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Chapter One: One girl's struggle to find a future
Rayola Victoria Carwell sits quietly on a wooden bench in the principal's office and folds her arms across her stomach to calm the whirling butterflies.
She straightens the leg of her favorite jeans, the ones with the embroidered purple daisies, the ones she creased to perfection at 6 this morning. She grabs a braid cascading from the ponytail atop her head and slips it into her mouth.
It's the first day of school, and it's the first time the 9-year-old has set foot inside Stockton Elementary School. As pupils pile into the office talking about their summer vacations, Rayola stares at the floor, her slender shoulders hunched, her right leg bouncing nervously.
After shuttling among some of the city's worst schools near her home on the South Side, Rayola is enrolling in a new school on the other side of town. Her transfer is permitted and paid for by President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, one of the most expensive federal education experiments in history.
She has left a school in her Englewood neighborhood that repeatedly failed to teach children to read, write and do math at grade level and moved to a school 13 miles away in Uptown that is succeeding at all three. She is one of an estimated 70,000 students nationwide switching schools under the law.
The central promise of the law is simple: A low-income child can get a better education by transferring to a better school. In some respects, Rayola is an ideal candidate. She is bright and eager to learn. She pays attention in school, never gets in trouble and does her homework diligently.
But Rayola will face obstacles that the law does not address, obstacles her mother cannot seem to overcome and sometimes aggravates with her own impulsive behavior.
The circumstances of each child who transfers are as different as each of their faces, and there will be no way to quantify the success of the program for years. But Rayola's experience will show that getting a good education is more complicated than transferring to a new campus.
Schools can open their doors to children, but it is much harder to reach across the threshold into the home, where so much can influence whether a girl like Rayola will succeed academically.
The stakes are high for this girl and the nation's public school system.
For Rayola, the transfer is potentially life-altering. It gives her a shot at getting the kind of education and opportunities her mother, a high school dropout, has never known.
If she and other transferring students do not pass the state achievement exams, the school and the district could be punished under the federal reforms. And if the children do not succeed at their new schools, Bush's effort could fall by the wayside like so many other educational initiatives.
Rayola knows this school year's first day is like no other. Her mother woke her up 3 1/2 hours before the morning bell and drove her across town to a world far different from the one she has known.
Now, as she sits in the office listening to children speak Spanish, Chinese and English, Rayola makes a hasty and profound decision: From now on, she will be known by her middle name.
She later explains that "Rayola" sounds too black for her new, integrated school.
Rayola becomes Victoria.
Reaching for a dream
Victoria lives with her mother, two brothers, grandmother, aunt and cousin in a five-bedroom rental house in Englewood.
In this community, nearly one-third of families are headed by single mothers living in poverty; about 40 percent of the adults are high school dropouts. The neighborhood is so saturated with crime that Victoria's mother does not let the children play outdoors.
"I always walked with my brother because of the bad guys standing outside," Victoria says.
Around the corner from their house is Victoria's former school, Holmes Elementary, an uninviting gray-brick building bordered by vacant lots and a boarded-up house.
The front doors open onto Garfield Boulevard, a street that forms a gantlet of drug dealing and other crimes. Behind the school, a small playground sits in the middle of a cracked concrete parking lot.
Stockton is a bright, three-story, red-brick building on a tree-lined street. A black wrought-iron fence encloses a trimmed lawn and a colorful bed of wildflowers, daisies and azalea bushes. Vibrant mosaics of children frolicking and studying enliven the space above the school's doors.
Though homeless shelters still dot Stockton's Uptown neighborhood, the area is a prime draw for young professionals, with renovated homes selling for $600,000 or more and upscale bistros and coffee shops doing brisk business.
Victoria's mother, Yolanda Carwell, 32, says she felt like she had "won the lottery" when she learned her daughter and two sons could transfer out of Holmes. Nearly 19,000 students in Chicago applied to transfer, but the district did not have enough spaces for all of them in good schools. Using a lottery, officials granted spots for 1,097, and less than half that many actually transferred.
A single mother of three who dropped out of high school at 17, Carwell has spent her life moving from one low-paying job to another, boxing chicken at KFC, working as a security guard and driving patients to their doctor's appointments.
"I never got to live my dreams," says Carwell, who is studying to take the high school equivalency exam. "I want my kids to be able to live theirs."
