It’s 7:15 a.m. on a cold, rainy Friday morning and the first bell has sounded at Maplewood Comprehensive High School. Tyra Washington, an 18-year-old senior, walks the halls as the bodies of students funneling through the low-ceilinged corridor crowd against each other.
Tyra says little except for a few intermittent hellos. She’s tired. It’s the end of the week and she is already well on her way to having clocked in a couple dozen hours at the Kroger a half-mile down the trash-lined street that leads to Dickerson Pike.
She calls it the “bad Kroger,” largely because it sits in her East Nashville neighborhood, which, given its patchwork of liquor stores, fast food joints and the like, is a typical low-income neighborhood.
As she makes her way through the maze to her first-period advanced placement class, she could very well be walking through just about any Metro high school. From the uniform-laden students to the rows of lockers and motivational signs that mark the good-enough-for-now facilities, Maplewood has all the trappings of any all-American high school. If it weren’t for its test scores and a ghastly graduation rate, Maplewood probably wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar.
But that’s not the case. When the state took control of the school two years ago, everyone took notice. And all that negative attention has weighed heavily on the Maplewood student psyche—so much so that students have come to dread the look of concern on strangers’ faces when they utter the words “Maplewood” and “my school” conjunctively.
All that considered, Tyra chose to come here. When given not one, but two, opportunities to attend a magnet school, she declined. Despite dire media reports and nearly half a decade’s worth of failing No Child Left Behind report cards from the state, she proudly calls Maplewood her school. And, like many of her khaki-clad counterparts, many of whom come from single-parent homes and abject poverty, she is ever rising from the quicksand.
But her story of success and triumph isn’t so unusual. Inside Maplewood’s dingy halls, tucked away in classrooms that are a bit worse for the wear, they’re everywhere: students who emerge from the setbacks of the socio-economic muck and mire to make something of themselves. These are kids with the simple desire to do better.
Maplewood administrators and teachers will tell you that No Child Left Behind (NCLB), designed to measure and improve school performance by increasing state accountability, is an unfair barometer of the school’s performance.
But Maplewood has never demonstrated the kind of numbers to show that its students are progressing in three key categories: graduation rate and scores on the math and reading/language arts portions of the state’s Gateway exams, which are end-of-course tests that measure the most basic of skills.
Even before the school fared poorly by NCLB standards, it was not meeting the state’s own benchmarks for progress. When NCLB began in 2001, the state had two options for schools such as Maplewood: Let them start anew and free of state sanctions, or hold them accountable for past failings. The state chose the latter. Before NCLB was in full swing, Maplewood had already moved a few steps closer to state takeover.
Every year since, Maplewood has failed to make adequate yearly progress. Last school year, for instance, Tennessee’s target graduation rate was 90 percent, and its actual rate was almost 69 percent. Maplewood’s rate, however, was less than 43 percent. The state requires 75 percent of high school students to pass the Algebra I Gateway exam. Only 52 percent of Maplewood test-takers made the mark last school year.
Reading/language arts scores were encouraging but still not up to par. The state benchmark is set at 90 percent, but only 78 percent of Maplewood students passed the test in 2006. Because of these scores, Maplewood is the worst-rated public school in Nashville. Or as Connie Smith, the director of accountability for the state Department of Education, puts it, Maplewood has been “in the loop” of her department’s watchful eye for six years.
The thing is, the state’s accountability chart doesn’t work as a loop at all. The chart, which outlines sanctions ranging from allowing student transfer to complete state takeover, is linear. And Maplewood is at the very end of the line in terms of sanctions. It simply can’t fail any more NCLB benchmarks. And if it does, it’d fall right off the edge of the chart, which fittingly reads a bit like Homeland Security’s terror advisory alert. If Maplewood were held to the terror alert test, the school would be sitting in the blazingly red “severe” zone. So administrators, teachers and students have panicked accordingly.
Judging from the state’s chart alone, Maplewood can’t get any worse—there’s simply nothing left after “reconstitution.” Some in the education field speculate that without improvement, Maplewood would shut down and reopen as a new school under a different name—perhaps as a vocational school. That status certainly isn’t lost on Mayor Karl Dean. Of the 30 or so schools the mayor has toured, Maplewood is the only where he has guest taught. During an interview with the Scene about that experience—on his six-month anniversary in office, no less—Dean openly admits that, of all the schools in Metro, Maplewood is foremost on his mind.
