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Dreamers, Doubters, Survivors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes I want to write a book about my life, about my childhood experiences. I think I would call the book Survive, or Survivor, something like that. I don’t know. The thought lingers in my head.

--Erica Patterson, 18

****

The noise is deafening, ricocheting off the concrete walls, reverberating, clanging, extinguishing any hope of learning. It sounds like a prison.

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It is not a prison. It is a high school, and last Wednesday, a very select group of young men and women left this place for the outside world.

They call this “walking the aisle.”

For most American teenagers, it is a predictable and utterly ordinary June ritual. But for Erica and 224 other seniors at William Penn High School, the simple act of receiving a diploma is, in the words of their head guidance counselor, “almost like a miracle, when you think of all they’ve gone through.”

What they have gone through is life itself, but not life as mainstream America knows it. They are veterans, this Class of ’96, of a hard and twisted ghetto that has sucked many of their former classmates out of school and into a tangle of street hustling and premature parenthood, a constant struggle against what class valedictorian Devon Cain calls “not enough money and too many guns.”

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Four Septembers ago, 858 kids entered the ninth grade at William Penn. Last week, Erica and her fellow graduates were all that remained; the rest had dropped out, moved away, had babies or succumbed to the five-year plan.

“I think about all them years I been in school,” sighs Carnel Parks, a shy, gawky 17-year-old who scribbles cartoons in his sketchbook and dreams of becoming an animator. “I never thought I was gonna get this far. I made it.”

William Penn is one of three Philadelphia high schools whose graduates are being tracked by a nonprofit education reform group as part of a six-city project that targets disadvantaged youth. The Class of ’96 provides a window into what it takes to survive growing up poor in urban America, and why even the survivors--kids as determined as Erica--often have trouble making the leap to the middle class.

In this cradle of democracy, where the Founding Fathers asserted that “all men are created equal,” the kids of William Penn are a lot less equal than most. Fully 96% come from families who live at or below the federal poverty line, and fewer than one-third live in two-parent households. Six of the city’s roughest housing projects feed into William Penn. The school is what educators term “racially isolated"--code-speak for black. The only white students are mentally disabled.

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Every kid comes with a story. Erica, ranked fourth in her class, goes to sleep at night on a broken-down bed she shares with her kid brother in a two-bedroom apartment where eight people live. Some nights, her mother, a crack addict, comes home and the bed must accommodate a third. Most nights, she just doesn’t show.

Devon is the first in his family to finish high school. He practically raised his four younger siblings while his mother was strung out on dope. Two years ago, while scanning the Philadelphia Daily News, he read about a man who had been sentenced to prison for embezzlement. The man was his father.

David Poe’s mother was murdered when he was in the sixth grade. “She always wanted me to finish school,” he said. “I didn’t want to let her down.”

Melissa Beasley’s mother abandoned her; now she is a mother herself, struggling to make do on a $465 monthly welfare check. Each morning, she carts her two toddlers on the bus and the subway to day care, her textbooks stuffed into a pack slung over her back.

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Michael Leadum took a bullet last year in a drive-by shooting. He spent three months in a wheelchair; his friends told him he might as well drop out. Instead, a school counselor rescued him, volunteering her summer mornings to tutor him in algebra. He walked the aisle Wednesday, the first person in his family to get a diploma the conventional way, without a GED.

Ask him where he will be in a year, and he replies, “If I’m still around. . . . “

Graduates’ Dreams

What will the future hold for the graduates of William Penn? They played the game society’s way--they earned a high school diploma. They are coming of age at a time of relatively low unemployment, in an economy that by traditional measures is robust. As they stand on the cusp of adulthood, they should be poised to take advantage of the opportunities this great golden land has to offer.

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But will they? Can they?

Over the coming months, this Class of ’96 will put the value of an inner-city education to its real-world test. It is a time when policymakers are debating issues of great importance to poor urban teenagers like these--whether to tighten up the welfare system and to lift the minimum wage, how to raise educational standards and to improve job training.

“My dream,” President Clinton has said, “would be no high school dropouts. And then for 100% of the high school graduates to have at least two years of some kind of very high-quality training.”

The graduates of William Penn have dreams of their own.

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Erica dreams of becoming a corporate lawyer. Melissa dreams of being a nurse, but has first signed up for trade school to learn to be a medical assistant.

