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NCLB Outrages

A student prepares for state's most important standardized test

Ohanian Comment: I found this account, studiously presented without "opinion", to be enormously affecting. I swear, one could--and should--build a teacher preparation course on what is revealed here.

The hopes and dreams and foibles of education-as-we-know-it are revealed here.


By MELISSA TRUJILLO

Natashia Ector starts the last class of the day with her head on her desk.

After two bus rides, a train ride, five classes and a lunch period spent doing homework, the 17-year-old high school sophomore quickly takes her math teacher up on the offer of two minutes of quiet.

But the calm doesn't last, the classroom perks back up and the work begins anew.

There is no time to waste at the Boston Community Leadership Academy, where the teachers and 10th-graders have mere months to prepare for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. The exam will determine which sophomores can graduate and which schools are meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that all children be proficient in math and English by 2014.

Everything, it seems, in a typical day for Natashia is colored by the all-important exam.

"Nobody knows what we're going through unless they've come to school," she says.

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Sunlight barely begins to break through the darkness when Natashia leaves the apartment she shares with her grandmother, mother and 15-year-old brother in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood on a recent Monday morning.

She walks down the street to wait for a city bus, a silver chain dangling from her jeans and a small stud piercing her face above her lip.

To get to the school in Brighton, she takes a bus, then a train in the opposite direction to downtown Boston. From there, she rides another bus that drops her off across the street from her high school.

Natashia says she could attend another school closer to home, but likes being in a different part of town. She also likes the Academy's 3:10 p.m. dismissal time each day, longer than other city high schools, because she thinks teens shouldn't have all afternoon to themselves.

Natashia gets to school about 15 minutes early. She bypasses the students waiting for breakfast, playing basketball or goofing off in the hallways. Instead, she heads to Room 303 and spreads out her assignment for English class - picking a character from Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible," choosing a famous actor or actress to fill the role and describing what characteristics the two share.

Until the morning bell, Natashia focuses on the fictional slave Tituba from "The Crucible" and the actress she chose to play her, Oprah Winfrey; the rest of the classroom is a sea of empty chairs on desktops.

A common criticism of the country's recent education reform is that the increase in standardized tests allows very little time for the arts, music and other creative outlets.

But Natashia's first class is a double dose of theater.

If her early morning routine made her feel sluggish, the teenager doesn't show it during a game of mirror images. She and a classmate take turns copying each other's movements, trying not to giggle while they wave their arms, jump in the air and slide across the stage.

After leaving the auditorium, Natashia heads to biology, then a period of advising, where the class and teachers talk about academics or social issues.

Each class is separated by a two-minute break, leaving lunch as the only time students can truly relax during the day. But Natashia grabs a steak-and-cheese sandwich, some pickles and a handful of orange slices and heads to the library.

She works to complete a vocabulary worksheet - makeup homework, it turns out, to improve a low grade.

Though she's serious during class, Natashia has struggled to complete her homework, which she says she does only at school.

Her teachers describe her that day as "a tough cookie" and "a leader," but only "focused when she wants to be."

Natashia struggles to explain why she doesn't do her work, which she knows can help her prepare for the MCAS. After school, an after-school program and hip-hop dance classes, she says she just wants to relax at home.

"I do have people to push me, but it's my choice to do it or not," she says.

Natashia also struggles with being older than most of her classmates, a consequence of being held back in fifth grade after moving to Boston from Utah. She has considered transferring to a school that groups students by age, not grade.

After lunch, Natashia has an English class and two periods of geometry - both subjects she'll be tested on in the spring.

Natashia's English teachers, Beth Noell and Frank Pantano, barely mention the exam directly, but their emphasis this class is on reading comprehension, a major skill needed to pass.

For the period, the students talk about the characters in "The Crucible," putting them in different categories, speculating on their motives and discussing their fatal flaws.

Pantano says the exercise teaches students not just about the play, but also about how to think about what they have read.

"For every word that you give me, I'm going to ask you why," Pantano says as students shout out character descriptions.

The four-act play should take the class about four weeks to finish. Maybe that's a little long, Pantano says, but "I want them to go in depth and understand."

In geometry, the students work on a project asking them to solve a problem and explain how they did it through a paper, poster and presentation. One goal is to get the students to comfortably use math terminology - a common component of the MCAS.

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Natashia's instruction in English and math is comprehensive. Her teachers are eager to give additional instruction or encouragement. In a perfect world, that would be enough for all sophomores to pass the MCAS.

But the outside world creeps in at the Academy, creating more obstacles.

It starts in the morning, when Natashia's class is interrupted by the step team's audition for a Martin Luther King Day program. The theater students are moved to the back of auditorium, forced to rehearse their scenes amid the clapping and stomping.

There are the students' lives before outside school, which sometimes are filled with problems at home, with friends or on the streets. During lunch, Natashia talks with friends about recent shootings. Other friends have been killed, she says later.

During their adviser period, the teachers try to address those issues. They ask Natashia and a classmate to prepare real-life scenarios for the class to act out and discuss. They choose one scene where a boyfriend pressures a girlfriend to have sex, another where a girl steals an iPod.

Then there are the students' academic histories. Though BCLA advertises a rigorous academic program - and high MCAS passing rates - many students come to high school testing well below grade level. Out of the 21 students in Natashia's English class, Pantano says about half have special needs, such as learning or physical disabilities or emotional problems.

But Natashia says she doesn't worry about passing the MCAS or eventually graduating from high school. She hopes to become a model or fashion designer.

"I'm just a girl trying to make a living out here," she says when school ends, the classroom filled with students getting extra help. "I'm just trying to make it to the next level like everyone else is."

— Melissa Trurjillo

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