Carwell's dream is that her daughter finishes high school and goes on to study fashion design in college. Victoria has similar aspirations. Meticulous about her appearance, she does her own laundry and irons her own clothes before going to school. She rarely leaves the house without perfectly braided hair, often adorning it with blue or white beads.
She thumbs through the Self magazine that her mother gets in the mail, mainly to check out the new fashions. Her favorite toy is her Bratz doll, which she keeps hidden in her closet away from her brothers. She loves to comb and style the doll's long, silky hair.
After an hourlong wait in the Stockton office on the first day of school, the Carwells and dozens of other families are herded into a makeshift registration room. A community liaison stands at the door like an air-traffic controller, guiding newcomers and dispensing instructions in Spanish and English. An air conditioner chugs away, nearly drowning out the whimpering new kindergartners.
Typically, transferring students arrive with their academic records. But No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002, was rushed into action so quickly that the details were changing up until the start of this school year, and districts were still unprepared. Carwell learned four days before school started that her children were moving to Stockton and, like other parents, did not have time to gather the paperwork.
Stockton counselors perform educational triage, quickly assessing children based on brief interviews with parents and a short reading exam.
The Carwells squeeze in between two families at a long folding table and begin registering. Carwell tells a counselor that her daughter was in 3rd grade last year and passed a city-administered test required to advance to 4th grade.
In fact, Victoria was in 2nd grade at Holmes last year--again, after failing it the year before at another South Side school, mainly because of absenteeism. Victoria sits impassively in her seat and lets out a small yawn. She does not correct her mother.
After Victoria reads aloud from a short passage about fireflies, she is placed in Greg Zurawski's 4th-grade classroom on the third floor. One brother, Aaron Lewis, 11, is sent to a 5th-grade room across the hall, while her 6-year-old brother, Christian Redd, is placed in a 1st-grade room.
As she heads upstairs, Victoria clutches Aaron's hand. Suddenly, she stops, turns and runs back to the landing.
She leans over and kisses her mother on the cheek.
"Bye, Mommy," she says.
A stumbling start
A teacher leads the 9-year-old into Room 303.
"Mr. Zurawski," she says, "this is Rayola, your new student."
"Victoria," the girl corrects her in a confident voice. "My name is Victoria."
Victoria walks into the classroom and takes a seat as Zurawski, voice booming, continues with a lively math refresher.
"One thousand, four hundred and sixty-three. Write that in standard form."
Twenty-four pencils hit paper. The 25th remains suspended as Victoria stares blankly at the notebook paper in front of her.
Zurawski hustles over.
"Do you know what standard form is, honey?"
Zurawski coaxes Victoria into writing "1463," but she has no idea where to go from there. The teacher explains that a comma separates the thousands and the hundreds. Victoria picks up the concept and draws a comma between the 1 and 4. But the day doesn't get any easier.
At lunchtime, while students jostle and push for prime spots at the tables, she stands alone in the middle of the lunchroom gripping a beige lunch tray that holds an apple and a cheese sandwich.
Zurawski walks up to Victoria and puts his hands on her shoulders.
"What's wrong, honey?" he asks.
"I don't know anybody," Victoria says in a voice so faint that the teacher is forced to bend down.
"Sit here with me," he says, and leads her to an empty table.
As Victoria struggles through her first day in 4th grade, Stockton officials are searching the district databases and calling schools to locate records for the 14 children who transferred to Stockton under the law. Abbie Meyers, Stockton's No Child Left Behind coordinator, calls an administrator at Holmes and realizes Victoria should not be in 4th grade.
When Carwell returns to pick up the children, Meyers tracks her down and asks her to step into the office. Victoria, her brothers and a cousin, who also transferred schools under the law, gather close to Carwell to hear what is going on.
"I pulled up the transcripts and it looks like she didn't pass 3rd grade last year," Meyers says. "Third grade is a very important year, and we don't want her to miss it."
Carwell stares at Meyers and says nothing.
"We want her to be where she will be the most comfortable," Meyers says. "No harm, no foul. We can move her tomorrow."
"But she is supposed to be in 4th grade," Carwell protests weakly.
"I really think she'd be more comfortable in 3rd grade," Meyers says, her voice growing sterner.
Carwell wants Victoria in a classroom with children her own age, but she quickly acquiesces.
"OK," she says, sighing.
Victoria turns and stomps out of the office.
"It's not fair," she says.
More trials await
Even 3rd grade at Stockton is going to be challenging for Victoria.