Tyrone Shoemake sees himself as an architect; no matter that he is paralyzed for life, trapped in a wheelchair since a neighborhood bully shot him in March. “It don’t bother me,” he said. “I’m just thankful to be here.”

Andrea Byrd hopes to become a doctor; before applying to college, she meticulously researched which schools have the best record for getting minorities into medical school. She selected Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., one of the nation’s most prestigious private schools; she got a $25,000-a-year scholarship.

Tyrone Beal and Daren Blackwell dream of becoming rap stars--something their teachers say has replaced basketball as the fantasy ticket out of the inner city. Michael Leadum dreams of life in the middle class, with “five credit cards, a nice bank account, living in a house, with a beautiful wife.”

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But here, in one of the most dilapidated patches of real estate in the nation, dreams meet a harsh reality. As the Class of ’96 ventures into the workplace, college, trade school and the military--the four options from which their guidance counselors have required them to choose--the obstacles will grow.

“It’s bleak for these young people,” said Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist. “You have teachers and principals and superintendents who are wedded to the old idea that if you . . . get an education, you can make it, you can defy the odds and have a decent standard of living.

“This is true for some people, but it’s not true for many, in part because the William Penns of the world are not really equipped with the resources to deliver these people out of their circumstances.”

As part of the education reform project in which William Penn participates, a random sampling of 1993 graduates from Penn and the two other Philadelphia schools were tracked by a group called the North Philadelphia Community Compact. The findings offer an unusual glimpse into how the Class of ’96 is likely to fare. It is a discouraging picture.

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Just 44% of the graduates who had not enrolled in college had jobs six months after leaving school. Eighteen months after graduation, just 57% were working.

The college dropout rate was astonishing. In 1993, 84 graduates started classes at Temple University and the Community College of Philadelphia. Only 39 stuck around for a second year.

The compact’s executive director, Rochelle Nichols Solomon, says the vast majority of William Penn graduates required remedial education before going to college; In 1994, when the national average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was 902 out of 1,600, William Penn’s average was 606.

“The numbers that you see in Philadelphia are not uncommon,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust in Washington, which oversees the six-city project. “Huge numbers of students don’t make it. And the ones who do are really not educated at a level even close to . . . their counterparts in the suburbs.”

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Lifetime of Worry

Erica is aware of this, and it worries her. The slender teenager is vice president of the student government and the first William Penn student ever to win a spot in the prestigious Presidential Classroom program, which brings students to Washington each summer. Her teachers scraped together her $87 bus fare.

Although her credentials are excellent, she is cautious. She had a shot at the Ivy League--a city councilwoman offered to help her get a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania--but turned it down, preferring the security of Penn State’s campus in Reading, which has 390 students.

“I don’t want to push myself too far,” she explained, “where I might fall and I won’t be able to pick myself back up.”

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She has spent a lifetime pushing herself, and a lifetime worrying. She worries she will be viewed as the teacher’s pet. She worries about money; like many William Penn students, she supports herself and helps her grandmother pay for food, electricity and gas. What worries Erica most is her mother.

Some parents can’t wait for their kids to move out so that they won’t have to worry about them when they fail to come home at night. In Erica’s life, this is how the child feels about the parent.

“I think when I get to college I’ll have a more mellow life,” she said, “not always worrying about where my mom is. I’m always worried that I’ll come home and they’ll say she was found in the gutter, dead.”

Pat McGorty is Erica’s business teacher. “She’s not the smartest of the bunch,” he said, “but if ever there was somebody that’s going to find a way to succeed, it’s going to be Erica.”

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He is not so sanguine about the others. In his homeroom one recent morning, he bellows out, “How many students are going to college next year?”

Eight students are present. Eight hands shoot up. McGorty scowls.

“I don’t care if you’re coming out of Beverly Hills,” the teacher says, rolling his eyes. “You’re not going to get eight out of eight.”

On the theory that a good education is the best route to success, William Penn emphasizes college. But teachers such as McGorty see the vast difference between what the graduates say and what they do. Every September, the story is the same. Kids who said they were going to college don’t. Kids who were going to big-name schools settle for Community.

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Michelle Miller was one of McGorty’s best students. In the ninth grade, a local sponsor-a-scholar program offered her a $6,000 scholarship to finish high school. She plans a career in marketing and has registered for a pre-college summer program at Temple, where she plans to enroll this fall.

