The Toughest Assignment
The reporter profiles a teacher who is part of a cadre of skilled educators engaged in a No Child Left Behind experiment to prove that strong teaching can transform students' academic lives in even the hardest cases. Any skilled teacher will fine plenty to wince about, but the first question must be: Why are there 34 children in this classroom?
Part 1: They needed a lifeline and found a teacher
By Stephanie Banchero
September 1, 2007
At a school where every other reform had failed, Montie Apostolos was the last, best chance for students to succeed.
She had been brought in because she produced impressive gains in reading test scores at her last school. She was tough. Her lessons were rooted in the best research, and she was trained for inner-city schools.
She's an uncompromising, charismatic 56-year-old grandmother with an irresistible life story: She had fought off water cannons, attack dogs and white supremacists to get her own education in the segregated South. Nothing her students faced was going to surprise her.
But on a fall morning last year, at Sherman School of Excellence on Chicago's South Side, Apostolos' steely demeanor met its match.
A baby-faced 8th-grade boy stood at a lectern analyzing a poem. In a squeaky voice, he talked about feeling alone and neglected, like the narrator. And, matter-of-factly, he ticked off events that brought him there.
He had been taken away from his crack-addicted mother. His brother had been shot in the heart and head during a gang fight. His young cousin had died of neglect.
Apostolos suddenly realized what she had to overcome to reach her students. And in a rare unguarded moment, she hurried from the classroom, her eyes brimming with tears.
Apostolos and her class were at the leading edge of a historic experiment at the heart of the No Child Left Behind reforms. Sherman was the first school in IllinoisĂ˘€”one a few dozen nationwideĂ˘€”in which the staff was completely overhauled according to federal law.
The perennially underperforming school had been closed in June 2006 after it failed to meet federal testing standards six years in a row. It reopened three months later under the management of Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that trains teachers. The academy ran five Chicago schools last year, and is set to open two more Tuesday.
The new management replaced the teachers with hand-picked, skilled educators such as Apostolos.
The stakes were high. Lawmakers debating the renewal of No Child Left Behind were looking for evidence that strong teaching could rescue schools impervious to other reforms.
As a new school year gets under way, the Tribune is examining the first year of Sherman's turnaround, as seen through the eyes of the teacher and studentsin Room 301.
Evidence from that year suggests that a strong and dedicated teacher, backed by a top-notch principal and high-quality professional development, did make a difference.
But the first year also showed that teaching in a low-income, inner-city school can grind down even the most energetic professional.
Apostolos struggled with the uneven academic progress of 34 studentsĂ˘€”children such as Kyesha Caver, a smart 13-year-old, far ahead of her classmates; Sarah Stevens, a C student who desperately wanted A's; and DJ, who could not focus because of a troubling secret he kept locked inside until he was arrested at the end of the school year. (The Tribune is not using his full name because it does not publish the names of juveniles charged with crimes.)
Apostolos' time to meet their needs was short. Adding to the pressure, she took on the roles of mother, social worker and counselor. By the end of the school year, she had worn down and she wondered whether she belonged in the classroom.
Five weeks into the school year, Apostolos stood in front of her class shaking her head in disgust.
"I'm not going to tell you again," she said to a boy who had draped his body over his desk. "Get your head off the desk and pay attention."
He kept his head buried between his folded arms, eyes squeezed shut.
"Last chance," Apostolos warned. "Get up and go splash some water on your face to help wake you up, or I am going to give you an F for the day."
The boy dragged himself from the seat and sauntered to the door, drawing laughs with his exaggerated slowness.
As the year got under way, Apostolos was taken aback by the lack of interest she saw in many of her students. One boy was removed from the classroom because Apostolos suspected he was high on marijuana. A girl kept falling asleep; she had been staying up late doing laundry for the family.
A boy disappeared for weeks when he ran away from home. A girl missed two weeks because she was afraid she would get beaten up on the way to school.
Apostolos tried to counsel them, discipline them or just ignore their insolence. But she was not about to let them knock her off course.
"You are going to learn," she told the class as she turned to write on the board, "whether you want to or not."
134 SCHOOL DAYS LEFT
On an unseasonably warm morning the day before Halloween, Apostolos sat in the hallway just outside her closed classroom door. Eight students pulled their chairs into a semicircle around her.
Apostolos gripped a miniature whiteboard in one hand and, with a black marker wrote, "The teacher implied, suggested, we should go to the lab, but did not insist."
"What does 'implied' mean?" she asked, her voice hushed so as not to disturb the 25 students reading on the other side of the door.
The teenagers stared straight ahead. One girl fiddled with her braids. A boy slumped in his seat and jammed his hands into his low-riding jeans.
Finally, DJ, a 15-year-old who had twice been held back, raised his hand with such vigor it pulled him out of his seat.
"I know ma'am," he said. "It means to make somebody do something."
"No, honey," Apostolos said. "Are there words around the word that give you an idea of what 'implied' means?"
"Uh, no, ma'am," DJ said after a moment, "I don't see no words that help me."
The other students appeared equally confused.
Apostolos was trying to teach these 8th graders how to figure out the meaning of a word by its contextĂ˘€”a reading skill they should have mastered in 4th grade.
