The class clown-laughter masks the hurt
Courtland Freeman bought his first gun in fourth grade.
For weeks he saved up the $2 allowance his mother would give him. When he had stashed away about $60, he walked to a neighbor's house down the street and traded the money for a .22-caliber handgun and five bullets.
After a stop by the train tracks to shoot into the air and make sure the gun worked, he brought it home.
Sitting on his bed, the 9-year-old put it to his head and tried to pull the trigger, but something stopped him.
"I seen one of my granddaddies saying it's not my time, that I got something special to do," he says.
And so Courtland made plans. He'll join the U.S. Marine Corps, enroll in college and eventually make lots of money. He's just got to earn a high school diploma first.
On a Monday in February, Courtland's just back to school after a weeklong suspension, and already he's antsy. After walking into first-block geometry and seeing a substitute teacher, he turns around and leaves, ambling his way down the hall to Betty Jo Everett's class. Because of his difficulty reading, he's in special ed and gets extra tutoring from teachers like Everett.
She has a soft spot for Courtland, and he knows it. He's a class clown who talks back to teachers and makes fun of classmates, but always with a smile. His honesty is disarming. He'll lunge toward a student in the hall with a what'chu lookin' at? face, then seconds later, tackle another in a bear hug, cracking a joke. He makes neither excuses nor apologies.
"That's the problem; you've gotten by so many years on that cuteness, that attitude, but this is the law," Everett tells him one day, trying to get him to do his homework.
"He's got a good heart," she reflects later. "I love him to death, but he's a mess."
Through his years at Howard, Courtland has failed multiple classes. Halfway through second semester, he's got 15 credits to his name, and he needs at least 20 to graduate. In addition to his regular four classes, he faces finishing the work for Algebra II, world history and English 10 - classes he's failed before - all with two months left before graduation. He's not doing very well in geometry, either, so he'll probably have to make up that credit by the end of the year, too.
But at Howard, Courtland sees opportunity to study more than math or English. Every day is a lesson in how to build street cred, and in that subject, he's excelling.
In his Highland Park neighborhood, people know not to mess with him. He's got "family" everywhere, so nobody starts anything with him, he says. His undershirts and belts are always blue - the colors of the Boone Heights Mafia, a gang loosely affiliated with the Crips.
And because knowing which neighborhoods are safe, which people are your friends and which places to avoid is the key to survival in Courtland's world, Howard is just where he needs to be, he says.
"Here your kids got a better chance to get school smarts and street smarts; here you get both, but at some other schools you just get book smarts. Having street smarts will teach you how to survive out there in the real world."
He finished his make-up work just in time to graduate. Now it's up to Courtland to turn both kinds of smarts into that something special he's supposed to do.
The hard worker-trying to stay on track
There's a duality at Howard: two worlds, two paths. There's a line between the good kids and the bad kids, and everyone knows who's who.
"That's the only way people know your name here, if you get in trouble," says junior Keyundria Thompson. "Dr. Smith, I never got in trouble, so he didn't know my name, but he heard people call me 'Kiki,' so he calls me Kiki."
The fantasy of every harried and overworked teacher includes classrooms full of students like Kiki.
While her friends are yelling in hallways and beatboxing in classrooms, Kiki puts her head down to focus. She doesn't initiate conversation, rarely smiles.
"A lot of people think I'm mean," she says.
Kiki's no straight-A student, but she does well. She works hard during class, tapping her long, pink-tipped fake nails as she concentrates. There's no time to goof off, because right after school comes debate practice, then five hours of work at Taco Bell. She's saving her money to start a bank account for her five younger siblings.
"I want them to be set," she says. Among them, there are three dads and four moms; Kiki lives with one of her sisters and her grandmother, who's been in the hospital recently.
Being good is a conscious choice, because Kiki has seen the other side, she says. Her first year at Howard, she skipped class all the time, frequently ending up in in-school suspension, or worse, morning school. Before regular school started, Kiki would sit at a desk facing the wall in the small room inside the old gymnasium for several hours. Forbidden to speak, or do much more than homework or stare at the cracked and faded yellow walls, she said something clicked.
