changed in breathtaking ways from just four years ago, when her sixth-grade teachers wanted to move her up she was ahead of her class, her mom says. "Once upon a time she used to be a very happy, outgoing child," she adds.

Mariya's behavior took a hard left turn three years ago, after Elliott's brother, a father of three, was killed. Then Elliott's cousin died. All at once, the extended family cookouts and evenings at Chuck E. Cheese ended.

One recent afternoon, Mariya arrives home from a doctor's visit: She has gained 4 pounds.

Elliott says Mariya told her that having a baby was just what she needed to get serious about school and push herself but Elliott isn't so sure.

"Why do you need a baby to stay in school?" she asks of no one in particular. "Why does this baby have to motivate you? Wanting to be somebody in the future should motivate you to go to school. I should be a motivation to you look what I've been through."

A shining example

Is it a student's job to care enough to come to school? Or is it a school's job to make a kid care?

Three weeks ago, Baker, the history teacher, loaded a group of freshmen onto a bus and took them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

He asked the bus driver, on the way back, to take a detour through Largo, Md., a suburb in Prince George's County, notable as one of the most prosperous black communities in the USA.

It's a regular stop for Baker, who says his Baltimore students don't believe that regular African-Americans "live like the Cosbys."

As they drove past clean, gated subdivisions with swimming pools and horse pastures, "it was silence on the bus. And I said, 'These are African-Americans, just like you and we can do this.' "

Mariya didn't make it to school that morning.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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