From the beginning of the year, she had watched even the smartest students stumble over words such as "chimney," "grocery" and "dwellings." Some struggled to get through the "Pocketful of Goobers" books, a series of biographies geared toward 10-year-olds.
The previous year, two-thirds of Sherman's 7th graders, including many of Apostolos' students, failed the state reading exam. The older they got, the further some fell behind, widening the gap in academic skills.
Apostolos knew that reading is the avenue to all other learning. She was following research that shows small-group, focused lessons are the best way to propel the slowest readers forward.
But as she tried to nudge this group toward an answer, they heard a chair screech across the floor. Inside the classroom a boy shouted, "I'm gonna steal on you."
Apostolos bolted out of her chair and whipped open the classroom door. Two boys stood chest-to-chest in the center of the room. The other students had put their books aside, sidetracked by the possibility of a fight.
Apostolos picked her way through the room, which was cramped with too many desks and teenagers too big for them. She tried to sort out the disagreement, but by the time she got the kids settled down, she had lost her teaching moment. She pulled her small group inside and told the students to read quietly at their desks.
No matter how far behind her kids started out, Apostolos knew that No Child Left Behind expected her to get them to an 8th-grade level by the time state tests rolled around in March.
She had 77 school days left until those exams, 134 until her students had to be ready for high school.
121 SCHOOL DAYS LEFT
It was 7:45 a.m. and Sherman Elementary was hardly stirring. Inside Room 301, a sleepy-eyed Sarah Stevens stood at the whiteboard, laboring through a two-step math equation.
Sarah's cherubic face showed a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. She gripped a black marker and wrote "14,000 X 100." Then, jotting down a series of inexplicable calculationsĂ˘€”steps she said a former teacher had taught herĂ˘€”she arrived at the answer: "1,440,00."
"Sarah," Apostolos said, her booming voice jolting the unsure teenager. "What are you doing, girl? We talked yesterday about place values and where to put the commas. Does the number you wrote even make sense?"
Sarah shrugged her shoulders and fiddled with the cap on the marker.
"I don't know," she said. "Sorry."
Sarah lacked confidence. She also lacked the basic math skills necessary to do 8th grade algebra.
She had spent most of her life in schools that were so abysmal and so violent, she skipped classes out of boredom and fear. When she was a 7th grader, she missed 26 days at Sherman. All her life, she had been a C student, with a few Bs and Ds sprinkled in. Nobody in her family had graduated from college.
But with Apostolos, Sarah saw a chance to succeed in school, and she was desperate to hold onto that opportunity.
Every morning, Sarah arrived at Sherman 1 1/2 hours before the school day started. A janitor let her in and she headed up to Apostolos' room. There she sat, surrounded by posters that touted reading strategies and motivational sayings, waiting for her favorite teacher to arrive.
Sarah was among a dozen students who came for early-morning tutoring. But unlike them, she never missed a day. And she was the one who turned on the classroom lights every morning.
A good teacher knows how her students learn. Apostolos recognized within the first few weeks of school that Sarah got flustered when she got answers wrong. So Apostolos modulated her teaching, figuring out when to push Sarah and when to pull back.
That morning, it was time to push.
Sarah stood at the board and threw her teacher a plaintive look.
"Don't sit there waiting for me to give you the answer," Apostolos said. "You need to think. You need to trust yourself. You need to apply what you have learned."
Apostolos walked over to the whiteboard and stood next to Sarah as if her physical presence might coax the teenager into the right answer.
"OK, let's roll," she said.
After eight minutes working with Apostolos, and a whiteboard filled with calculations, Sarah solved the problem.
"That's beautiful, honey," a beaming Apostolos said, offering her trademark old-school fist pump. "You've mastered it."
The teenagers in Room 301 were grim-faced on a cold, fall afternoon.
Apostolos was handing out the second-quarter progress reports, and half the students were getting F's in science because they had failed to complete a project on photographing and documenting the changing life pattern of an organism.
They lobbed a steady stream of excuses.
"I couldn't afford a disposable camera."
"I don't have a computer."
"My mom won't let me off the block to go to the library to research."
Apostolos snapped her arm up and cranked her hand at a 90-degree angle, palm forward, a stop sign to the noiseĂ˘€”one of a large repertoire of gestures, quirky sayings and vocal rhythms she uses, like a conductor with a baton.
"Don't blame Ms. Apostolos for your failures," she said. "I'm sorry your lives are hard, but that's not an excuse to be lazy. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth either."
Many students bristled at Apostolos' no-excuses attitude. But she knew their success depended on it.
Her uncompromising manner was born during a childhood in segregated Jackson, Miss. It was nurtured during a decades-long struggle to help integrate lunch counters, pools, movie theaters and schools during the civil rights movement.
She told her students about walking her little sister to the front door of an all-white elementary school in the first days of desegregation, through a gantlet of angry white protesters who hurled eggs and epithets.
It's precisely because she had overcome so many obstacles that Apostolos had little tolerance for excuses.
When her students complained they didn't have money to buy notebooks, she pointed to their $100 Air Jordans. If they argued for leniency because they were up late doing chores, she opened up a full-throttled lecture about the responsibilities she had shouldered as a teenager.
When Apostolos thought they were squandering the dream of a quality educationĂ˘€”a dream she fought to give themĂ˘€”it almost brought her to tears.