Morning school wouldn't make her anything more than her parents. Her mother dropped out of high school when she was pregnant with Kiki. She doesn't remember whether her father ever actually graduated from Howard, but either way, he's unemployed now.
Being successful at Howard is all about the choices you make, Kiki will tell you. You're going to get involved in something extracurricular in high school, so if it's not debate or track or band, it may well end up being gangs or drugs or crime.
She wants to go into the U.S. Air Force and plans eventually to study nursing.
Staying on track is tough, though. The temptation to fit in and follow the crowd is strongest at school, she says.
To avoid it, Kiki often withdraws into her own world.
On one day in March, she finds it especially hard to concentrate. A classmate was shot and killed the month before. Another former classmate is on trial for murder. Three people in her neighborhood have been shot over the weekend; one of her friends was there during one of the shootings and ended up in jail as an accomplice.
"He was just texting me a couple of days before it happened, and now he's in jail. It's just crazy."
So she hunkers down and focuses on the things she knows will pay off in the end: school and family. She's pretty much stopped hanging out with people outside school.
"There's just too much going on to risk losing someone close to you," she says. "Staying away from people is a way to do it."
The turnaround-from bad choices to clean living
While Desmond Beamon was in jail, he practiced his writing. English always was his favorite subject.
He wrote letters to his mama, to his sister and to his friend. It was lonely and scary in jail and when he missed them, he'd write. He promised to do better once he got out.
He shared a room and bunk beds with several other inmates. But he didn't know any of them, so they rarely talked. He was too uneasy to sleep.
With nothing but time to think, Desmond plotted how things would be different when he was released. He thought about getting a full night's sleep in his own bed. He thought about ditching old friends who made stealing sound so attractive. And he thought about school. Maybe someone would give him a second chance.
He spent the entire first semester of his senior year behind bars at Silverdale Detention Center for a burglary on the Westside.
At the beginning of second semester, Howard Principal Paul Smith heard the boy was back home, so he went looking in Desmond's Alton Park neighborhood, hoping to convince him to come back to school.
It's crowded in the Wheeler Homes house. Desmond is the man of the house for his sister, her two kids, his mom and several kids from another sister who are in his mother's custody. There are nine of them in all.
"My house, it's just with all those kids, it's really just loud and wild," Desmond says.
His father has never been a part of Desmond's life, though he lives nearby.
When Smith brought Desmond back to Howard, he told him this time would be different. He'd be separate from the rest of the student body, furiously making up homework in an old cafeteria now called "Success Academy."
Desmond has tried to reach out to his dad, but says he usually gets no response. Last Christmas, shortly after he was released from jail, Desmond went to his father's house and tried to have a conversation with him.
"When I do try to talk to him, like, he ignore me," says Desmond. "Like literally he don't say nothing to me, so I'd rather not be around him. I went over there like, 'What's up, Dad?' He said, 'What's up?' but talking to him was like talking to myself. He gets drunk; I don't know. I was like, ain't nothing changed."
Desmond wears a long, brown cross necklace, shoulder-length dreadlocks and a deep cut on his face from a fight with his ex-girlfriend. His voice is soft.
He started "making bad choices with the wrong people," he says, after his family moved, and he transferred to Howard from Ooltewah High School in 11th grade. He started hanging out with friends he had made at Howard Middle.
He constantly felt the pressure to "do something stupid," so eventually, he did. "I guess when I got back here with people I know, people I known for my whole life, I started, you know what I'm saying, going back into the old ways."
Now he preaches the gospel of clean living to any of his friends who will listen.
"I got a friend; he younger than me; he in 11th; he a junior. And like, he going through what I went through. You know, he wild, get in a lot of trouble, but he smart. And I try to tell him, 'Don't let the people around you affect you, you need to do right.'"
A girl walks by, interrupting Desmond's train of thought. He stops and says quietly, "Hey, how you doin'?"
"I been missin' you," the girl says as she passes.
"For real?" he says, laughing as he hangs his head slightly.
He finishes his story.