“It’s something that we’ve got to talk about, something we’ve got to get right,” he says. “And it’s something that I’m totally committed to doing. I tell you, I actually think about Maplewood more than the other folks. At the same time that I say that, the students I met there…have every reason to anticipate that they’re going to be a success in life if they work hard and take advantage of opportunities that are given to them. They shouldn’t feel bad about themselves at all.”
Maplewood students the Scene interviewed don’t feel bad about themselves per se, but they certainly don’t like the negative attention their test scores are attracting. When you’re known as the worst-performing school in the district, any misstep or incident—a fight, a fire, an arrest—is magnified.
If you ask any of Maplewood’s nearly 1,000 students what people around town think of them, they’ll rattle off a list with a half-smile: They think we’re poor. We’re violent. We’re criminals. Our school is dangerous. We’ll never go to college.
And, thanks to those test scores, there’s this one: People think we’re dumb.
Now the school is two years into reconstitution, which means the state effectively has wrested control of the school system from the local school district. It not only has replaced the former principal and assistant principals, but it also has added all new guidance counselors and removed many teachers. The school also received an infusion of close to $2 million, used to improve the school’s technology with an additional computer lab, overhead projectors in many classrooms and a roving math lab with laptop computers. There are also new staffers and $17,000 worth of new books.
Smith says Maplewood now will enter a holding pattern to see if it improves. “It doesn’t happen immediately,” she says. “A school doesn’t get in this shape overnight, and it will not turn around overnight.” Smith says the state will give schools three to five years to make adequate progress. If Maplewood meets the NCLB benchmarks for two consecutive years, it could start at square one and be removed from the sanctions list entirely.
Principal Julie Williams is confident in the ability of her students and staff to save Maplewood from closing its doors entirely. “I don’t want to oversimplify it, but it’s not going to be that hard,” she says. “The hard part is out of our control, and we really have to come up with some creative solutions.”
When it comes to addressing the school’s dropout rate, which Williams partly attributes to “out of control” factors such as poverty and lack of parent involvement, Maplewood officials are considering diversifying the school’s offerings with a night program and more career and technical courses to make learning more relevant to different types of students.
Next school year, Williams says Maplewood will be fully implementing small learning communities, three of which will focus on particular career paths. Maplewood will also start a block schedule that will allow students to complete classes at the end of a semester as opposed to the end of the school year—a move that will help highly mobile students earn course credits in a shorter period of time, theoretically before transferring to another school.
More advanced placement course offerings are also in the works. “There’s probably a preconception that students here are not that smart, and that’s definitely not right,” she says. “There are extremely bright students—as many as you would find anywhere.”
Tyra has made her way through the hallways and taken her seat at the front of advanced placement government class. It’s a little after 7:20 a.m., but the hands of the clock are fixed at one minute before 8. Tyra, effortlessly pretty, gives her classmates warm, sincere smiles.
She leads a predictably hard life. She went to Gra-Mar Middle School, a feeder school that Maplewood teachers say produces students sometimes several grade levels behind in their progress. She also was raised by a single mother who did not go to college, works in human resources at an insurance company and hopes “that her kids don’t end up like her because she’s working really hard just to pay the bills,” Tyra says.
Tyra’s mother is not alone. Maplewood’s own community demographics show that almost 42 percent of those living within the school’s cluster make less than $25,000 a year. And nearly 56 percent of households with children in that same area are headed by single parents. Tyra’s father once struggled with drugs and alcohol and no longer lives with the family. He still provides intermittent financial support, but Tyra says her family lives paycheck to paycheck.
All that considered, she fits the criteria for one of Maplewood’s potential problem students nearly as well as she does for one of its success stories. The stability of her home life, however, has given her a distinct advantage. For several years, Maplewood’s mobility rate has hovered at around 50 percent. Because students move around a lot, it’s not uncommon for the school’s teachers to add or subtract students from their rosters on a weekly basis.
Tyra isn’t exactly sure how she turned out as well as she did, though she’s got a sneaking suspicion that it has something to do with how her mother is always in her business. When she tries to recall how she got to this point—how she now has a college acceptance letter and how she worked her way up the Maplewood ranks to become the salutatorian of her class—she talks about her achievements almost as if she spun a wheel and somehow won a game of chance.
“I’ve been exposed to the bad side, or whatever,” she says. “When I look at some of my other friends who used to go to middle school with me, I’m like, ‘Dang, what happened?’ Pregnant, or on drugs...it’s just weird because what makes me so different from that person? How did they end up falling off track and getting into something like that when I’m—”
She pauses and looks down. “I guess it just goes back to home because my momma does not play. She doesn’t. She’s not strict, she just wants us to succeed…. She completed high school, but she didn’t go to college...so she does not want us to be like that.”