"You don't understand," she told them. "People died to give you the right to sit in this classroom and get a good education."
And she worked long hours to keep those doors open.
She arrived more than an hour early each day. She rarely left her classroom, not even to run to the restroom. She ate lunch with her students and she stayed after school at least twice a week to teach dance and tennis on her own time.
Often her school day ended after 5 p.m., leaving her little time to see her boyfriend, who lives in the northwest suburbs. One night a week she attended 5 1/2 hours of classes to obtain certification as a school administrator.
But Apostolos mixed toughness with tenderness. During the day, she hugged her students and told them she loved them. At night she called their caregivers, trying to get them involved, and making sure the children were safe.
The kids felt comfortable sharing almost anything with her. Some told her they felt abandoned. Others talked about thoughts of suicide. They called her cell phone over the weekend to say they had been jumped in the 'hood and are afraid to come to school. Sometimes, they called just to say "hey."
The kids in her room had a name for her: "Second mom."
DJ returned from the Thanksgiving break out of sorts and missing the easygoing and playful manner that had won his teacher over.
"I ain't doing this," he said, shoving a health worksheet off his desk.
Apostolos looked up from her paperwork and, without comment, pointed to the assignment on the ground. DJ retrieved it, but was too agitated to concentrate.
He bounced his right leg up and down. He stroked his hands up and down his arms as if trying to get out of his skin.
"I can't take this," he said. "I can't take this."
Finally, he threw his pencil to the ground and rested his head on his desk.
DJ was one of Apostolos' toughest challenges. He struggled with reading concepts above a 6th-grade level. Algebra completely flummoxed him. He wanted to learn, but lacked the disciplineĂ˘€”and parental supportĂ˘€”necessary to do well in school.
When DJ was 7, his great aunt took custody of him. He and three siblings moved into a house with six other children. DJ's father had not been part of his life.
DJ had not sorted out his feelings about the living arrangements, but once told Apostolos, "I don't think no one has ever loved me."
Still, DJ brought to the classroom an affable and polite nature. He was the classroom cutup, the one most likely to toss an eraser, make silly comments or sweet talk the girls.
Apostolos found his puppy-dog eyes and wide grin endearing. She looked beyond his clowning and saw that he never missed a day of school and was the first with his hand up, whether he knew the answer or not.
As she did with Sarah, Apostolos adjusted her instruction with DJ. If the reading passage was too advanced and DJ lost interest, she slowed the class down so he and others could catch up. When he got distracted by the girl next to him, she sent him to the board to do a math problem.
On this day, nothing seemed to work.
The next day, DJ confided in Aposotlos. He told her that he could not concentrate on school because police had picked him up over the Thanksgiving holiday and questioned him about a murder.
Apostolos could not imagine that a good-natured boy like DJ had been involved in a murder.
But no matter what the truth was, she knew she had to teach DJ how to find square roots and analyze poetry. No Child Left Behind does not make allowances for kids in trouble with the law.
110 SCHOOL DAYS LEFT
On one of those mornings when excitement about the upcoming Christmas break made it hard to concentrate, Kyesha Caver sat at her desk, irritated with her classmates.
Apostolos was calling on students to identify plot, theme and mood in the books they were supposed to be reading. But no one she called on had done the homework.
Kyesha shook her head and sighed. Finally, she pulled out her math book and started thumbing through Chapter Seven. Math was Kyesha's weakest subject and she wanted to brush up on ratios.
If there was a child in danger of being left behind in Room 301, it might have been Kyesha.
With 34 children in the orchestrated frenzy, there was little one-on-one time for the quiet and studious teenager, who, academically, was far ahead of most of her classmates. Apostolos spent much of her time teaching to the middle.
Single-minded and focused, Kyesha had been the only student in her class to land on the principal's list the previous quarter for her straight-A report card, perfect attendance and good behavior. On the first quarter schoolwide reading exam, she had aced 13 of the 18 sections.
Unlike many of her classmates, she benefited from a mother who was there every step of the way, setting strict curfews at home and demanding A's at school.
Kyesha, who arrived each day carefully coiffed, with a French manicure, had plans to enroll at Harvard and become a prosecutor. She knew the road there began with a good high school, and she had pinned her hopes on getting into the elite Whitney Young Magnet High School.
To get in, Kyesha needed spectacular test scores. That's why she filled her writing journal faster than Apostolos had time to grade it. That's why she read 30 books one quarter. And that's why, with her mother's prodding, she spent Monday afternoons at the public library searching the Internet for challenging math problems.
"I think I'll do OK in reading, but I'm afraid about math," she said of the high school entrance exam she would take in January. "I know there will be stuff on the math test we haven't gone over yet."
Apostolos did her best to keep her star student engaged. She assigned Kyesha to tutor slow learners, because research shows it gives the tutor a better grasp of the material as well. She graded Kyesha's assignments with a more critical eye. And she pushed Kyesha to read the most challenging books in the classroom library.
But even Apostolos recognized Kyesha still was not reaching her potential.
"It breaks my heart sometimes," she said. "If I were teaching the accelerated class like I was last year, and Kyesha were with kids on her own level, the sky would be the limit for her."
Kyesha would soon find out what a lifetime of bad schooling can do to even the most studious child.