"I just try to tell him to do right, do what you been doing."
Desmond's grade-point average is 1.6, and he hasn't decided what he wants to do after high school. Maybe Chattanooga State, maybe a professional trade school. Still, he slips sometimes. He was arrested again in January on drug charges.
Desmond has been grateful for the extra help at Success Academy - no one there harasses him to join gangs. But there are adults in the building who don't think he belongs at Howard. An ex-con has no place among children, they say.
When Smith hears that sort of talk, he becomes furious. His eyes get wide, and he says emphatically that anyone who thinks that is childish.
"I have a moral imperative to educate anyone who walks through that door," Smith says.
And though Desmond graduated, there's debate over how much he and other students in Success Academy, or other credit recovery programs, have learned. Desmond missed an entire semester of classes, and yet, by March, he had recovered all of those credits.
He was ready to graduate almost two months before the rest of his senior classmates. What took other seniors 10 months to accomplish, Desmond finished in about four.
But no matter how many postsecondary programs might not accept him, or how many remedial classes he might have to take, Desmond knows it's better than no education and a life behind bars. He's seen the other side.
"I know I ain't trying to go back, trying to get in no more trouble, so it's like easy for me. I just rise above it."
The critic-she's given up on Howard, not the kids
Algebra II has barely started, and a teenage boy shoots up out of his seat. Without asking, he starts to leave the room, swaggering out and not looking around for permission.
"Where you going?" teacher Rasheda Hunt-Strong asks, hand on her hip.
"I'm going home."
"I didn't hear no bell ring."
"The bell don't have to ring. I can go home any time I want, Miss Strong."
As the student leaves the room, Hunt-Strong reaches for her phone to call the front office.
"So I'm going to write a referral up on him?" she asks the person on the other end of the line. Just then, the student walks back in the classroom, grinning.
"You little turd," she says, welcoming him back. She puts the phone down and returns to the white board.
"You little turd," a student echoes, sending the whole classroom into fits of laughter.
Hunt-Strong isn't coming back next year. It wasn't her choice.
After teaching in Ohio and Arizona, she was lured to Howard under what she will tell you were "false pretenses." Recruiters told her she was administrator material, but Hunt-Strong never made it beyond classroom teacher.
Because Howard is a high-priority school, Hamilton County hired her provisionally without a Tennessee teaching license. But three years into her time at Howard, the 17-year teaching veteran has twice failed the Praxis, the test required to teach here.
"So they're saying I don't have another opportunity to get a license to teach here, so I'd have to resign. ... I'm not writing a letter of resignation, because that's not my choice. You can tell me you're not going to rehire me."
If you close your eyes, it can be difficult to distinguish Hunt-Strong's voice from that of her students.
"Giiiirl, you late. You know you late, both y'all," she says, pointing to two girls in the hallway. Slowly, she saunters back to the classroom, sweeping the hallway for latecomers. Dressed in oversized red sweatshirt, red slip-on clogs and a red scrunchie, she moves slowly.
A lot of students love Hunt-Strong. She's got five children of her own, but she manages to talk as if she's one of the kids. Students walk into class and hug her and she calls them all "baby." She doesn't believe in hanging out in teachers' lounges or chatting with co-workers. She can't stand to hear teachers talk negatively about their students in public.
If there were teams of teachers and students, there'd be no question: Hunt-Strong plays for the kids.
For extra money, she shows up to Howard early to help tutor students stuck in morning school. Her Saturdays are spent driving around the county as an instructor for the district's homebound students.
People aren't on the same page at Howard, she says. Teachers can't seem to agree on whether to enforce the button-down shirt and tie dress code or the no cell phones in classrooms policy. The administration has changed its mind several times on which teachers are supposed to mentor which students during the homeroom period.
The students at Howard crave consistency, she says. When her students come to her worried about getting shot at home during summer vacation, or not knowing where they'll spend their next night, they need teachers to be firm and fair with them at school.
But the school and the politics have worn her down. She's a Monday-morning principal who has given up on the school.
"Nobody leaves Howard because of the students," she says.
