When home sabotages school

Published December 17, 2006

The beauty of a law that proclaims no child should be left behind is that it implores public schools to never give up. But last Sunday's riveting account of four ninth-graders at St. Petersburg's Northeast High School presented the agonizing real-life backdrop to such aspirations. The painful reality is what happens at home can sabotage the best efforts of any school or teacher.

Times education writer Ron Matus spent the past year at Northeast sitting in classrooms and following the exploits of the freshman class both on and off the campus. Ninth grade, he wrote, is a pivotal year, a time when some students find themselves and others give up. He found examples of both, including a spunky girl who blends music with academics and is not about to be denied either.

The report introduced readers to students whose parents were missing or had abandoned them, who had been shuttled from home to home, who grew up around alcohol and drugs and crime. He saw them refuse to wake up for school, spew profanities in the presence of teachers, and shrug at the prospect of alternative schools and juvenile detention.

Ronnie Jean, now 15, lives in duplex where chaos is the norm. His dad, a recovering crack addict, left when he was 3. His mother left to avoid the law when he was 8, but she has returned. She has five children, a grandchild and spends some nights away from home with her boyfriend. Ronnie used to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on his own, but then started using marijuana. His school attendance was so sporadic he was hauled into truancy court, and then into a juvenile center. He will be repeating ninth grade.

"I don't want to f--- up my life," Ronnie told Matus, "but somehow I always seem to do it."

Northeast isn't turning a blind eye to such students. The school has guidance counselors, a social worker, a psychologist. It runs a teen parenting program. Its Child Study Team meets weekly to discuss students who are missing school, and staff members personally mentor roughly 150 at-risk students. But, as Matus reports, the task is daunting.

Of the state and national directive to leave no single child behind, Matus writes poignantly of high schools:

"In their present form, they have no chance. It's hard enough to deal with ninth-graders as they naturally are, primed to copulate and clash with parents. But schools must also deal with disintegrating families and warped brains, hardwired from their earliest experiences to suspect adults will ignore them, berate them, hurt them. In many ninth-grade classrooms, it's hard to avoid the feeling of being in an alternate universe, where natural order is turned on its head and mutants rule."

In Florida, some 40,000 ninth-graders are held back each year, and many of them will eventually drop out altogether. The politicians call such results an unacceptable disgrace, and they are right. The problem is that their punitive finger points only at the schools and the people who work in them.

If policymakers think withholding state and federal money or removing principals or shutting down schools is the way to assure that the students like those described in this report graduate, then they are engaging in a destructive fantasy. These are deep-rooted problems that don't lend themselves to bumper-sticker solutions. They can't be solved by teachers in the classroom while the rest of the community watches. Schools can't be allowed to give up, but neither can our increasingly fractured society.