101 SCHOOL DAYS LEFT
Christmas break arrived at Sherman just in time for Apostolos.
She had been through an exhausting few months and she was eager to begin a two-week vacation. Before she could leave, she had to scrutinize results from the recent schoolwide reading exam.
Sherman is one of a growing number of schools that use quarterly tests, geared to state requirements, to pinpoint exactly where students are falling behind. Apostolos would use the data to teach to the weaknesses.
Apostolos sat in a student's desk with tests and notebooks scattered in front of her for her monthly meeting with the school principal, assistant principal and other 8th-grade teacher.
"How did the Village Academy exam go?" asked Assistant Principal Connie Grason.
"Not well, not well at all," Apostolos said. "I'm very disappointed. Maybe it's my own expectations. Maybe I am expecting too much of these kids so soon."
Apostolos was worried that too many students were apathetic about their education or lead such troubled lives that they could not focus on school. They didn't do their homework. They came to class exhausted or high. Some didn't come at all. And she was perpetually frustrated with parents who were no help at all.
Apostolos' eyes were bloodshot. Her voice was as scratchy as a Brillo pad. Her arthritic knee shot an electric shock through her body every time she climbed the three flights of stairs to her classroom.
"I am mentally exhausted and psychologically drained," she said. "I need some rest. It's not only the academic piece but the social piece that is draining me."
Part 2: Teacher, kids connect, but pressure takes toll
Montie Apostolos works to steer her 8th graders in the right direction -- both in life and in the classroom
By Stephanie Banchero
September 3, 2007
Montie Apostolos sat Buddha-like on the living room floor of her downtown Chicago apartment, legs crossed, hands resting on the knees of her pajamas, discussing literary elements in the movie "Stomp the Yard" and dispensing wisdom.
Five 8th-grade girls, wearing pink pajamas for the slumber party, gathered in a semicircle around her, soaking up every pearl she offered.
"You girls have to remember that you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it," she said. "Don't let those outside community influences drag you down.
"Remember, the best way out of a bad neighborhood is a good education."
A teacher at Sherman School of Excellence on Chicago's South Side, Apostolos was part of a historic experiment under No Child Left Behind: Take the worst schools, the ones that have defied reform, and rebuild them from the bottom up with the best teachers available.
But Apostolos, 56, saw her job as more than classroom teacher. She was not simply preparing students for 9th grade -- she was preparing them for life.
She invited the 15 girls in the class over to her 26th-floor home one Friday night in early January to show them the possibilities outside their Back of the Yards neighborhood. Only a few turned in parental permission slips for the outing.
She had already taken her young guests, at her own expense, to dinner at P.J. Clarke's, the upscale hamburger joint. Then they went to "Stomp the Yard." The highlight, planned for the next day, would be window shopping along tony Michigan Avenue.
Whether in school or out, Apostolos played parent as much as teacher.
She railed at students about their poor grammar and marked them down on a poster board in her classroom when they said "ain't" or "we is going."
She reminded them to chew with their mouths closed and restrain themselves when challenged to a fight. She forced them to pick up every dropped eraser and throw away every scrap of unneeded paper to keep the classroom pristine. Once, she gave a 10-minute lesson on bathing and hygiene.
"She's teaching us to act proper, to be proper ladies," said Tiara Harris.
As they sat in Apostolos' apartment, the girls opened up about the school year. It had been the best year they'd ever had, all agreed. But they were annoyed about the time eaten up by classmates who misbehaved or didn't pay attention.
"Every time we trying to learn something new, they be messing it up," said the usually reserved Shakelle Williams.
Apostolos grabbed the remark as another teaching moment.
"Remember, your environment may not be like theirs," she said. "Sometimes people are not in good environments to help them grow. They seek affection at school because they don't get it at home."
As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, Apostolos pleaded exhaustion. Her arthritic knee, the one that had caused her so much pain in December, throbbed, she said, and she had been up since 5 a.m.
She said "good night" and headed to bed at 1 a.m.
The next morning, as the girls feasted on pancakes, eggs, grits and biscuits, Apostolos delivered disappointing news.
"I think I'm going to have to cancel the window shopping," she said. "I'm not feeling well. My knee hurts and I am starting to have chest pains."
The girls offered sympathy, but bemoaned the end of the party.
"We don't want to go back home."
"It's more fun to stay with you."
Apostolos apologized, but had no choice but to cut the day short. A few hours later, after the girls left, Apostolos drove herself to the emergency room at Advocate Illinois Masonic Hospital.
Worried doctors admitted her for observation.
90 SCHOOL DAYS LEFT
Three days later, early on a Tuesday morning, a sore Apostolos trudged up three flights of stairs and returned to Room 301. Four students already were in the classroom studying for a social studies exam and awaiting the return of their favorite tutor.
Apostolos dropped a heavy black bag, loaded with a mammoth bottle of ibuprofen and the two dozen student journals she had taken home to grade. She adjusted the soft beige brace that covered her leg.
The students rushed to her for a group embrace.
"I'm fine," she told them. "You don't need to worry about Ms. Apostolos."
And with that, she launched into a tutoring session on the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution for an upcoming exam. Chicago 8th graders must pass the exam to graduate.
