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13 MILES TO MARSHALL: Hard classes and difficult lessons for Albion teens (chapter 2)


Last spring, before the merger, Albion 11th-graders scored below the state average in all five subjects tested on the Michigan Merit Exam; Marshall was above average in all five. The percentage of students scoring at a proficient level or higher in social studies at Marshall was double the percentage at Albion; in writing, more than double.

The kids from Albion noticed the difference when they walked into Marshall classrooms in September. Homework that was optional and not graded at Albion was strictly enforced at their new school. There was less “hand holding” by teachers at Marshall, said sophomore Jontaj Wallace. Teachers told students what to do, and they expected them to do it.

“The classes aren’t noisy,” said De’Jhannique Straham. “Teachers aren’t stopping every two minutes to tell kids to be quiet.”

Albion senior Jerome Washington, who has two Marshall juniors tutoring him in algebra II and physics, noted that “The teachers here don’t play around. There aren’t a lot of students playing, either. They get their work done.”

Homework and noise, though, aren’t the root causes of the difference. A sobering reality of U.S. education is that academic success generally rises and falls with the size of a family’s paycheck. Albion 11th graders’ scores on the Michigan Merit Exam were typical for children who qualify for free or reduced lunch across the state (and significantly better in math and science).

Math teacher Kyle Young said he has had to hand out multiplication tables to Albion students during quizzes and tests in algebra II. “The accountability hadn’t been there,” Young said.

“Our Albion kids have more hurdles, whether it be academic or economic,” added 12th-grade English teacher Julie Smith. “Our rich Marshall kids I guarantee have more resources than our Albion kids. Why wouldn’t they have more success?”

Smith, an outgoing teacher who often stays after school to work with students, said she had to adjust her teaching style when she realized Albion students, assigned to writing a research paper, didn’t know what a parenthetical citation was. “They are perfectly capable with the right amount of support,” Smith said. “But they can’t know what they haven’t been taught.”

Graded homework and photocopied multiplication tables won’t change the fact that the Albion students come from low-income families. Will attending a higher-income, higher-academic school make a difference?

Absolutely, says Richard Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation in New York, who has written extensively on the economic integration of schools.

“There is 50 years of research to suggest that low-income students perform substantially better in middle-class rather than low-income schools,” Kahlenberg said. “For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a national, standardized test) in math, low-income fourth grade students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools.

“Higher-income schools tend to have college-going expectations and cultures, highly active parental groups, and strong teachers compared to high-poverty schools. While there is often an initial period of adjustment for low-income students,” Kahlenberg said, “the long-run benefits are undeniable.”

Smith has been teaching English for a decade at Marshall High, where all 47 classroom teachers are white in a building that is now about one-fifth minority. The district recently allowed a Bridge reporter to sit in on Smith’s class and talk with students and teachers at the school.

“Our rich Marshall kids I guarantee have more resources than our Albion kids. Why wouldn’t they have more success?” – Julie Smith, 12th grade English teacher, Marshall High

“I didn’t grow up in an environment like that,” Smith said of her new students from Albion. “Marshall is not like that. We’re trying to understand how they (Albion students) react to things.”

In one class early on, a shouting match erupted between Albion and Marshall students when an Albion student was playing music in the back of the room during a movie about Henry Ford. “I told him, ‘Are you flipping stupid? Turn off your music,’” recalled a Marshall student.

That incident, in the first week of school in September, hasn’t been repeated, the student said. Different schools, different expectations.

“You become what people expect of you,” Smith said.

A longer road

Both districts needed to change to survive, but among students, it is the kids from Albion who are changing the most. They’re getting up earlier in the morning and getting home later at night. They’ve given up their Wildcat T-shirts for the clothing of their former bitter rival Redhawks. None of their teachers came to Marshall (some are still unemployed). And while Marshall students have been overwhelmingly welcoming, the new school is sometimes seen through a different lens by Albion students.

De’Jhannique tells the story of a girl from Marshall dragging her personal laptop across a classroom floor, the computer banging into chairs and desks. De’Jhannique, whose mother gets up at 4:40 every morning to work as a manager of an Arby’s in Albion, shook her head. “I thought, holy cow, do you know what I’d give to have a laptop? I’d take care of it so well.”

There are 27 students in fifth period Advanced Placement English, with De’Jhannique the only African-American and only student from Albion – in fact, the only Albion student in any AP class at Marshall. She is struggling with the class, and has considered dropping it.

Many of the students have colorful binders for their homework assignments, a different color for each class. De’Jhannique has one binder – black, held together with duct tape.

One day when a Bridge reporter was present, students moved their desks into a circle to discuss the book they’re reading. It was a student-led discussion, with students making comments or asking questions, and then calling on another student to speak. Participation counts toward their grade.

De’Jhannique raised her hand to talk, holding it in the air for several minutes, but her name wasn’t called.

“Make sure everyone gets a chance,” reminded Smith, “not just the same ones.”

De’Jhannique raised her hand again, while her classmates called on friends they’d known for years. The class ended, with De’Jhannique one of the few students who didn’t speak.



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