During the first week she has difficulty with math, spelling and writing. She does not know that 374 is the same as 300 plus 70 plus 4. She has no idea what a silent letter is and thinks "made" is spelled "mad," and "note" is spelled "not."
When her teacher tells the children to write a paragraph that compares and contrasts, Victoria writes:
"I'm writing about comparing
my two school there kind of alike
Because the Both have Big gyms.
And they don't Bouth have Big
classroom and my old school was smaller
then this one Because it only had two
floors and it don't have a aodtoryom
and the Lunch Room was Big."
At Holmes, where 58 percent of 3rd graders failed the state writing test last year, writing like this--marred by poor punctuation and misspellings--is starred for excellence and tacked on the bulletin boards. At Stockton, Victoria gets a D in writing and an F in grammar on the assignment.
There are other differences between the two schools. Holmes is so crowded that teachers are packed into classrooms with as many as 28 pupils. At Stockton, Victoria has 21 classmates and, in a few weeks, the number shrinks to 17 when some move into a new 3rd-grade room.
About 14 percent of Holmes' classes are taught by teachers who do not meet federal training standards. At Stockton, every teacher has taken the required education courses in college and passed state teacher-certification tests.
Victoria's teacher, Judy Fromm, knows that Victoria's substandard education--she's been in three poorly performing schools in the last three years--puts her at risk for failure. Victoria never attended a school where more than 30 percent of the pupils lived up to the state's math and reading standards. At Stockton, nearly 60 percent did so last year.
A 25-year teaching veteran, Fromm cut her teeth at Jenner Elementary School, which was wedged among the Cabrini-Green public-housing high-rises. She quit teaching to raise her family but returned about 20 years ago because, she says, "I love the kids."
Diminutive, with painted fingernails and a salon-styled coiffure, Fromm stands about eye-level with some of her pupils. She peppers her lessons with "sweetie" and "honey," but is demanding of the children and expects all of them--no matter how difficult the home situation--to pay attention, do their homework and perform up to their full potential. She is willing to spend extra time to help the children in her classroom.
Fromm is determined to make sure Victoria catches up before achievement exams are given in the spring. A passing grade on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, administered by the city, is Victoria's ticket to 4th grade.
But Fromm has concerns other than the two No Child Left Behind pupils in her class. One child cannot spell her last name or count past 29. Two others already have failed 3rd grade. One girl lives in a homeless shelter. A boy with extreme emotional problems repeatedly threatens classmates.
"It's going to be a tough year," Fromm says.
Victoria hates being behind and is embarrassed that anyone might notice.
When Fromm assigns her a tutor, Victoria slinks to the table in the back of the room and hides behind a stack of books. When she does poorly on a math assignment, she conceals the paper on the shelf of her desk behind a bulky green math book.
The second week of school, as children read quietly to themselves, Fromm guides Victoria past the crammed bookcases lining the classroom walls to a long folding table in the back of the room.
She hands Victoria a sheet of paper with "97-18" written on it and asks her to complete the subtraction problem.
Victoria stares at the page. She rubs her eyes and the dark circles that rim them.
"Honey, can you take eight away from seven?"
"OK, then, do you know how to figure it out?"
Victoria shakes her head no.
Fromm opens a container and takes out a handful of yellow plastic squares and a bunch of long, plastic rods. She puts nine long rods and seven squares on one side of the table. She puts one rod and eight squares on the other side. Then she shows Victoria how to borrow and carry.
"Do you understand this, honey?"
Victoria shrugs and yawns.
Fromm smiles and pats Victoria on the back. While the rest of the class writes in their daily journals or reads, the teacher spends 18 minutes leaning over the table and leading Victoria through 10 subtraction problems. They work on "96-28," and "74-27." When they get to "62-19," Fromm tells Victoria to figure it out by herself.
Victoria presses her pencil to her temple and furrows her eyebrows. She slowly draws a slash mark through the "6" in "62" and writes a "5" above it, showing she knows how to borrow. She draws a "1" in front of the "2" to make "12." She counts on her fingers, her lips silently saying the numbers to herself, and writes "43."
Victoria looks up at Fromm.
"Great job, honey," the teacher says. "You are catching on."
Late to bed, late to rise
On a Thursday night in October, Victoria stands in the hallway of her home, sweeping stray Cheetos and Meow Mix off the brown carpet, holding her breath to avoid the smell of the Pine-Sol she just used to mop the kitchen floor.