Apostolos did not tell students that doctors had found a Baker's cyst in her knee, a fluid-filled sac trapped behind a joint that afflicts arthritis sufferers.
She did not tell them about the pain, or that her physician had warned her stress was exacerbating the condition. And she did not tell them that the doctor suggested she take a few more days off.
"I just couldn't see doing that because it would put these kids further and further behind," she said. "It wouldn't be fair to them."
As the school day came to an end, Derrick Fields, the most sentimental student in the class, though not one of the best spellers, handed Apostolos a handmade card. On the outside it read:
"by Derrick Fields and the students get well son"
Apostolos opened it to reveal an awkwardly drawn large, red heart. Above the heart it read:
"Ms. Apostolos, we love you more than money."
* * *
Even as she pushed her physical limits, Apostolos was looking for a new edge in the classroom, a tactic that would help her break through to her students.
"Go to the board, Ervin, and write down the seasons in chronological order," she directed on a January morning.
The 8th grader shuffled to the whiteboard that spanned the front of the room and wrote, "Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall," in bright-red marker.
"OK, how many people agree?" Apostolos asked. "Come on, think."
Finally Tiara Harris raised her hand.
"I think winter come first," she said, "and then spring come next because it got to melt the snow and ice and stuff so summer can come in, and then fall."
"Exactly," Apostolos said.
This lesson may have seemed basic, even silly. Eighth graders should know the order of the seasons.
But teaching is a science. And Apostolos was using sound research to back up this lesson that teaches students how to connect ideas in the correct order. It's the heart of thinking, reading and writing.
Apostolos already had taught several lessons focused on the sequence of ideas. But on a December reading exam, only three of 34 students had proved they understood it.
A skilled teacher re-evaluates teaching strategies, modifying or abandoning those that do not work. Apostolos knew students learn best when new ideas are connected to what they already know. Maybe, she thought, she had been too abstract in her earlier lessons.
So on this morning, Apostolos focused on basic tasks her students could relate to, such as organizing homework assignments in a notebook, using a recipe to cook gumbo, and, now, ordering the seasons.
In a few months, the students in Room 301 would take a tougher version of that December reading exam. More than half the kids would get 100 percent right.
* * *
"Dear Ms. Apostolos," the classroom journal entry began.
"I just started a new book and the book is Thirteen Winter. It about a little girl suffering a very frustrating disease called dyslexia and the disease cause memory loss in math grammar and spelling. And she tries to learn and remember her work and cant ... she reminds me of myself because I don't really get math, and really can't spell well but I try my best.
The journal musings of Sarah Stevens gave Apostolos a window into the mind of the hesitant 13-year-old.
Journal-writing was an indispensable part of Apostolos' language arts program. Every few days, she asked students to write about the plot, character development and conflicts in the books they were reading. She knew it helped them improve their writing skills and develop clarity in thinking.
But they also unburdened their hearts. And that helped Apostolos when it came to teaching.
By reading Sarah's journal, Apostolos learned the teenager still grieved over her father, who had died a few years earlier in a car accident. So when Apostolos used the song "Fathers" to teach students how to analyze poetry, she knew why Sarah sat silently. And she gave her extra time to work through her feelings.
When a melancholy boy wrote that his father never loved him, Apostolos pulled him aside and let him know he was loved in Room 301. He came out of his shell that day and volunteered, for the first time, to stand in front of the class and discuss the book he was reading.
Even Kyesha Caver, the emotionally guarded star of the class, opened up in her journal. She once wrote that she wanted to be valedictorian, "so I know I have to step it up a notch."
Apostolos praised Kyesha the next day, but also sent her to the board to work through a particularly tough geometry problem.
64 DAYS LEFT
A question had been dogging Apostolos most of the school year.
In the middle of the third quarter, as she prepared 12 failure notices to send home to parents, Apostolos wondered again whether teaching was her calling. Despite progress by her students, Apostolos was unhappy with the overall results.
Most students had scored below 30 percent on the recent math exam on parallel lines and interior and exterior angles. Many had done poorly on the practice Constitution quiz.
Some students -- such as Sarah, who had begun the year with little hope for anything better than her usual C's -- had blossomed by the second quarter. Sarah was carrying A's in math and reading by the third quarter.
But Apostolos worried the class was moving too slowly for other students, such as Kyesha. She made a mental note to push her star a bit harder.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was DJ. Initially one of the most eager learners, the 15-year-old had lost his focus in November after police questioned him about a murder. His grades had slipped and Apostolos could not keep him engaged.
After starting the new year with an upbeat spirit, Apostolos felt defeated by March. She didn't know what new strategies she could try, or how many more hours she could give. Even as she worried about the year's impending deadlines -- tests, high school placement, graduation -- she struggled about whether to come back to Sherman for another year.
"I saw my doctor last week, and he told me I have to find a better way to give back to the community," she said. "He told me: 'Get out of the classroom. It's too stressful.'"
57 DAYS LEFT
In mid-March, on the fourth day of state testing, Apostolos' students filed into the classroom somber and nervous.
Everyone knew the stakes. If the students failed the math and reading exams, they would not graduate. If they did not show marked improvement over the previous year, the grand experiment at Sherman -- the one that brought strong teachers, such as Apostolos, into classrooms -- would be labeled by some as a failure.