Two weeks ago, a set of pink parallel lines on a strip of litmus paper changed the course of her future. The home pregnancy test delivered the news: Michelle is going to have a baby.

She briefly considered abortion; in this community, few choose that option. Now Michelle is among two dozen William Penn graduates--roughly 15% of the female senior class--who are mothers or on the way to becoming one.

“I’m not going to let it derail me,” she vowed. But she is talking about taking the spring semester off, and maybe finishing college at Community.

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Pregnancy is just one barrier on the road to higher education. Some kids can’t rustle up the money. Some are pressured by their families to work. Others insist that they are going but have yet to take the SATs. Most have nobody to help them through the maze of applications and financial aid forms; only 9% of William Penn students have parents with college degrees.

Arthur Hartsfield, a bespectacled young man whose mother would like him to get a college degree, hasn’t applied. “I messed up,” he explained, “and so my grades weren’t good enough to get grants or loans.”

Ayesha Imani, Arthur’s African American studies teacher, gasps at his lament. “Arthur,” she asks gently, “why did you make the assumption that you would need good grades to get grants or loans? Academic scholarships are tied to grades. Grants are tied to need.”

She urges him to apply to Community for the January term. Arthur nods, then declares he will get a job instead. But he doesn’t want just any job, certainly not at a fast food joint. Flipping burgers is fine for after-school work. What Arthur wants is a real job.

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The only trouble is, he doesn’t have the skills to get one.

As in most U.S. cities, the jobs that don’t require skills are long gone. Philadelphia has lost nearly 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years--jobs that once provided stable incomes for high school graduates.

Nobody has to tell Arthur. He needs to look no further than his own family to see what the working world offers. “I see my cousin, he graduated last year. He got a diploma and he’s washing dishes.”

Principal’s Agenda

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The Philadelphia School District wants to turn William Penn around, and two years ago it dispatched a no-nonsense former administrator named Ellen Linky to clean house. The new principal is a tornado of a woman, whirling from one meeting to the next, barking out orders at a dizzying pace.

“What I inherited here,” Linky says, “was a trip and a half.”

The roof leaked and the carpets were soggy. Rodents scurried across classroom floors. The building was illuminated by huge mercury lights, big globes plastered with sticky gobs of chewing gum hurled upward by students. Cut-ups would race through school--"hall runners,” they are called--switching off the lights, leaving frustrated teachers in the dark while the mercury took an agonizing five minutes to power up.

Then there is the structure itself--a collection of seven concrete buildings connected by a maze of staircases and bridges and catwalks. The architect won awards; the occupants think he should have been fired. The biggest problem has to do with the interior doors and walls. There are none.

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William Penn was built during an era when the “open classroom” was all the rage. That may be fine for kindergarten, but in high school it is a disaster. The hall runners have too many places to hide, and sounds bounce mightily off the concrete walls. Says vice principal Richard Kunin: “Normal conversation sounds like a riot.”

Fixing the building was Linky’s first priority. She hammered the district until she got $3.2 million to replace the leaky roof. She fixed the air conditioning and put in a new fire alarm system--one that required keys, so that kids couldn’t yank the alarms all day.

She ripped out the carpet and put in tile. She tore down the mercury fixtures and put in fluorescent lights. She canned the school police force--"They sat on their duffs"--and hired more aggressive replacements. Doors and walls, she says, are coming this summer.

As for education, Linky plans a curriculum overhaul, but not until fall. She has, however, made one minor change: Building upon a “small learning community” concept already in place, she divided the school into eight “academies"--business, communications, health and the like--on the theory that if each student belonged somewhere, fewer would slip through the cracks.

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The teachers notice some improvement, but there is a long way to go. Average daily attendance is still a paltry 63%.

“Last year, you would say to a kid, ‘Please move,’ and they would say, ‘Go f--- yourself,’ ” said math teacher Mary Ellen King. “But this year, you will say to a kid, ‘Please move,’ and they’ll move. They may not go to class, but they’ll move.”

A Lack of Boys

The first thing one notices, after the noise, is the boys. Or rather, the lack of boys.

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Girls outnumber boys 2 to 1 in the Class of ’96. Among the 30 top-ranked seniors, six are male. The choice of Devon as valedictorian was big news.