Victoria's brother Aaron and cousin Kewone, 7, are in the living room, re-enacting a showdown from "Star Wars." As Kewone raises his invisible light saber and slices Aaron across the stomach, he trips over his shoelace and falls into Aaron. The boys tumble into a 52-inch television that has been broken for a year, knocking a half-full bottle of Pepsi to the ground.
Victoria drops the broom and walks into the living room.
"You better stop it," she says as she picks up the Pepsi bottle. "You're making a mess."
Victoria's mother is upstairs in her bedroom talking on the phone and cannot hear the commotion. Victoria's aunt is at work. Her grandmother, Rayola Carwell, is in her bedroom reading her Bible.
As the boys lie in a heap on the floor, Victoria's brother Christian picks through the religious CDs on top of the stereo. Finding nothing he likes, he turns on the radio and tunes the dial to Radio Disney.
"The tide is high but I'm holding on" seeps from the speakers, drowning out the incessant, high-pitched beeping coming from the hallway smoke detector, which needs a new battery. A police siren wails in the background.
Victoria heads upstairs to the bedroom she shares with her brothers.
She plops down on one of the full-sized mattresses, stretches her legs in front of her and switches on the TV. With a bottle of Pepsi in one hand and a remote control in the other, she flips channels in search of a cartoon.
As the night wears on, Victoria's brothers join her upstairs to watch the Cartoon Network. It's 11 p.m. before they turn off the TV and go to sleep, they later say. Her math homework remains undone in the backpack next to her bed.
The next morning, the children wake up late and Carwell lets them stay home from school. It's the 10th day, out of 32, that the children have missed.
The Carwell children started out the year behind their classmates and the absences are adding to their problems. They are good pupils, but are unaccustomed to the fast pace set by the Stockton teachers and are having trouble catching up.
Carwell complains that because she works all day driving patients to dialysis appointments she is too tired to fight to get the children to bed at night. Then she can't drag them out of bed in the morning. Sometimes they refuse to get up. And sometimes she simply lets them stay home rather than battle with them.
"I can make them go to school, but if they don't want to, they will sulk about it and not pay attention in class," Carwell says. "I'd rather send cheery kids to school because they'll pay attention better if they are in a good mood."
When No Child Left Behind was adopted, it promised two things: an opportunity to enroll in better schools and transportation to get there.
But most of the high-performing schools in Chicago don't have to accept transferring students because they have admissions requirements or because district officials have deemed them too crowded. Only 38 of the system's 600 schools are open to transfers, and none is within walking distance of Victoria's home.
Carwell complicated the situation by selecting a school that was among the farthest from her home. Without any information from the school district beyond a list of open schools, she picked Stockton because it was the only name she recognized.
"That's where I went to school when I was a kid," she says.
The law requires that districts provide transportation for transferring students. Nationwide, many districts bus children to their new schools. But Chicago officials say that busing across a sprawling city is impractical and costly.
Instead, they give parents mileage reimbursements or CTA bus and train passes. Carwell opted for the transportation stipend and gets $191 a month.
Still, getting the children across town proves especially difficult. Carwell begins work at 8 a.m. and has to get the children to school by 9:20. Sometimes she drops the kids off and goes to work late. The drive to Stockton takes about 35 minutes.
Other times, she sends them on public transportation with their aunt, a security guard whose shift ends at 2 a.m.
Occasionally, the children are accompanied by their 57-year-old, arthritic grandmother. She cannot endure the four-block walk from the Red Line train stop to the school, so she takes the children on a two-hour ride on three city buses.
Sometimes, no one is available to take them to school, so the children stay home.
Daily trip takes a toll
As her classmates rush by her on the sidewalk outside school, Victoria rubs sleep from her eyes on a fall morning.
She pulls open the school door and walks past the cafeteria. She did not eat breakfast at home and arrives too late for the free pancakes, scrambled eggs and orange juice that, as a low-income child, she is entitled to. She heads up two flights of stairs and into Room 212, where she falls into her yellow plastic chair and rests her head on her wooden desk.
Fromm walks over and rubs Victoria's shoulder.
"Are you OK, honey? You look tired."
Victoria yawns and squeezes her eyes shut.
"Yeah, I'm OK."
Victoria does not tell Fromm that she spent the last 1 1/2 hours getting to school. With her aunt as a guide, Victoria, her brothers and cousin left their house about 7:45 and walked four blocks to the bus stop.