The testing period had been disrupted early on. Half the girls in Apostolos' class had a running feud with some 7th-grade girls and it had grown violent.
During testing week, a group was hit with chemical spray outside the school. A girl opened her front door late one night to find three dozen girls threatening to beat her up. And two girls were chased home from school with threats of razor blades.
Apostolos spoke to her girls. She called their parents. Finally, she went to the principal.
"This scares me," she said, "not just because I fear for the safety of my girls, but I also worry that they cannot concentrate on the tests with this mess going on."
A few days later, Principal Lionel Allen, a 6-foot-6 former football player, paced the floor of the school's gymnasium, angry and embarrassed by the violence that had seeped into his school.
He'd gathered together 60 parents, aunt, uncles and grandparents of the girls involved in the fighting. The students sat in the front row.
"We are at the end of the road," he said. "We have done everything a staff can do to bring resolution to this problem. These are your kids. It's time y'all take responsibility for how these sisters are acting."
Emerging research has shown that strong leadership and robust teacher support are crucial for a successful school. Sherman had both.
What was missing was the parental support. And Allen intended to get it.
"The truth is, there are not only students in here who could care less, there are parents in here who could care less about education," Allen said, his voice rising like a preacher's.
An uncomfortable rumble moved through the audience. A man complained that Allen was unfairly blaming the parents.
"What's sad is the black community is the only community where we got to fight to educate," said Allen, who is African-American.
"We know there are people out there waiting for this thing to fail," he said. "There are people saying, 'I don't care how many great teachers you bring into an all-black school that is 99 percent below the poverty level, it ain't going to work.'"
As he spoke, the mood began to turn. A woman in the back of the room shouted "Amen."
Part 3: Sweating out final days
For some students at Sherman School of Excellence, it was time to celebrate; for others, time had simply run out
September 4, 2007
Montie Apostolos had all the tests results, homework and discipline reports spread out in front of her.
It was the end of the third quarter in mid-April and DJ, once the most enthusiastic learner in Apostolos' 8th-grade classroom, was getting all F's. The 15-year-old and an adult Apostolos had never met, DJ's uncle, arrived at her classroom to pick up his report card.
"Here's the deal," Apostolos started in, putting her hand on DJ's shoulder. "Somewhere along the way, someone failed DJ. The teachers, the school, they did not give him the one-on-one attention he needed.
"But this is the type of classroom where even kids with the greatest deficiencies can succeed."
Apostolos had been hired at Sherman School of Excellence in fall 2006 specifically to help low-achieving students like DJ succeed.
She was part of a cadre of skilled educators at the South Side school engaged in a No Child Left Behind experiment to prove that strong teaching can transform students' academic lives in even the hardest cases.
Seven months into the transformation, the seeds she had planted in Room 301 were beginning to sprout and flower. Some students were excelling under Apostolos' teaching and her unflinching demands.
But others, such as DJ, had not risen to her challenge. As Apostolos ticked off DJ's deficiencies, it became clear he was not likely to graduate.
He'd been ignoring his homework. He had read only one book during the quarter instead of the requisite 25. He'd been so disruptive in class that she started sending him to the dean's office for in-school suspension.
"He's either clowning around in class or trying to start fights," Apostolos said, "but he's not doing what he's supposed to be doing."
As her words grew more pointed, DJ inched farther and farther away from her until he was at the door, ready to bolt at any minute.
Early in the year, there had been a lightheartedness to DJ's antics, even when he was off track. He once completed an algebra exam by writing "I love to see you smile" where the answers should have been. Apostolos gave him an F, with a smiley face next to it.
He had near-perfect attendance. Even bad days started with good intentions.
His life, however, had sunk into darkness.
DJ had been picked up by police in November and questioned about a murder. He spent four months bouncing among relatives' homes, not knowing exactly where he'd sleep. After he lost most of his clothes in a move, he had resorted to selling $2 bags of M&Ms at an elevated train station so he could buy jeans and tennis shoes.
"My mind don't be on school," he said. "My mind be on money all the time. I just be stacking my money until I have enough to be on my own."
Apostolos had counseled DJ, given him one-on-one classroom attention, sent him to the school social worker. But she could not get through to him.
Standing in the classroom, she sympathized with DJ. But true to form, she allowed no indulgence.
"There are a lot of kids in my room who have tough lives," she said. "But you have to rise above your own circumstances."
Apostolos stepped toward DJ, grasped his coat pocket and pulled him close.
"I love you," she said. "I love you like the rest of the kids in the classroom. You're a good kid, and it frightens me to think you will be lost to the street."
The next day, as students chatted and unloaded their backpacks, DJ quickly slipped off his windbreaker and slid into his seat. He pulled out his blue U.S. Constitution study guide and began to read.
DJ suspected he was not going to graduate. But he did not want the year to slip by without one accomplishment. He intended to pass the Constitution exam.
"I want to show Ms. Apostolos I ain't no dummy," he said.
41 SCHOOL DAYS LEFT
Apostolos stood in the middle of her classroom, hands on hips, eyebrows scrunched, grimacing at Kyesha Caver, her top student.
"Stop talking out the side of your neck," she said. "I'm not accepting that answer. You can't just say slavery led to the Civil War. I want to know how slavery led to the war."
Kyesha momentarily protested but took up the challenge.