Tyra also wonders how different her life would be if she’d taken the opportunity to attend Hume Fogg when she was accepted during her eighth-grade year—thanks to her scores on the TCAP exam. Now her reason for choosing Maplewood seems almost implausible. “I didn’t go because I was in the band, and I didn’t know you could go to Hume Fogg and be in another band,” she says.
Hume Fogg doesn’t have a band, so the former drum major who now plays clarinet altered the course of her early academic career because, aside from working and going to church, participating in the band is how she spends most of her out-of-school time. It wasn’t until this year that Tyra found out that she could’ve attended Hume Fogg and joined the band at another Metro high school.
Because of Maplewood’s reconstitution status, Tyra, like all Maplewood students, had the opportunity to transfer to stately looking East Literature Magnet. She stayed put because she didn’t want to lose her friends or any of her hard-earned class credits. Her principal says only one student decided to make the trek across East Nashville.
When the mayor toured Maplewood, with its walls of peeling paint, scuffed floors and generally dingy appearance, he certainly took notice. “I thought the physical plan itself was not what I would want—I would want it to be better,” he says. And the Maplewood community agrees.
But Maplewood students are a bit more impassioned. “Just because I’ve been going to public school my whole life does not mean that I don’t want to learn or I shouldn’t have the newest books just like the magnet schools,” Tyra says. “Hume Fogg is put up on a pedestal, and public schools are down here. We are all in the same district. We are all the same students.”
In Tyra’s government class this particular Friday morning, all of the students have textbooks—except for one girl who saunters in late, sits in the front row and picks at her nails. Only one larger desk in the corner bears a smattering of Sharpie graffiti. You might expect a crowded room—a harrowing teacher-to-student ratio—yet half of the desks are empty.
The teacher has assigned the students to watch all of the presidential primary debates at home, and as she launches a class discussion about the results of the Texas primary contests, the student discourse quickly livens at the mention of Barack Obama. For the remainder of the class, none of the teacher’s questions goes unanswered.
In the center of the classroom, just a few feet from the new overhead projector bought through that $2 million infusion of cash, there’s a small cluster of oversized $1’s, $5’s, $10’s and $20’s hanging from the ceiling.
Dangling amid the laminated bills, which glisten as they catch rays of fluorescent lighting, a small sign reads: “Use your brain to make it rain.” (Remember how Pacman Jones tossed hundreds of $1 bills on the stage of that Vegas strip club, causing a dancer battle royale? He was making it rain.)
Here in the classroom, a phrase so steeped in sex and hip-hop seems a bit out of place. But the bigger meaning isn’t lost on Maplewood students. Money—or the glaring fact that students and their families have little of it—can’t be ignored here. In between classes—in the middle of classes—students talk about their hourly wages or about not having enough money to go on a school field trip.
Later today, as Tyra and fellow students work to create public service announcements in their third-period food and nutrition class, one boy will momentarily pause his research on bananas and say, “I hope I get this grant [for college]. I need every dime I can get.” Another boy, who apparently spent the better part of his first two classes twisting half of his hair into the formative stage of dreadlocks, will simply lean back and declare, “You and everybody else.”
It’s true. This morning in Tyra’s government class, a discussion about special interest groups turns to talk about which students will take the course’s advanced placement test, an act that can garner college course credits for adept test-takers. “How many of you plan to take the test?” the teacher asks, as only a handful of the 15 students raise their hands. “Have you been saving?” A girl named Phone Sengbouttarath, another 18-year-old senior and the class valedictorian, asks if students who are on the federal Free and Reduced Meal Program will get a discount on the test, which can cost nearly $80. If students do save for the test, will the school or an outside donor match the funds? This morning, no one knows the answer, so the teacher resigns to ordering only eight of the exams.
As Tyra walks into a classroom for students in the school’s advanced program (called AVID), pennants for Fisk University, Spelman College, Tennessee State University and the like line the walls. The director of the AVID program and a woman who has taught at Maplewood for 20 years, Priscilla Marable, directs the students to pick up a handout she’s printed onto Day-Glo orange sheets of paper. It’s a month-old inspirational she downloaded from the DailyOM website. This particular motivational thought is titled “Small Steps to Big Change.”
“You’re going to need all of the inspiration you can get,” Marable says. “It’s getting pretty close to the time I can’t share this with you.” A girl sitting in the back donning a satiny purple jacket and large silver hoop earrings tears up as Marable tells the students that they can’t let rejections from scholarship committees and from their colleges of choice get them down. Many of the students in this classroom have been in the program for a good three years.
The target for the international AVID program, which urges teachers to find and nominate students who are neither working at a remedial level nor are high performing, is to cater to those students who fall somewhere in the middle. From providing college tours and ACT test prep to vehemently pushing students to apply for college and every ounce of financial aid available to them, the AVID program forces kids to actively plan for—even obsess about—what comes after high school.
Many of Tyra’s classmates know that even a college acceptance letter doesn’t mean a whole lot without money to get there. And Marable won’t let them forget it. She hands out an assignment that asks students to list the names of the colleges they’ve been admitted to along with the cost of tuition, books, room and board.
This is the first time that Tyra has looked up from her desk. She skipped the inspirational read-along to bubble in small circles on her ACT registration form. Today is the final day to register for the exam. Gobs of the white, oversized envelopes bearing those three important letters appear at random throughout the school today and bob up and down like confetti in the crowded hallways.
Teacher after teacher remind students that the forms must be postmarked today. A good three out of four students seem to have made their way to school without the three stamps required to ship the bulky envelopes. For many students, $1.23 stands between them and the test they must take to be admitted into college.
Throughout the day, Marable will collect 37 of these envelopes from students, non-AVID participants included, and drive to the post office. Here she will peel the backs off more than 100 stamps and smack them onto the corners of each envelope because, well, someone has to.
Now, faced with reality and the daunting task of planning her financial future, Tyra looks up from her ACT registration form and says, “My college is $22,000. When do I have to pay it?” Marable replies with reassurance about payment schedules. Satisfied, Tyra makes her way to one of the classroom’s six or so computers to visit the site of Hampton University, a historically black school located in Hampton, Va., where she hopes to attend this fall.
Tyra’s chocolaty doe eyes light up with thoughts of Hampton University. One of the perks of applying to an out-of-state school? Tyra had a secret hope that Maplewood’s reputation as a failing school wouldn’t travel across state lines. “I thought about that when I was doing college applications,” she says. “I was afraid they would’ve heard about Maplewood, that they would automatically put a preconceived notion on me because I go here.”
Tyra did get accepted at Hampton. But when she traveled to Virginia to interview with university officials, she couldn’t help but bring up Maplewood’s shortcomings. “I told the Hampton interviewers that we were one of the low-performing schools in Tennessee. And they told me it doesn’t matter because at college, you start over with a clean slate. [They said] your high school has nothing to do with what you do now. I just felt good after that.”
The problems Tyra identifies at Maplewood aren’t what you might imagine. She doesn’t complain about the facilities or the quality of its teachers. She doesn’t even seem to care much that parts of the school look as if they could soon crumble around her.
If she could change anything, it would be what people think about Maplewood—and how quick they are to assume that bad test scores translate to a bad, dangerous school. “If it was violent, I wouldn’t come here,” she says. “My mother wouldn’t send me to a violent school.”
It’s a sentiment mirrored by school resource officers Jonathan Marklein and James Freeman, who have collectively policed Maplewood for seven years. “It’s not as big as your Antiochs or McGavocks or your Glencliffs, and I’ve found it to be not as violent,” Freeman says. When compared to other high schools, such as Antioch, McGavock and Hunters Lane, last school year Maplewood had about one-half of the violations and serious offenses.
Still, some students feel the inexplicable need to perpetuate the stereotype. On a recent visit to the school, a small group of students milling about on their lunch break approached this reporter. Under the watchful eye of one of the school’s many surveillance cams, one boy broke from the bunch, placed his right arm under his bloated, puffy coat and used his free arm to jerk his hood over his head.
As he ducked his face toward his armpit, directing his gaze somewhere between me and the cool pavement, he grabbed my arm with a ginger grip, as if he were trying to gently wake me from sleep. The hand that formed his hidden, makeshift gun was still taut under the confines of his coat pocket.
“Give me your purse,” he said without any real conviction, his voice soft and tentative. In the moment before he laughed uncomfortably and walked away, we locked eyes for the first time. And I can’t tell who was more uncomfortable, him or me.
Teacher Ryan Murphey has experienced firsthand how rough and tumble Maplewood can be. He’s seen gangs “post up” in the hallways, an act that’s more about rivals staring each other down than anything else. But he notes that it’s not as if students fight every day. It’s just every now and then. “The tensions are already high in this type of setting,” he says. “And that element of it is probably the most daunting thing as a teacher because it’s something you know that you can’t do a whole lot about.”