They took a bus down Garfield Boulevard, past homes with graffiti-covered plywood over the windows and the T-shirt shop and doctor's office locked down with heavy, black metal bars and clunky chromed locks. They crossed eight lanes of traffic and boarded the elevated train.
They rumbled out of their haggard Englewood neighborhood, past the Loop skyscrapers that symbolize Chicago's economic vitality and through the desirable enclaves of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. They got off in Uptown and walked five blocks past the Starbucks and the restaurant that featured braised lamb shoulder wrapped in savoy cabbage.
They walked into Stockton at 9:20, just as the bell rang.
While her classmates work on their daily math and write in their journals, Victoria stares out the window, the lined paper in front of her blank except for her name. She puts her elbows on the desk, cups her hands together and rests her chin in the heels of her hands.
She cannot figure out how to subtract 644 from 732, even though she knows how to borrow. She has trouble rounding to the nearest tenth, a skill she seemed to have mastered a few weeks ago. When Fromm introduces the concept of "inference" in reading passages, she has to explain it to Victoria three times.
The distance from school has other repercussions.
Victoria is popular among her classmates, partly because she brings a double-dutch jump rope to school every day and partly because she readily shares her pencil sharpener, loose-leaf paper and potato chips with anyone who wants them.
During recess one day, Victoria and classmate Tiara Nelson are leaning against a wall of the school in a breezy discussion of issues important to 3rd graders: Beyonce's new song, "Baby Boy"; the 6th grader who "looked" at them in the hallway; and their crush on Lil' Romeo of the TV series "Romeo!"
As Fromm starts rounding up the children to go back to class, Tiara, who lives a few blocks from Stockton, asks Victoria, "Can you come over to my house after school?"
"I don't think so," Victoria says.
"I live too far away."
"Where you live?"
"South Side. It's far from here."
`This girl is a whiz'
Even though Victoria suffers through exhausting commutes, arrives at school late and without breakfast, and misses far too many lessons, she pulls nearly even with her classmates by the middle of the first quarter.
Her success is partly due to Fromm's one-on-one attention and to her decision to assign Victoria an in-class tutor. Mainly, though, it can be traced to Victoria's innate brightness and her hard work.
Victoria is so single-minded that the teacher seats the most talkative boy next to her, knowing he cannot distract her.
When she finishes her book during the silent-reading period, Victoria heads over to the brown metal bookshelves lining the walls and gets a new one. Sometimes, she simply slides the book off her neighbor's desk after he finishes it.
If she misses an in-class test, she asks Fromm whether she can make it up. While her frenetic classmates find clever reasons to get out of their desks--they simply must blow their nose, sharpen their pencil, use the bathroom--Victoria focuses on her work.
The dreaded silent letters, which caused her so much trouble early on, now seem less challenging. On the latest exam, Victoria correctly spells "paint," "green," and "weighed."
Her writing, though not perfect, has vastly improved. On a recent assignment, she writes: "This afternoon we'll do social studies. We're going to work on maps." She finally is learning how to use capital letters, apostrophes and periods.
Victoria has virtually mastered rounding, a math concept foreign to her at the beginning of the year.
One morning, she is hunched over her desk copying math problems off the board. "81,384," "375,532" and "684," she writes under the heading "round to the nearest hundreds." Then "81,400," "375,500" and "700."
Fromm slips between groups of desks and looks over Victoria's shoulder.
"This girl is a whiz," she says. "I am so proud of you, honey."
Victoria's lips curl into a smile.
"That's the first time I've seen your dimples," Fromm says.
It has been a long and painful journey for a little girl who started the school year so far behind that Fromm wondered whether she would catch up. She is getting a D in writing. But she has a B in math and a high C in reading.
As the quarter winds down, Fromm tells the pupils she wants to rearrange the seating chart, propelling anxious little bodies out of their seats. The children drag their desks across the hardwood floor to the newly assigned spots, sending papers and pencils crashing to the ground and provoking peals of laughter.
Victoria, who missed the previous two days of school, sits alone at her desk in the middle of the room, hurriedly copying math problems off the board. Fromm pulls Victoria's desk away from the small yellow chair and toward the new seating assignment. Victoria stands up, leans over, and continues writing "964 + 529," as the desk slides away from her.
"Honey, move your desk, please," an exasperated Fromm says.
Victoria keeps her eyes focused on her paper, her hand still scribbling numbers.
"I'm trying to catch up," she says.