"It about money," she said. "The white people needed slaves to pick cotton. That's how they made money, and they want to protect the money so they fought to keep slaves."
"OK, now you're talking," Apostolos said.
For the next 40 minutes, Apostolos walked around Room 301, prodding her students into a penetrating discussion on the politics, economics and morality of the Civil War.
It was a golden teaching moment. Apostolos had been waiting for the children to dig this deep since she arrived at Sherman.
In the beginning, she had faced an indifferent classroom. Students ignored her. They slept. They fought. They flipped her off when she turned to write on the board.
But on an April afternoon, as a rare snowstorm blew through Chicago, only a few students remained unmoved by Apostolos' efforts.
The vast majority of the 34 teenagers in the classroom had grown, physically -- the boys sported chin stubble and deeper voices; the girls had less baby fat and more adult contours -- and, more important, intellectually.
They were thoroughly engaged in the history lesson. They interrupted one another for a chance to debate their teacher. They hastily paged through their notes for the facts to support their theses.
They were thinking more like the high school students Apostolos was preparing them to become.
- - -
Early on a Saturday morning in the spring, as Sarah Stevens looked over the course registration form at Hyde Park Academy high school, the voice of her favorite teacher rang in the back of her mind.
Guidance counselor Deborah Dean peeked into Sarah's application folder and noted her test scores and grades.
"If you think you can handle it, we are going to put you in honors English and honors social studies," Dean said. "Now, math. How strong are you in math?"
Sarah looked at her mother and grinned like a child who knew her secret was out.
"I'm a little bit slow in math," Sarah said. "But I can catch on. I will work hard. I know I can do it."
Sarah's newfound confidence was born during a late-night phone conversation with Apostolos. Sarah called -- as she'd done a dozen times -- seeking advice and support. And as she had done all year, Apostolos answered the call.
"Have faith in yourself," she told the uncertain 13-year old.
Sarah had begun the school year as a C student who lacked confidence and academic skills. But she had a hunger to learn and Apostolos knew how to feed it.
Sarah turned her report card into straight A's. She posted one of the highest scores on the third-quarter language arts exam and got the only perfect score on the Constitution exam.
Perhaps most important, Sarah, with the prodding of Apostolos and a tireless Sherman guidance counselor, found her way to Hyde Park's honors program.
Of all Apostolos' students, Sarah was the most determined to stay out of her neighborhood high school, Tilden, where only 10 percent of students passed state exams last year.
She trolled the Web for the academic records of other city high schools. She took the bus, on her own, to weekend open houses, applied to 14 schools and got into 10.
She chose Hyde Park because it had the best reputation and the best test scores. She signed up for honors math, social studies, reading and environmental sciences.
The spunky teenager attributed her successful year to Apostolos.
"Ms. Apostolos [is] like my mama, my grandmama, my auntie," Sarah said. "She be on me all the time. She always makes you go higher and when I learned that, I became my own motivation."
- - -
In her carefully constructed life plan, Kyesha did not see herself sitting at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, registering for high school.
Kyesha had her heart set on attending Whitney Young. As Apostolos' best student, she had the best shot of getting into one of the city's elite high schools.
But Kyesha was competing against 10,000 students from across Chicago for the 450 coveted spots at the school. Seven years of mediocre education at Sherman were just too much for her to overcome.
All year, Kyesha had been one of Apostolos' greatest challenges. Academically, she was so far ahead of her classmates that Apostolos had to come up with creative ways to engage her.
But a strong teacher finds a way to prod growth in all students. And Apostolos did that for Kyesha.
After getting a rare B in math second quarter, Kyesha realized that simply being the smartest was not enough to guarantee an A in Apostolos' classroom. So Kyesha asked for help, dug deeper and mastered complex word problems. She turned the B back to an A.
When Kyesha suggested a Danielle Steel novel as part of her reading requirement, Apostolos pushed her toward "Catcher in the Rye" and "Pride and Prejudice."
And when Kyesha did not get into Whitney Young -- her first real experience with academic disappointment -- it was Apostolos who gave her perspective.
"You don't always get what you want," she told Kyesha, whose usually stoic face was streaked with tears. "But you can't let it knock you down."
Kyesha pulled herself together and vowed to become valedictorian at Lindblom.
And her acceptance at Lindblom was an achievement. By getting into Lindblom, Kyesha became the first Sherman student in at least a decade to land a spot in a Chicago selective-enrollment high school. She beat out 1,600 other teenagers for one of the 260 spaces in the freshman class at the up-and-coming West Englewood high school, which opened three years ago.
"Ms. Apostolos is my favorite teacher out of all the ones I had because she make me work harder than I ever worked before," Kyesha said. "She believe I can go to college and become a lawyer and that make me want to show her she right."
- - -
A few days before graduation, DJ rushed into Room 301, pulled a rumpled news clipping from his pocket and tossed it onto the desk in front of Apostolos.
"I ain't going to summer school," he said. "And this is the real reason."
Apostolos picked up the June 5 clipping and began to read.
The story detailed the arrest of a 19-year-old who police said had killed the manager of a Leona's restaurant in Hyde Park. The story said the manager had been shot in a late-night armed robbery in June 2006.
Apostolos looked up, puzzled.
