This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It takes a lot to rattle Will Green. An unexpected move after his mother’s landlord refused to fix their flooded basement? A three-day suspension for throwing crayons in English class? His photo on the front page of the Notebook?
The quiet 14-year-old just shrugs.
At South Philadelphia High, Will’s unassuming demeanor sometimes means getting lost in the shuffle.
At a large school with a 56 percent dropout rate, that is scary. But in his physical science class, where he has the chance to conduct all manner of hands-on experiments, Will’s steadiness often works in his favor. Never is that more true than during teacher Segan Millington’s “earthquake challenge.”
Millington gives students a variety of materials and challenges them to construct three-tiered structures that can withstand her efforts to topple them. Will and his partners select popsicle sticks, cardboard and glue, then get to work building a solid base and supporting the walls.
The next day, theirs is the lone tower still standing.
“Everyone else used Play-Doh,” explains Will, “so theirs fell apart.”
“[Will] can’t get enough of hands-on material,” laughs Millington, a third-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Syracuse University who worked in an endocrinology lab before getting a master’s degree in science teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Science can easily go either way,” she said. “Kids are either very excited or think it’s the most boring thing ever. I try to come up with as many hands-on activities as possible.”
This strategy clearly works for Will. Whether mixing chemical solutions or investigating marshmallow-filled syringes, Will always seems to make class when there’s an experiment to be conducted.
His general attendance, however, is less steady. In the first 150 days of the school year, Will has 31 official absences and 33 latenesses.
His poor attendance stretches back to elementary school; from 5th through 8th grades, Will missed 36, 56, 58, and 33 days.
Will blames this on his asthma. But in 4th grade, the year he had Charlene Jablow at Abigail Vare Elementary, he was absent just 20 times and late only twice.
“I liked Ms. Jablow’s class,” remembers Will. “She had animals all over the room, and we got to take care of them.”
Like Millington, Jablow has strong credentials – undergraduate degrees in elementary and early childhood education, a master’s in curriculum and instruction – and keeps her students engaged with multiple activities. Her training, she said, drove home that “doing hands-on experiments was fundamental to helping students grasp concepts.”
For Will, that meant feeding and observing a guinea pig named “Fatty Patty,” building underwater environments using Tupperware and clay, and turning a lemon into a battery.
His favorite lesson, though, was dissecting owl pellets to learn about the bird’s diet. “We found all kinds of bone and fur, then had to figure out what animals they were from,” he recalls animatedly.
All along, the presence – or absence – of that enthusiasm has been reflected in Will’s performance. Fourth grade was his last year of all A’s and B’s. In the most recent marking period at South Philadelphia High, he received an A in science but a C in Algebra and a D in English.
In his other classes, says Will, “Sometimes we get on the computer or we get to make posters. But Ms. Millington’s class is the only one where we really get to build stuff and do experiments.”
His connection to school – and his dream of becoming a veterinarian – would feel shakier if not for the promise of more such instruction.
Rarely one to talk about the future, Will is looking forward to one aspect of 10th grade.
“I hope I have Ms. Millington for biology,” he says brightly. “She said we’ll get to dissect animals.”
Fifteen blocks away at the Academy at Palumbo, Corey White, 14, is struggling to get ready for his English test on The Odyssey.
“I really didn’t get it because there were a lot of names that all sound alike,” he laments.
Fortunately for Corey, teacher Latoyia Bailey, 35, is devoting an entire period to a Jeopardy-style review game.
Bailey – a 10-year veteran who has a Ph.D. in African-American history to go with her undergraduate degree in English education – goes all-out to engage her students. She has turned the blackboard into a giant scoreboard, and she cracks up her students by adopting the voice of a Greek god.
Corey said that he feels comfortable with both Bailey’s teaching style, which he describes as “going from parts to the whole,” and her personal style, which feels intimately familiar.
“I really can’t describe it,” he says of her classroom presence. “It’s just a feeling I get when I look at her. I automatically feel natural.”
Research suggests that matching students of color with teachers of the same race can positively affect academic performance. The “natural” feeling that Corey describes may play a role.
Bailey certainly values that feeling. She goes out of her way to be a role model, and she sees her job as not only helping Corey with schoolwork, but helping him figure out who he is in the world.
“African-American students in particular need to see people who come out of their communities who have a good life and have pressed through the same issues they face,” she says. “I let [them] know the road it took for me to get here.”
Bailey’s childhood and schooling in Paterson, NJ, had a lot in common with that of her students, and she shares her story freely. She does not hesitate to let them know, for example, that she received public assistance on the way to her doctorate.
For Corey, such information clearly hits home. “She introduced herself and told us her background,” he says. “She’s from the ‘hood. I related to that and took a certain respect to her.”
Bailey also believes that extending her caring and commitment beyond the classroom is essential to being a good teacher.
“I look my students in the eye and tell them that I love them,” she says. “I tell my students that I am like your ‘other mother.’”
In claiming this role, Bailey has joined Corey’s “village” – as he puts it, the people who will “kick my behind if I try to stand on the corners.”
This leads Corey to pay Bailey the two highest compliments he knows.
“She reminds me of my mom,” he says. “And she reminds me of Ms. Bell.”