Gregory Jakes has a theory about this. He is a strapping young man with a set of radio earphones perpetually slung around his neck. He has seen plenty of his buddies leave school for what Anderson, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist, calls “the underground economy” of drugs.

“It’s the girls,” Gregory said. “The girls get hooked up with the guys, and the guys have to make money for the girls, and that’s what makes them drop out.”

Anderson has another theory: It’s the economy, the shifts from manufacturing to high technology. Why graduate when a diploma doesn’t get you a job? Why not deal drugs instead? No wonder, Anderson says, one out of three young black men in America is connected to the criminal-justice system.

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“You’re seeing them basically give up.”

Influential Counselor

Michael Leadum was on the verge of giving up. So were Keith White and Daren Blackwell. Now they are survivors. But they have not done it on their own.

Kate Smith saved them.

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Smith is a former commercial real estate developer who quit her job a few years ago to get a master’s degree in education. She came to William Penn as a guidance department intern. Linky liked her and asked her to stay.

The school, Linky said, needed help with what educators call the “over-age, under-credentialed.” These are 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds who have not made it out of ninth grade. There were dozens of them at William Penn, growing older but going nowhere.

Linky wanted Smith to put these kids on a fast track toward graduation. The idea was to create individualized, monitored course schedules with independent studies, extra credits, night school--whatever it took.

“Penn’s Connection” started 18 months ago with 60 students. Forty are left, and 16 walked the aisle. (A 17th got his diploma but spent graduation day in jail, awaiting trial on drug charges.)

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Michael, Keith and Daren are among those who made it. They are the kind of boys many teachers would find threatening; Smith finds them charming. Where others see toughness, she sees masked vulnerability. Where others see cut-ups, she sees “immense talent” and bright minds that have been ignored.

Daren was thrown out of his previous school for fighting. Keith was thrown out of William Penn for running the halls.

Had it not been for Smith, Keith says, “we would have dropped out by now. She’s like a mom to us.”

Michael also was kicked out of school, in his case for aggravated assault. He is all bluster and bravado, a one-man act with a lopsided grin, gold neck chains, construction boots and a baseball cap cocked at an odd angle. His nickname is “Mikey Raw,” he says, “because raw is the definition of all things pure and real.”

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When pressed, he admits to hustling drugs on the side--not to get rich, he insists, just to help his mom pay the bills. “I been arrested but never incarcerated,” he boasts, ranting on about how he’s going to be big, big, big one day, with his own business and lots of money, “blowing my nose with C-notes.”

Later he lets down his guard, sharing his deepest fears. “I don’t want to get stuck on the streets when I leave here,” he confides.

A year ago, he was stuck, the victim of a drive-by shooting, trapped in a wheelchair. “School ain’t for you,” his friends counseled. He listened instead to Smith, who told him and three other boys to meet her every day last August for algebra tutoring.

Michael almost didn’t make graduation. His 64 in biology was a point shy of passing. Two weeks before the ceremony, he was told he would have to go to summer school and get his diploma by mail.

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He and Smith plotted an appeal: Michael would bring his mother to talk to Linky, to tell her how hard he had tried, how far he had come.

It worked. Linky overruled the biology teacher. What sense, she asked herself, does it make to hold this kid back?

You came close enough, she told Mikey Raw. You pass. You can walk. But don’t expect the real world to cut you the same breaks. The real world isn’t like school.

If he weren’t such a tough guy, he would have cried.

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Graduation Day

Graduation was held in the Philadelphia Civic Center, a grand, faded auditorium slated for demolition. The boys wore black gowns and white carnations, the girls red carnations on white gowns.

Erica’s mother came; her daughter felt strangely ambivalent. Lennette Shoemake was there too, videotaping her son as he rolled down the aisle in his wheelchair, wearing cap and gown and fire-engine red cowboy boots.

The theme, if there was one, was triumph over adversity. “Stay motivated and strong,” Devon said in his valedictory.

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After two hours of pomp and circumstance, the diplomas were awarded--and the audience went wild. Parents and siblings, screaming graduates’ names, stormed the floor bearing flowers and balloons.

The ceremony disintegrated amid the chaos. The alma mater was not sung. The recessional was not marched. The traditional hat toss was skipped. No matter, one graduate said later. These mortarboards and tassels of silver and black were too precious, too hard-earned, to let go of.


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