"They trying to say I was with them when this happened," an agitated DJ blurted out. "Police been telling me that I just went along for a little ride and something bad went and happened."
"What did you tell them?"
"No, I wasn't. I ain't even know what they talking about."
"So why do you think you will not be around to go to summer school?"
"Because I'm gonna get arrested," DJ said, his voice filling the room, his arms flailing in exasperation.
Finally, the pieces fit together. Apostolos massaged her forehead. She covered her face with her hands and sighed.
"Lord have mercy," she said. "You need to get an attorney, honey. Tell your mom to get an attorney. If she doesn't know one, tell her to call me."
"OK," DJ mumbled as he slipped the clipping back into his pocket.
He turned and walked out of Room 301. Apostolos did not see him again. In the end, she realized that all her efforts were up against forces too great to overcome.
- - -
DJ did enroll in summer school, but just days into the session, Chicago police took him from a classroom and prosecutors charged him with murder and armed robbery.
Police say the 8th grader, his 20-year-old brother and a 19-year-old man burst into the back door of Leona's to confront the manager, who had fired DJ's cousin that day.
Police say that the 19-year-old shot the manager and that DJ's brother stole $1,700 from the cash drawer. Authorities have remained vague about the role they believe DJ played. But under state law, his murder charge applies even if he simply accompanied the others willingly. He's awaiting trial.
For Apostolos, the end of the year arrived too quickly and with a sense of things unfinished.
As her 8th graders streamed into the Sherman Park fieldhouse, admiring one another's fresh outfits and stylish hairdos, Apostolos busied herself with details.
She straightened the knots on her boys' baby blue, pink and sherbet-orange ties. She pinned the detachable white collars onto her girls' gold graduation robes, and she steadied the mortarboards.
Apostolos kept moving to ward off what she most feared. The woman with steely resolve -- the one who stared down white supremacists and went to jail to protest school segregation -- was afraid she would cry. And she did not want her students to see that.
By most measures, the first year of the Sherman No Child Left Behind experiment had been a success. The school culture was transformed from one of student indifference and low expectations to one of motivation and lofty goals. Students and parents laud the new teachers and administrators for the renaissance.
Kyesha was named salutatorian, narrowly missing the valedictorian spot, which went to a boy in another class.
Sarah, who had missed 26 days of school the previous year, was the only 8th grader in Apostolos' classroom awarded a certificate for perfect attendance.
Even DJ ended the school year with a moment of success. He passed his Constitution exam.
Test scores released in July showed more Sherman students passed the state math and reading exams this year than did so in any of the eight previous years the test had been given.
At 35 percent, the passing rate was still far below federal standards, but the 6 percentage point gain was among the largest in any city school this year.
And most of Sherman's 8th graders did better after a year with Apostolos than they had the year before. When they were in 7th grade, 37 percent of Sherman students passed the reading exam; as 8th graders, 52 percent passed. In math, 32 percent passed in 7th grade compared with 40 percent in 8th grade a year later.
"We could not be more pleased or more proud of the first-year results from Sherman," Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan said recently. "We are so hopeful and so convinced that this is the right way to do it -- find the best teachers and the best administrators -- that we want to replicate this model quickly. We want to open 10 Shermans every school year."
But the first year of the turnaround was punishing on Sherman teachers. One quit in the middle of the year. Many complained of mental and physical exhaustion.
Apostolos was drained. For every life she touched, every destiny she changed, she paid a price.
She had 34 students in her room -- a typical size for a Chicago middle school classroom -- and even though a teacher's aide helped out sometimes, the academic and emotional needs of the students fell on Apostolos' shoulders.
At 56, she felt she was too old to continue working as a classroom teacher in a school as demanding as Sherman.
Besides, she always had planned to move to an administrative position, where the pay is better. She considered staying in Chicago, but decided the city's residency requirement was straining her relationship with her boyfriend, whom she calls her "life partner," who lives and works in the suburbs.
In late August she took a job as an assistant principal at a Waukegan middle school, where she'll make slightly more than the $55,000 she was paid at Sherman.
School Principal Lionel Allen said Apostolos' departure was a "huge loss."
"Montie is a strong teacher who did a great job connecting with her kids and getting them excited about reading and learning," he said. "She cared about her kids and touched their lives in important ways. Those are large shoes to fill."
Even after her decision, Apostolos had mixed emotions.
"My heart aches when I think about leaving these kids," she said, "but I had to do what was best for me."
Nine teachers -- nearly a third of the staff -- left Sherman. Five, including Apostolos, moved on to jobs that took them closer to their career goals. One made a lateral move. Two left after discussions with school administrators.
While Apostolos' story has its own twists and turns, it mirrors the conundrum facing the nation's urban schools. Good teaching might be the best answer to helping low-achieving students, but keeping the best teachers in the toughest schools is not easy.
On graduation day in June, as her students filled the stage, looking grown-up in their gold caps and gowns, Apostolos sat in a folding chair at the back of the park fieldhouse.
Alone, finally, she began to cry. It wasn't about the difficult choices she faced for her own future, or even the poignancy of the moment for her kids. Apostolos was consumed with sadness over what she had not accomplished.
Her students needed more lessons in paragraph development, American history, statistics, probability. ...
"I just didn't have enough time," she said. "I needed more time with them."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES