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LAST CHANCE FOR ENGLISH HIGH

Harsh realities

Amid visions of a turnaround, overwhelmed teachers find that a new approach can’t solve all the old problems

Second in an occasional series.

In the hallway outside her classroom, Marlene Diaz disappears amid the swirl and din of students. It is five minutes past class time. The young English teacher shouts to be heard. Her voice is hoarse, as it has been many afternoons this year. “You’re late,” she calls. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

She herds a group into the classroom and closes the door. She makes a mental count of the empty seats; five of 17 students are not there. A knell of frustration rings inside her. She takes a breath and marshals her stamina. It is her last class of the day.

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”Good afternoon, my seedlings,” she says and walks the rows of tables, handing out photocopied pages. She has been trying to teach her ninth-graders to write basic essays, and it has not been easy. Some of them have only a rudimentary grasp of grammar and language. Several are repeating the class after failing in previous years. Today, she hopes to inspire them with examples of good writing.

As Diaz launches into her lesson, a boy draws circles on his desk with a blue pen. A girl points her cellphone camera at a classmate and says, “Do something stupid.” Another girl lays her head in her arms on top of her backpack and shuts her eyes.

”You lost a soldier,” a student says to the teacher.

Diaz walks over and taps the sleeping girl’s head with the stack of papers in her hand.

”Yo,” the girl responds, without looking up.

”Miss,” another girl says to Diaz. “Nobody’s paying attention to you.”

The words might as well have echoed through the halls of the school, taunting the teachers and administrators who just three months earlier had begun the year with a giddy hope of reversing the academic decline of one of the worst-performing high schools in the state.

Decaying for decades, The English High School in Jamaica Plain, the nation’s oldest public high school and once one of Boston’s best, was threatened with closure by the state last year. But education officials decided on a last-ditch attempt to turn the 186-year-old school around.

State officials gave the school’s headmaster unprecedented power to manage English, and a year to show improvement. The headmaster lengthened the school day, started tutoring centers and study skills classes, and pushed students to enroll in college-level courses. He dismissed teachers he believed were not committed to his mission and hired enthusiastic ones who said they were. He told the faculty he would demand more from them than ever. And after weeks of intensive preparation over the summer, teachers arrived at a freshly painted school this fall with a belief they could achieve the headmaster’s ultimate goal: Graduate every senior and get them into college.

But a third of the way through the school year, a new reality is setting in. Teachers, shouldering the main burden of reforming the school, are confronting the fact that many of the students lack even the most basic skills. And in a school that serves many students from poor or immigrant families, the challenges of dealing with difficult home lives has proved daunting.

Some teachers are exhausted and overwhelmed. Two of more than two dozen new teachers have quit.

”This was going to be the year where everything changes,” said Diaz, who is in her third year at the school. “Now, frustrations are setting in.”

In coming days, teachers would receive an even grimmer picture. Assembled in a darkened classroom, they watched as a staccato of sobering statistics about the recently completed first term were flashed on a screen:

Sixty-six percent of students had failed at least one class. More than a quarter had failed five of their six classes. Nearly half of the ninth-graders were failing. More than a third of them were absent regularly.

A teacher groaned. “That’s kind of crushing.”

The lights flickered on. The assistant headmaster delivered an inevitable message: Teachers would have to do even more.

Two months earlier, veteran math teacher Jerry Gallagher sat alone at his desk, aimlessly flipping through the syllabus for his calculus class. It was back-to-school night, when teachers had planned to show off the school’s all-out effort.

Teachers had called parents to invite them to the event and sent letters home with students. Teachers spruced up their classrooms. Secretaries put out plates of pastry and fruit.

More than an hour had passed. Not one parent stepped foot in Gallagher’s classroom. The food in the school lobby sat mostly untouched.

Gallagher bowed his head and sighed.

”Just because we’re doing something brand new doesn’t change the dynamics,” he said.

That was October, when teachers were beginning to understand the magnitude of the job they had undertaken and perceive that some of the school’s most ambitious efforts were already suffering.

Attendance, after a brief spike early in the year, slipped to 85 percent in the first term, back to last year’s level and far short of the state standard of 92 percent.

Frustrated by the increased amount of class time and homework, some students have simply left. Since the start of the year, more than 100 of English High’s 800 students have transferred to other schools or been discharged because they stopped coming to class.

”These kids have been so accustomed to getting by doing the minimum that when somebody tells them that’s not good enough, it can get stressful,” said Junia Yearwood, a veteran English teacher.

It has taken a toll on teachers, too. Diaz has struggled to keep her frustrations in check. But at the same time, walking through the hallways near her classroom, she has also taken heart.

On one wall are the names and photos of newly elected student officers, members of the school’s first student government in four years. On another bulletin board are the names of 28 students who have been inducted into the National Honor Society - more than in recent years.

She was especially touched by notes tacked to another wall - Thank you letters, written by students after teachers and an assistant headmaster staged a huge Thanksgiving meal in a school hallway the day before the actual holiday. Students and teachers had hauled desks from classrooms and placed them end-to-end, draped them with blue table cloths and piled them with roasted chickens and pies. Nearly 400 students feasted and relished what seemed to be a new kind of bond with teachers.

”I remember when I first came to English High, I didn’t feel it was the best,” one girl wrote. “I wanted to change schools so badly, but I feel I have a chance for my last year with you by my side.”

Diaz hopes at least some of her students feel that way. Sometimes they behave so badly in class that she has been reduced to counting loudly to regain their attention. Already, she is worried that some may be on a track to fail. It eats at her and makes her think of her own youth. Raised by immigrant parents in a Dorchester housing project, Diaz had felt intense gratitude for the teachers who took the time to care for her and spur her on. Now 26 and in the teacher’s role, she sometimes wants to scream at her students that at stake is nothing less than their lives.

”It’s so overwhelming and disheartening knowing where these kids can end up, and how high the odds become when they act this way,” Diaz said.

One afternoon in November, a teacher pulled Fred Daniels out of his world history class and walked the senior to a small classroom set aside this year for tutoring students who fall behind. The teacher introduced Daniels to a clean-cut Boston University business student named Edwin Pimentel.

Pimentel is one of 15 tutors at English High’s two new Learning Centers. He is 18, a year younger than Daniels.

Daniels sat next to Pimentel at a round table. The tutor flipped through an orange math text Daniels had pulled from his backpack and asked him what chapter he needs help on. Daniels grinned sheepishly. He has hardly opened the book.

Daniels is in his sixth year of high school. He arrived at English last year after a string of expulsions and stints in juvenile detention. But he is bright, and determined to become the first in his family to earn a diploma. The school is determined, too. A school secretary calls him every morning at 5 to rouse him from bed.

He has done well in some classes, but he is failing Algebra II Honors. In the third week of school, the tall, muscular teen had wept in frustration in his headmaster’s office and threatened to drop out of school. His algebra teacher was moving too fast, and he was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Daniels stayed in school but started skipping math.

His teacher had recently hunted him down in a hallway and offered him a deal: He would not receive the F on his first-term report card if he agreed to get help at the Learning Center.

He took it. Now, Daniels rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a stack of homework papers.

”All of this, I’m not gonna lie,” he said, dropping the stack on the table. “I literally copied people to get credit.”

”That’s not good,” Pimentel said. The tutor wrote a problem on a pad of paper and asked Daniels to solve it. Daniels went through the steps, talking out loud. The two worked, passing the pad between them.

Half an hour later, they stopped. Pimentel believed Daniels understood most of the basic principles and was not hopelessly lost.

A teacher who runs the Learning Center told Daniels he should return the following week. Daniels nodded, smiling as he left.

”I’m trying to be optimistic about my future,” he said in the hallway. “But everything in the past is catching up to me. I guess I set myself up for failure.”

