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Fighting for an Education
It's a constant struggle at Weaver to fend off the lure of the street. But some rise above it.

July 13, 2004
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB , Hartford Courant Staff Writer

Inside Weaver High School

Weaver High School's principal, Paul Stringer, is as tough as men come. He was injured twice as a Marine in Vietnam and came home with a Purple Heart. He runs his school with the unsmiling, singular control of a combat officer.

But even Stringer was stunned by his students' quick return to order after a February brawl in a hallway in which three students were stabbed. Within a half-hour, the school was humming as if nothing had happened.

Crisis counselors were called in to speak to students. ``Not one student needed to talk,'' Stringer recalls weeks later. ``I said `For God's sake, you're so hardened.'''

In Hartford's North End, where it takes strategy to pass the corner hangout of rival students from another block, it isn't a bad thing to be hardened.

Violence is so much a part of Weaver students' lives that it permeates such decisions as whether to join an after-school club and risk walking home alone or whether to wear jewelry to school.

``It's the toughest school in the city,'' Stringer says. ``The kids are so used to seeing [violence] in their community. They are so resilient. I had to go to Vietnam to become that hardened.''

But toughness only goes so far. The challenges presented by poverty and violence are powerful distractions for students trying to concentrate on algebraic formulas or the Periodic Table of the Elements. Abysmal scores on the all-important standardized tests are evidence of the problems percolating beneath the surface.

With the heavy threat of sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act, Weaver is trying to navigate the thicket of low student achievement and increasing state and federal demands, often with little help from the parents who hold the power to make or break a school.

It can feel, at times, like an entire building being left behind, which makes it easy to overlook the school's strengths.

There are teachers such as Michael Suppicich, whose biology class is like a symphony in play. Students fall silent when the door closes and they sit in rapt attention while he moves seamlessly between the blackboard, a Power Point presentation, worksheets and handouts.

And there are students such as Harvard-bound valedictorian Stephanie Lawrence, who credits Weaver with giving her a rich education in the realities of life.

Chemistry teacher James Quinlan says it straight. ``I didn't know what to expect. I'm a 5-foot-6 little white boy coming into an all-black school. I was scared. ... But you couldn't drag me out of this school. The music may be different. The clothes may be different. But they're kids. And I love being here.''

The challenge is to make the school a place where even the most troubled kids can learn. But when half of the incoming ninth-graders are reading at the fifth-grade level, teachers and administrators at Weaver face a daunting task.

A Troubled Marriage

Much as it might like to, Weaver cannot divorce itself from the pathology of the streets. In its halls, cafeterias and classrooms, reflexes are exercised that are born and honed beyond the school's walls.

The very clothes that students wear to memorialize friends who are killed on the streets are featured in the annual student fashion show. This year, ``rest-in-peace'' wear followed prom wear and Caribbean wear down the fashion runway. Some kids, such as all-state basketball player Tetrick Stonar, wear laminated obituaries around their necks to school each day.

After the stabbings, parents met with Stringer to demand accountability, with many wondering why students would bring weapons to school. For protection walking to and from school, kids quietly say.

Now that metal detectors employed since the stabbings make it harder to get those weapons inside, guards say some students are stashing weaponry outside. Junior Alicia ``Lisa'' Dingwall says she has heard students make plans to put knives in their cleats or in the middle of a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil in order to get them through the metal detectors.

``Why would they want a weapon inside?'' wonders her mother, Audrey Cunningham. ``They're going to school. They're not going to war.''

There are times, though, that the walk home can feel like a war zone.

Jerome Paul, a Weaver High School junior who recently moved from Jamaica to be with his father, knows the fear. About two months after the stabbings, Jerome was walking home alone from Weaver when three teens wearing black face masks and black hooded sweat shirts jumped him.

One assailant held a knife to Jerome's throat, cut his chin and beat him. Another pulled a pocket right off his jeans to get his wallet. When the muggers took off, they left him bleeding and crying out for them to please return his Social Security card and a treasured chain that belongs to his father.

The street culture is a crucible that winnows out all but the strongest students. About half of each class doesn't make it through from freshman year to graduation; they drop out, move, claim a bunk at a juvenile detention center or, if they're persistent, get a less prestigious diploma from the city's adult education program.

The other half forges the resiliency that Stringer has noticed. It is the core of the pride students feel in their school and in themselves. It is the strength that carries them through the streets in sheltering groups, laughing and gossiping as kids do. It is the muscle that helps them stay alive and helps them stay in school.

The whole school takes pride in student accomplishments. Teachers and students were abuzz about graduating football player Kevaughn Johnson-Henry, who earned a full athletic scholarship to the University of Rhode Island, and about three sophomore girls who won first place in a national engineering competition.

The acceptance of Weaver students to 54 colleges and universities, including Trinity College, Boston University and the University of Connecticut, is testament to the scholarship the school offers.

Five Floors Of Basement

Weaver stands in the center of sprawling, well-kept lawns in the Blue Hills section that could be the envy of any rural Connecticut town. Graceful birches edging the soccer and football fields evoke stanzas from Robert Frost poetry and some of the state's finest athletes draw large and loyal crowds when they play on those fields.

The building's gloomy interior is far from inspiring, though. If anything, it asserts itself as an incarnation of the sunless lives of so many of the city's poor residents.

Every third student who enters is brushed with a metal-detecting wand to search for weapons. Few classrooms have windows.

On floor after floor, for five stories, classrooms are as closed-in as a basement. Teachers complain bitterly about mold and air quality. In the girls' bathrooms, stall doors and wall tiles are missing. Old classroom desks are pocked with holes filled with gum wrappers. Folding walls between many of the classrooms are falling apart and offer little sound barrier between rooms.

``A death-row inmate has more natural sunlight in his cell than a student in this school,'' says James Westberry, the school's CPR instructor, who worked for the state Department of Correction for 20 years. ``The sun, the sky, if you don't have it, you're starved mentally and physically. This school should be torn down.''

Security guards advocate leveling the building and replacing it with a campus of smaller schools, too, but for a different reason. Even though more guards were added since the stabbing, Weaver's guards say it's impossible to effectively patrol all the corridors of such a large school, with 1,300 students.

The security officers point out small corridors around the gym on the first floor where students go to sell drugs, gamble or have sex. A 15-year-old student claims she conceived her child in an unlocked fourth-floor classroom last year while guards were patrolling the second-floor cafeterias during lunch. And there are so many doors on the first and second floors that security officers say there is no way to watch them all. Students open locked exterior doors for their friends all day.

What Weaver needs, the guards say, is more guards. Budget constraints threaten to diminish their numbers, though. Some assistant principals, who shoulder the bulk of the school's discipline, could lose their jobs, too.

To break the school into manageable parts, Stringer has organized four academies -- health careers; business and finance; law and public service; and arts and technology. Students choose their academy and their teachers share planning time, coordinate lessons to reinforce themes and discuss the needs of students they all share.

The school and the academies work with local colleges to create opportunities for students. For example, the health careers academy works with UConn to offer a course that trains students as nurses' assistants. Each year, 30 to 40 students earn certification as nurses' assistants. And the University of Hartford has approved a staff teacher to offer a course in Western civilization for a college credit. Each year, 20 to 25 students earn that credit, Stringer said.

Each academy has its own assistant principal. Losing even one of those assistant principals would undermine the whole system, Stringer says.

Maria's Making It

A study of Maria White is a study of the Weaver students who will make it to the graduation stage.

She's a senior and a mother of a 1-year-old son. But it's not her teen motherhood that defines her, it's the responsible way she incorporates her mothering into her life along with a job, a heavy course load of top-level classes, plans for college and big-sister duties that include making breakfast every morning.

She is independent and can be single-minded. Obstacles, of her own making or otherwise, do not derail her. Rather, they take their place as steps to negotiate in her path to success.

When, for example, Maria's mother bought a house in the South End in an effort to extricate her family from the embattled North End, Maria, then a freshman, rose early to catch city buses back to Weaver. She liked the culture of Weaver's nearly all-black population better than the more diverse culture at nearby Bulkeley High.

Then, when her son was born, that alarm was set back even further, to 5:30 a.m., to give her time to feed and clothe him and get her siblings ready for school. She changed her sights from Smith College, which requires freshmen to live on campus, to UConn's West Hartford campus.

``She will have an efficiency apartment and she will take on her responsibility,'' says her mother, Sophia Gillespie.

While Maria does not regret her decision to attend Weaver, she wishes the school offered more enrichment activities: a student government, a drama club that produced plays, a debate team.

Maria also believes Weaver teachers do poorly at pushing along students who don't push themselves hard enough. ``The kids in basic classes, no one's pushing them saying `you're too smart for this class.'''

And she thinks the school should do more to harness the power of peer pressure. At a community meeting with Stringer after the stabbings, Maria suggested assemblies so seniors who command the respect of younger students could explain how violence among a few affects everybody. The message would carry more weight with teens if it came from their peers, she argues.

Gillespie knows what Maria is talking about when it comes to teens shrugging off adults. If Maria had listened to her mother, Gillespie says, she would not have gotten pregnant and she would have taken an easier class load. After all, Maria needs just a few English credits to graduate, yet she loaded up on Advanced Placement and honors English, history and psychology courses. Instead of coasting, she's struggling.

Maria wanted to look like a serious student to colleges. It's all part of her plan to earn a degree in nursing so she can earn a good salary as a nurse to pay her way through law school.

Gillespie aggressively advocates for Maria in disputes with teachers over grades and helps Maria take care of her son.

It's clear where Maria gets her can-do spirit. Gillespie says she can't stand to hear children say they can't do something. ``If you fall, try again,'' she says. ``Never give up.''

`I Need Your Help, Folks'

Paul Stringer needs more parents like Sophia Gillespie. Those who teach respect and right from wrong.

The aggressive culture of the streets often eclipses civility at Weaver. Angry students are heard shouting in hallways even after assistant principals ask them to lower their voices. One boy threatened to kill guard Greg Covington earlier this year. And in May, guard Reggie Balfour was injured when a boy rammed him while being escorted from a classroom.

There are fights nearly every day in Weaver's halls and classrooms. The fighters are suspended from school. Some are arrested or expelled.

But neither suspensions nor arrests seem to carry a badge of shame.

Teacher Joshua Hall, a graduate of Hartford Public High School who has been teaching at Weaver for eight years, said some students don't have the behavioral conditioning that comes from years and years of strong parental guidance.

``They know what's right and wrong, but they don't have the muscle memory,'' Hall says, referring to automatic responses such as the one that helps people press the right keys on a typewriter even when they can't say where a key is located without looking at the keyboard.

The rule for survival on the streets is the muscle memory that gets triggered when students feel angry or menaced. Over and over again, teachers and administrators at Weaver say what youngsters need is practice at behaving well.

What's missing, guards, administrators and even some students say, is parents who can teach their children self-control.

A day after the stabbings, parents filled the school cafeteria at a PTO meeting, demanding accountability. Parent after parent rose and delivered heart-felt pleas for change or passionately pledged their time to help the school.

A few weeks later, when the PTO convened again in the cafeteria, the room was virtually empty.

``It's embarrassing,'' Stringer told residents assembled at a church some weeks later. ``I have 1,300 students and I can only hope for 20 parents at PTO meetings. My daughter went to Hall. When there was a PTO meeting, you had to look for a parking place. Do the parents in West Hartford care more about their kids?''

Last year, the school issued 738 suspensions and expelled 10 students. Bulkeley and Hartford Public, by comparison, have larger enrollments and expelled five students each.

Invariably, Stringer says, parents come in to negotiate for a lesser sentence. ``I say, `Just as fast as you got up here to negotiate the length of suspension, I want to see you take your child by the collar and ask him why he did what he did.'''

Stringer pleaded: ``We cannot just give up on our kids. I need your help, folks. I need your help.''

Hit Man

Trouble is, the parents who showed up for this community meeting are the ones who have their children under control.

Many of the parents Stringer needs -- those whose children are chronically tardy, who fail or skip classes or who bully and fight other students -- need as much help as their children. They are the parents of the more than 100 students who have each had more than 30 unexcused absences for the year. And they don't want to hear from Stringer.

They are parents such as Charlene Ables, mother of 17-year-old freshman Courtney Brown, who is so intent on keeping school administrators at bay that she changed her phone number and pointedly withheld her new number from the school.

It's not that Ables doesn't care about Courtney's education. She does. With pride, she pulls out a file holding every note -- in pristine condition -- that was ever sent home praising her son for behaving well, graduating from a program or an elementary school, or for doing well in school.

Ables concedes that she simply does not know how to keep Courtney in line, and she has other things to worry about, such as finding a job, getting together some money to insure her car, hanging on to her apartment.

He is defiant and headstrong just like she is, Ables says on the day Courtney is suspended for a week for cursing in class. She says her own pride and temper cost her a job and got her in plenty of trouble as a kid.

When Courtney was in first grade, Ables had to sit with him through the school day because he wouldn't behave for the teacher.

When he reached middle school, its administrators wouldn't stop calling: ``Courtney got suspended. Courtney got suspended. Courtney got suspended,'' Ables says, hanging her head in exhaustion.

Last year, his first at Weaver, Courtney didn't go to school until November.

``I didn't have no school clothes,'' Courtney says. ``I didn't have no sneakers. I didn't want to wear no old stuff. I wanted to look crisp.''

Ables says she was happy to let him stay home because he had had so much trouble the previous year. She found it a relief not to have to hear from the school about her son's misbehavior.

Finally, Ables says, a nephew who was angry with her for something else reported her to the state Department of Children and Families. ``I got charged with educational neglect.''

So Courtney went to school. But he says he felt so far behind that he didn't see any point in behaving or trying to catch up.

School officials found other reasons to worry about Courtney. ``He told a guidance counselor he wants to be a hit man because they make a lot of money,'' Ables says. ``The guidance counselor sent me a letter. He was disturbed.''

When Courtney's birthday rolled around, Ables had a bakery write ``Hit Man'' on his cake. This year, she inscribed ``Big Smash'' on the cake. ``It's his new nickname.''

On the first full day of his suspension, Courtney rolls out of bed after 8 a.m.

``I don't care if I get suspended. It's just a vacation. I sleep ... I watch kids' shows -- `Clifford the Big Red Dog,' `Dragon Tales,' `Arthur.' I like `Arthur' and `Clifford.'''

On this day, Courtney skips the cartoons. Instead, he sits on the couch for five hours, mostly playing a violent video game and watching bloody movies.

In the video game ``Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,'' the character that Courtney controls killed a female driver because ``she made me swerve.'' He kills one of his own thugs at his compound ``because he bumped me.'' Then, his man beheads cops with machetes and shows no mercy for rivals attempting to surrender.

``Mm, that's the way we do it,'' Courtney says, manipulating his character to kick rivals while they bleed on the ground.

Periodically he reaches down to nurse a gash on his leg where a girl had kicked him out on the street and broken the skin. He says he slapped her in the face but it was all in fun.

Ables dreams of Courtney graduating. And despite all his challenges, he remains in school, where he is assigned to a special class for students who skip classes. He stays in the same classroom for four periods so teachers can make sure he doesn't miss any core subjects. During one science class, teacher Joe Adams had to ask him to stop answering questions to give his classmates a chance. All of his answers were correct.

Adams sees potential in Courtney. He took Courtney and two other students to the new Ocean State Job Lot in Bloomfield to apply for jobs. Adams prepped the boys to have their Social Security numbers and the names and numbers for references.

It all fell apart when interviewers asked the boys why they wanted the jobs and where they saw themselves 10 years from now. The boys thought they were trick questions. No jobs were offered.

Sitting quietly at home, Courtney confides a dream. If he could do anything, he says, he'd love to be an architect. He has a talent for drawing, which he says he abandoned in middle school when he met a boy who could draw better than he could.

After the hours on the couch, Courtney showers and gets dressed. Then, having skipped out of school without collecting homework for his detention and not having a job to go to, he heads out to his usual hang-out: Nelton Court housing project.

No reporters allowed.


All the energy, optimism and resiliency at Weaver have their limits.

While the teachers and administrators are exceptionally dedicated to the school and the students, the demands on them can be overwhelming.

The school has already been identified under the federal No Child Left Behind law as one of eight high schools statewide ``in need of improvement.'' Each year that the school's test scores do not improve considerably, new sanctions are added. This year, the district had to provide a public school choice option and pay for transportation. Next year, the school would also have to pay for tutoring. The year after, changes could be required in staffing or leadership. Finally, in 2006-07, the school could face new governance either by a state takeover or by an independent board.

Even Stringer hints at a breaking point: If the school loses even one assistant principal, he says, he'll be right behind them. ``I can deal with a lot of craziness. But if they take assistant principals from the high school, I don't think this is something I can continue doing.''

And Balfour, the guard who was body-checked by a student, says he doesn't think he can return to the school in the fall. He's been seeing a psychiatrist, he says, to deal with the trauma of witnessing a drive-by shooting near the school last year and from breaking up the February stabbing. Being assaulted by a student, he says, is more insult than he can take.

It's clear from the exhaustion in Eric Crawford's voice how wearing it is to mediate disputes all day long. Crawford, the school district's violence prevention specialist, spends a good deal of time at Weaver.

``This is my second year and I was telling my wife I don't know how much more of this I can take,'' he says, his head in his hands. ``It's not just a fight here and there. It's the culture.''

Crawford worries that students don't understand the gravity of their actions. So many don't see hopeful futures for themselves and they have so little to lose.

The mugging of Jerome is a perfect example, Crawford says. ``They could have killed that boy over a wallet and a chain.''

Next year, Weaver will institute a second-shift high school. Students with behavioral or attendance problems will be moved out of the general population and given more individualized attention in an afternoon program at the school.

Teachers are hoping that will improve the experience for the students who remain in the morning program, too.

Still, there's only so much schools can do to change student behavior, Crawford says.

``How much can the schools shoulder? We've got to teach them manners. We've got to teach them respect. Who's going to teach them to read and write?

``What's the solution?'' he wonders. ``We don't know.''

Ivy Bound

The school's challenges notwithstanding, if it can be judged by its best, then Weaver gets a gold star for educating Stephanie Lawrence. In a year when Loomis Chaffee School and Simsbury High School students are getting acquainted with the wait-list at Harvard, Stephanie was accepted.

She readily concedes that she didn't mix it up with troublemakers, so her experience was steeped in scholarship and achievement. She says there was never a moment when she felt unsafe inside or outside the school. She is in the science club, the Model United Nations, the human relations club, youth in government and the National Honor Society and she walks to school or rides a city bus.

Stephanie attended Weaver by choice, having transferred after a year at Northwest Catholic High School. At Weaver, she found, ``Teachers actually care about you.''

And at Weaver, she says, there's a rich education to be gained from fellow students. ``You learn a lot more than what you learn out of a book. You have to deal with people and with life.''

Even without the benefit of distance from her school, Stephanie is sure its influence will be lifelong. ``It was one of the great experiences of my life.''

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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