Donna Bell-Koon, 41, is Corey’s all-time favorite teacher. She taught him for 4th through 6th grades at Harrington Elementary, pushing to “loop” with her students for three years so she could better nurture their growth.
When asked to describe Bell, Corey smiles and calls out, “Mom, tell about my mother in school.”
Robin White, 28, happily obliges.
“Ms. Bell is the best teacher ever. She helped to bring Corey’s natural abilities out of him. We got along like we’d known each other forever. There were never any misunderstandings.”
“From day one,” says Robin White, “Ms. Bell just felt like family.”
To illustrate, Corey and his mother tell the following story.
“When I was in 4th grade, I talked a lot,” begins Corey. “So Ms. Bell called my mom.”
“She said, ‘Girl, I love Corey to death, but your boy talks too much,’” continues Corey’s mom.
“I said, ‘What are you calling me for? Take him in the coat room and wear his behind out.’”
Her rule for her children, Robin White explains, has always been, “When you go to school, your teachers are your parents.”
Luckily for Corey’s mother, Bell understood and embraced these expectations.
Luckily for Corey, she didn’t take his mother’s advice literally.
“All I know,” says Robin White, “is that he never talked out of turn in her class again, and he got awesome grades. We took care of Corey together.”
Like Corey, 16-year-old Dominique Holloman has a mother and teachers who care about her. Unlike those in Corey’s life, the adults in Dominique’s have a difficult time bridging the gulf between home and school.
Recently, miscommunication with the teachers and staff of Audenried High School has left her under the gun to pass 9th grade.
Dominique, who started the school year pregnant, went on bed rest at the end of February. Her teachers, following procedure, collected her work and sent it to the main office. They expected Dominique’s mother, Linda Anderson, to pick it up.
Dominique, however, thought that Roster Chair Victoria Monacelli, with whom she had developed a close relationship, would deliver the work to her home.
Nothing happened for two months while Dominique sat at home, bored.
Then, on May 1, Dominique had her baby – a girl she named Destiny.
Nine days later, Dominique and her mother celebrated Mother’s Day with the baby.
Anderson gazed constantly at her tiny granddaughter. “My kids were my kids,” said the 37-year-old mother of four. “But this one” – Destiny – “is really mine.”
Dominique has turned to her mom for advice on everything from labor pains to feeding, and Anderson often takes care of Destiny while her daughter recuperates.
“I feel very happy knowing I’m so supported,” glows the proud teenager.
Though Dominique’s connection to Audenried has frayed, her bond with her mother has deepened.
“I don’t treat her like my mom,” she says. “I treat her like my sister.”
Their relationship intensified following the 2002 death of Dominique’s grandmother, Mary Anderson.
“My mother was our backbone,” said Anderson. “She was always the first one up in the morning, getting the kids to school.”
When Mary Anderson died, the family fell into disarray. “I still haven’t gotten over it,” Anderson said quietly. “When she died, I just wanted to block out the world.”
In many ways, she succeeded in doing just that. The push from home for Dominique to stay engaged in school eroded over time.
Dominique’s teachers have been ill-equipped to make up the difference.
“I don’t want to get into other people’s business,” said Dolores Daniels, Dominique’s 6th grade teacher at Walter G. Smith Elementary. “Dominique could have been a higher achiever. But I do not think there was a great demand on Dominique from home to do better.”
Dominique regularly attended Smith, only a few blocks from her home.
That was not the case for her 7th and 8th grade years at William Peirce Middle School. “I missed a lot of days,” she says. “I would get real sick, and my mom would let me stay home.”
During Dominique’s two years, Peirce was beset by poor academics, dwindling enrollment, and high teacher turnover. It closed for good after her 8th-grade year.
Subsequently, fearing the climate at South Philadelphia High and failing to find an alternative, Anderson allowed her daughter to miss an entire year of school before enrolling her in September at the newly reopened Audenried.
Though readjusting to school and dealing with her pregnancy, Dominique managed decent grades.
“Dominique was a great student while she was there,” said physical science teacher Kate Herts. “She would always do her work, ask questions when she was confused – everything a teacher would want a student to do.”
But as her pregnancy progressed, her attendance slipped again. A worried Anderson frequently took Dominique home after lunch. Then came the bed rest and the confusion over the missed work.
“Ms. Monacelli said ‘I got you,’” said a frustrated Dominique. “She said she was going to drop it off, but she never came.”
Equally frustrated, Monacelli tried to contact Dominique but lacked the time to navigate the maze of changing cell phone numbers and family tiffs that made reaching her student an ordeal.
“I’m not going to chase her,” Monacelli explained. “I have 170 other kids to worry about.”
Audenried is better positioned than most neighborhood schools to help keep students like Dominique connected.
With only 9th graders, support staff have manageable caseloads. The school has a detailed procedure for situations like Dominique’s, and the principal has brought in community partners. Dominique’s teachers clearly like her, see her potential, and want to support her.
Yet because of the lost months, it’s uncertain whether Dominique will complete 9th grade.
While Anderson watches Destiny, the tired new mother tries to plow through her missed lessons.
"I do what I can," she said, a touch wearily. "But I need help."