Daniels did not return to the Learning Center the following week - or the one after that.

Valeria Cabrera stood in the front office waiting to meet with her headmaster early one November morning. Her brimming backpack pulled her posture ramrod straight. She cradled a stack of binders.

The 17-year-old had fought hard on the first day of school for a full slate of advanced courses. But two months later, she felt pressures mounting. She wanted to drop Advanced Placement biology.

Twice as many students are enrolled in college-level courses this year. And no one drops an AP class without the headmaster’s permission.

José Duarte motioned the girl into his office. Cabrera is ranked third in her senior class of 165, a new member of the National Honor Society and a winner of a statewide college scholarship because of her high MCAS scores.

Duarte was counting on students like her - a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic whose dream is to attend a school like Princeton - to succeed. English High has not had a Princeton admission since the 1970s.

Cabrera sat with her arms crossed. “Do you know I have four AP classes?” she asked Duarte.

He nodded and smiled. “I put you in them.”

”That’s like six hours of homework every night,” Cabrera said, then ticked off her other responsibilities: baby-sitting her younger brother, college applications, a class at Harvard Medical School.

”I hate to see you drop AP biology, for someone who wants to go into the sciences,” Duarte said.

”It damages my other classes,” she said.

”Let me push you back,” Duarte said. “For the next two weeks, let’s put you in the Learning Center.”

”But . . .”

Duarte cut her off. “Don’t just say no.”

”But no,” Cabrera said. “Sometimes there’s a line.”

Duarte knows about a line. After overseeing English High the last eight years, he knows it well.

The next week, he allowed Cabrera to drop AP biology and pick up AP Spanish - a language in which she is already fluent.

Diaz hurried down the hall to borrow a dustpan from a fellow English teacher.

”Have they come yet?” she asked.

The teacher nodded.

Diaz wore gray slacks, an argyle sweater vest, and a crisp white blouse, not her usual end-of-the-week outfit of jeans and blue English High sweatshirt. Earlier in the day, she had frantically decorated a bulletin board. She dusted and swept.

State observers, on their first visit to gauge the school’s progress, were due shortly at her sixth-period class. How many of her students would show up? Would they be ready to present the essays they had spent more than a month perfecting?

The assignment had seemed simple. She had asked each student to pick a subject they know well and explain it in writing.

When she had made the assignment in October, she had allotted two weeks. But day after day, the students struggled to organize their thoughts and express themselves on paper. She gave deadlines, but extended them when students didn’t finish.

The bell rang and students filed in. Diaz counted eight students. Nine were absent.

”Are you ready? Are you ready?” she asked.

The door opened and five state and district officials, including the headmaster, walked in. They wore suits and carried folders. Diaz flushed. Her ears started ringing. She began writing on the board but caught herself misspelling a word. Silently, the officials sat in a row at the back of the room, arms crossed, chins in hands.

A boy volunteered to present his essay. He stood at the front of the room and began reading from a piece of paper. He paused frequently and took deep breaths.

When he finished, a girl peeked in her notebook, where she had written questions that the class had come up with earlier and raised her hand. Why did he choose to write about surviving high school? she asked.

The boy said he had heard rumors in middle school that seniors would flush freshmen’s heads down the toilet. The panel of officials chuckled. Diaz relaxed. After a parade of other presentations, the officials left the classroom as wordlessly as they had entered.

Diaz was grateful, even proud, of her students’ efforts. They had shown mastery of some of the basic writing techniques she had been trying to teach them. She gathered the students at the front of the room, where they buzzed in triumph. “Great job, you guys,” she said before dismissing the class.

Alone, Diaz gathered her students’ papers and treated herself to a piece of the Puerto Rican candy she keeps in a locked cabinet by her desk. She savored the victory of her students’ success. But even as she did, she thought about the difficult road ahead. The essay was but the first of at least five essays the students would have to write before June. It was already nearing Christmas. She would need to be tougher.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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