Murphey’s most serious run-in with violence was brief: He held students after class for misbehaving and stood in the doorway to block their exit. A large boy rushed the door, knocking Murphey to the floor in the process.
Murphey says he feels as if he spent his entire first year at the school just trying to stay put. But judging by the students who pile into his classroom after school to play board games like Boggle and Scrabble, and by the students who congregate at his classroom door to laugh and chat with ease, it seems as if Murphey has broken the barrier with his students. He attributes that feat to being “someone willing to believe that they really are smart.”
But not every Maplewood classroom can be filled with students as inspired as Tyra and other overachievers of the like. One Tuesday afternoon, Murphey, a thin thirtysomething with an endearingly dorky, white-guy nature, smiles through the struggle to motivate his junior English class. One entire row of students have their heads on their desks.
To raise student interest in a grammar lesson on parallelism, Murphey uses the new overhead projector and a nifty computer program that features the electronically jarring voice of a cyborg that reads Murphey’s notes and directs the students through the lecture. “Wuz up my home eez?” the robotic voice booms, reading from a script also projected onto a screen at the front of the classroom. For the computer to get it right, most slang words must be spelled phonetically. “Today we will learn about parallelism.”
Murphey refers to this as speaking his students’ language. “I would do anything I can to communicate with kids,” he says. “One minute I may say something extremely elevated in diction, speaking about some literary philosophy like transcendentalism. And then the next minute, I might say, ‘Hey dog, you feel me?’ ”
And it works. Several boys and a girl with a shock of pink hair volunteer to come to the front of the class and grab pieces of paper to create a sentence applying what they just learned. They arrange the words assigned to create a sentence that reads: “Tupac Shakur is talented, inspirational and tragic to most of his fans.”
By the end of this grammar session, five of the 14 students in class today have fallen prey to the lure of napping on their desktops. Still, Murphey has come to count a class in which a vast majority of students participate as a success.
“What really impresses me is the students who can rise above whatever issues are going on behavior-wise at school,” Murphey says. “They’re like these little super robots…. Some kid might get angry and storm out...and you’ll have another five or six students sitting over here asking me what I meant by something I said. And my reality starts to crumble.”
In his two-and-a-half years at Maplewood, Murphey also has learned that sometimes being a good teacher involves being an easy target of laughter vs. anger. On a Friday afternoon, before an auditorium packed with students assembled for a poetry slam, Murphey’s got a bigger audience than usual.
He seems small as he stands before the microphone with an acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder, the stage big and empty around him. “Can I get a beat?” he asks the audience. Hands rise into the air in intermittent claps as students struggle to create a unified thumping. Then they get it, and it’s loud enough to reverberate within our chairs.
In his blue button-up shirt and gray suit jacket, Murphey’s hand begins to move quickly on the strings as he passionately belts out the lyrics to an up-tempo song titled “Marigold” that he co-wrote with a friend and dedicates to the students.
He begins to sing. Run away at the devil’s pace / Pour yourself into another space.
Some students laugh so hard that their bodies seem to fold in two at the waist as they hunch over in the theater seats. Others cup curled hands over their mouths, guttural laughs and “ohs” pouring out between their closed fingers.
Burn a hole right through your past.
A few students spring from their seats and dance and jiggle a bit. But the great majority of the group has taken to clapping their hands high above their heads and swaying their outstretched arms in a fluid motion side to side. It’s as if they’ve coordinated the move en masse, and there’s something to that undulating sea of arms that makes you smile until tears dampen your eyes and a knot of emotion catches within the bottom of your throat.
Under the earth I know, there blooms a desert marigold.
There’s a sense of lightness about them, of freedom. As they cast their gazes toward the stage, Tyra and her peers look just like what they are: a bunch of kids laughing and having fun, not at Murphey’s expense, but as a group that knows each other. In the reduced lunch line, on the school bus, in the run-down, trash-lined streets of their East Nashville neighborhood that join adult sex stores, tire shops and seedy motels to form their community—the shared elements that make up their world—these students understand each other.
This is not the Maplewood you would expect.Principal Williams calls this the school’s “unknown factor.” Students have joined their teachers and principals to form a kind of family, one where they root for each other’s success. Perhaps it’s because deep down, they know that if they don’t, few outside of the Maplewood walls will.
This is exactly why we should be friends. :)
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