written by Matt Repka, corps member on the Serve DC Team serving at Johnson Middle School
City Year Washington, DC serves in 14 of the highest-need District of Columbia public schools, where corps members work full-time to address the dropout crisis in American education by working as tutors, mentors and role models. But corps members are hardly alone in their fight. Every day across the District, teachers, administrators and other educators work to turn around the lowest-performing schools and close the achievement gap. This is one such story.
At 7:40 a.m. on a crisp Wednesday morning in December, a single car pulls into an expansive parking lot in the shadow of a massive, four-story beige edifice rising out of a residential development in Congress Heights.
The driver parks, locks her car, and enters the building, like all teachers and administrators, through a side door where twin panther murals remind passersby to “Work Harder. Get Smarter!” Once inside, Star Wallin – Ms. Wallin, to her 7th and 8th grade science students – begins the climb to her science classroom on the fourth floor,. It’s going to be just another day at Johnson Middle School, one of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system’s many traditional sixth-through-eighth grade middle school campuses.
But at Johnson, as with many high-need schools across the country, no two days are ever easy, or alike.
By 7:45 Ms. Wallin is at her desk, in one corner of a large classroom, reviewing the strategy for today’s lesson plan. Johnson’s schedule is structured such that students take either science or history, alternating back and forth every other day. Today is a science day for 7th grade, and although school won’t start for an hour, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“I would like to say that I have everything planned out for weeks in advance,” she says. “But in this job, nothing ever happens the way you plan it.”
By 8:30, Ms. Wallin is moving downstairs, to the teacher’s lounge. There, she photocopies the handouts that will be used in 1st period. At 8:38, handouts in hand, Wallin is on her way to the gymnasium to pick up her students for 1st period. This “down to the wire” approach is often typical of her mornings, Ms. Wallin says. “It’s a relentless job – there’s never a day when you can just sit back and say, ‘I don’t have to worry about the details today,’” she says. She strides into the gym, looking for the yellow uniform shirts of the 7th graders against the blue bleachers. This morning, there are six of her 1st period students here.
Those six students – who will be marked as being “on time” this morning – follow Ms. Wallin back up the 60 steps to her classroom. They are seated and working on the “catalyst” – Ms. Wallin’s take on a “do now” activity – by 8:45 sharp. As they work, she erases and begins writing under “Today’s Objective” on the dry-erase board.
By 8:50 there are 8 students in the classroom. This 1st period cohort has acquired a reputation for having behavior issues. So far, it’s calm, but an unnerving tension is building in the quiet. One student lingers in front of the class, absent-mindedly playing with a triple-beam balance.
The grand bargaining process begins at 8:54, as Ms. Wallin circulates throughout the room, collecting personal items to be used as collateral in exchange for #2 pencils with which to work. The bartering system is designed to limit the loss of school supplies and impart a sense of value into them. This morning, Ms. Wallin has collected a heavy coat, two sweaters, an ID card and a set of keys. 90 seconds remain on the “do-now” timer.
A City Year corps member, Caitlyn Yuschak, has joined the class. She and Ms. Wallin operate in tandem, answering questions and addressing issues during silent, individual work time.
At 9:02, the initial tension comes to a head. Two students are up and play-fighting each other. Ms. Wallin addresses the issue swiftly: “I’m not going to have this happen right now. If I have to send you out, I will. So stop.” The students return to their desks.
The do now time expires, and it’s nn to the lesson. Today, the 7th grade will be going over the results of an exam, calculating their own score by going section-by-section through the test. Ms. Wallin reviews one widely-missed question, about the circulatory system. She walks around the room, offering the students a physical representation of the way blood circulates through the body.
9:09, and time for the morning announcements. The Pledge of Allegiance, read by a student, crackles over the PA system, followed by the Johnson Middle School pledge:
Excellence is mandatory; therefore I will give my very best each day! With faith, focus, and follow-through I can achieve anything. Having faith in myself, focusing on my goals, and following through on my commitments will move me toward success. There is no success without excellence; therefore, excellence is mandatory!
As an exclamation point on the last verse of the pledge, a fight breaks out, a real one. In a few strides, Ms. Wallin has moved to obstruct one student; Ms. Yuschak steps in front of the other. The participants are ejected into the waiting arms of the vice principal, who happened to be outside at the time. Given their histories, each student may face suspension.
Following the ejections, there are now 12 students in class. The late arrivals are typical, Ms. Wallin says. “A lot of the time there’s a lot going on outside of school….the change happens when you create a school-wide environment where being late is not an option. The expectation is that you’re there, or else…”
Less than 30 seconds after the fight, it’s back to business as usual. Such is the delicate balance of the Johnson classroom – academic momentum is fragile, and conditions can turn in an instant – for better or for worse.
This is a multi-part series. For the next post, click here.