Closing the Achievement Gap, One 'A' at a Time

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:00 PM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: When a kid suddenly pulls up his shirt to show you scars from a gang-related stabbing, what do you say?]

Early Friday morning Darrell* cracks open the classroom door for a second time here at Mission High. Darrell's nervous. He's been making progress and getting steady B's lately in Robert Roth's Honors History class, but today there's an hour and a half long history test. He's arranged to spend extra time with Mr. Roth this morning reviewing the material.

"Hi Darrell! I'm ready for you," says Roth, who hasn't yet had breakfast or coffee. Darrell nods and takes off his music headphones as he enters the room. Dressed in a Mission High T-shirt, he towers over his teacher. He takes his usual spot in the back of the class, gets his notebook out of the backpack, and looks for the right page.

"OK, what's the Monroe Doctrine?" Roth begins. "The US policy in early 19th century that established, hmm ... Latin America as its sphere of influence," Darrell responds in a calm voice. "That's exactly right!" Roth responds and smiles at Darrell. They keep going. "Who was Lili'uokalani?" asks Roth. "The Queen of Hawaii that was overthrown at the end of 19th century," Darrell replies. "You are going to ace this test!" Roth tells Darrell after an intense 15-minute drill.

The bell goes off and about 26 students shuffle into class. They pass by a white dry-erase board where Roth has written in large, blue letters: "There will be an essay. I didn't want it, but an evil spirit took control of me and made me do it!" As students take their seats, I realize that this is the most racially integrated class I've seen so far at Mission High.

As students take their seats, I realize that this is the most racially integrated class I've seen so far at Mission High.

Mikesha, a young student I met in Mr. Hankle's class last year, comes in with tears in her eyes. Roth puts his hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Do you want to go to the Wellness Center?" Mikesha wipes tears from her eyes. "No. I'm here today to take the test," she says. Roth walks Mikesha to her desk.

"Any last-minute review questions?" Roth asks, as he passes out the tests. "Why was the crushing of the Philippines so brutal?" one student asks. "Great question! Anyone in the class wants to tackle that?" Roth asks. Many hands go up. "Remember: don't summarize, analyze," Roth reminds students, as the testing clock starts ticking. Students hunch over their papers; quiet scribbling takes over the room for a while.

Then the ear-piercing screech of an ambulance siren invades the room. A student next to me calmly stretches his wrists. A young man gets out of his chair, stretches out his slender frame, and walks over to the electric pencil sharpener. The sound of the pencil sharpener blocks out the siren, for a moment.

Vana has a question and raises her hand. Roth walks over and they talk in a low voice for a while. Jaime is scribbling something on the back of his classmate's chair. Roth spots him and walks over to him next. "Test taking is a tenuous process. Students can get stuck on little concepts or the spelling of a complicated word. If you completely disengage, they trip and fall, and many don't get up," Roth whispers into my ear. "I just have to work hard not to intervene too much. Not to mess it up."

"Test taking is a tenuous process. Students can get stuck on little concepts or the spelling of a complicated word. If you completely disengage, they trip and fall, and many don't get up."

Another ambulance flies down the street. Mikesha drums her pink-colored nails against the wooden desk, then lowers her head and keeps writing.

Vana finishes first, and proudly walks over to Roth with her test. "Congratulations," he says, as he staples the pages together. Vana is standing at the front, behind Roth's desk, quietly dancing and beaming at the other students.

The bell rings an end to this hour-and-a-half-long test. Some students get up and hand their tests to Vana to staple. The sound of quiet scribbling speeds up. "Mr. Roth, how do you spell Guantanamo?" Mikesha asks. Roth writes it on the board. A student gets out of his desk and jumps around in a quiet celebratory dance. "Mr. Roth, you need to make this test shorter next time," he says as he drops off his test.

"Will you have to grade these all weekend?" Vana asks. Roth responds. "I know! That's what I'm freaking out about right now," he says.

Twenty minutes past the bell, there are two students still left in the class scribbling furiously, occasionall shaking out their wrists. Roth takes a third bite from his morning bagel. "Mr. Roth! I wrote two pages for an essay and now I don't have time to conclude," Marco says, looking stressed out. "I often worry that I don't know enough, and so I write as much as possible to make up for that," he explains. "That's interesting," Roth says, as he make a note of that at the back of Marco's test. "That's OK. Let's talk about that soon."

Marco leaves class with his right hand raised in a salute. Darrell is the last student left in the room. "Can I have another piece of paper?" he asks Roth. "Darrell is going for the world record this time!" Roth tells me. "I think I'll do pretty well on this one," Darrell says, with a deadpan look on his face, and keeps writing.

*All student names are changed. P.S. Darrell got an A- on this test.

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