The pragmatist-trying to make sure her seniors are prepared
A student once stole Portia Bragg-Thompson's car during ACT testing.
The English 12 teacher got her car back right away, and she laughs when she tells how she and a friend saw her bright blue Saturn Ion on the road and followed the thieves, calling police along the way.
Bragg-Thompson brushes past the detail that the incident was part of a gang initiation.
After seven years at the school, she is pragmatic in her approach to teaching at Howard.
"If they're here, I can teach them," she says. "Two to three times a week, I have [just] half my students here. I really love kids, but I can't do everything. I can only do one little part."
The students at Howard are smart, though, and they know the school is under intense pressure to graduate more students, she says.
"They're waiting on me to just spoon-feed them the information, to give them a passing grade without them doing anything," she says. "And the expectation is we got to graduate you, you know what I'm saying?"
Students have told Bragg-Thompson outright that they expect to be graduated at all costs, she says. She tells students she has no problem failing them if they don't do their work, but she's always on the lookout for those who are struggling.
"What is this? Where is your cites?" she asks, looking over a student's senior project research paper.
"You ain't reading. Look at my works cited page," he says, rolling his eyes.
"No, baby, you got to cite everything. ... You've got to present when?" she asked.
"OK, you've got a little time, you've got a little time. ... What's your central question?"
"How does hip-hop destroy the minds of young people and old people, too?"
"OK, I'll meet with you the 28th after school. We need to work this out."
Once the student has left her room, Bragg-Thompson lets out a sigh.
"I understand the pressure that the leadership is going through," she says "but with my seniors, I just want them to be ready."
The first-year teacher-trying to change the community
Mason West has his sights on turning around more than just Howard; he wants to transform the community.
A first-year history teacher, West is an ideas man who also heads the school's debate team. Tall and black, he's a sharp dresser with a deep voice.
West is patient. He knows that a complete shift in priorities at Howard and its surrounding community will take time. When it comes to convincing people of the importance of education, students must come first, then teachers, then parents, then alumni and the rest of the community, he says.
"It's cyclical, it's generational, [students'] attitude toward education," West says. "Many of them are just not vested in education, and those who are vested in education aren't necessarily vested in learning. It's about getting a grade, but not mastering the knowledge," he says. "And there are a lot of skill sets that the kids are missing. They have to catch up on the basic things like writing and reading comprehension."
As leader of the debate team, West arranged for his students to travel to Washington, D.C., to present plans they made for improving their communities' economic development and education, and reducing its crime. The D.C. trip is mostly to give students a chance to practice their public speaking by presenting to federal officials, West says.
Still, he is hopeful the students' ideas for things like a development and opportunity center in the Westside and an Internet-based clearinghouse for youth activities and services eventually will become a reality through city and county funding.
Debate class gives West and his students a chance to go beyond perfecting skills for standardized tests, to discussing and debating ways to make systemic changes a reality.
The instability of students' parental support, nutrition, safety and housing all affect how they perform in school, West says, and it's important to address the causes, not just the symptoms.
"I think that's the best way for them to break the cycle of poverty, if they really know the mechanisms of the socioeconomic systems inside their world, then they can be a player in that game."
The issue of low-income housing is the topic of the day one afternoon when students read about the Harriet Tubman projects closing. Many of the residents will be relocated to the Westside, putting members of two rival gangs together in one place, they say.
"Of those who are relocated, some of them will probably go to that housing on the Westside, so how are you going to accommodate that?" West asks. "And then the debate I heard on the radio is what can we do to break the cycle? The cycle being that these [projects] are supposed to be something temporary, but it's cyclical."
Junior Clayton Mason speaks up. "I don't think you necessarily want to end it; I think you want to make sure it serves its purpose."
"Yeah, there you go, that's what I meant," West says. "I don't mean like end it totally, I mean end it for individual families. You don't want it to become generational. ... So your proposal is that anyone who lives in a place where they get government subsidy, the goal is for them to not stay there forever, but for a specific amount of time. To help them transition into home ownership, there would be a development and opportunity center with entreprenuership training, other life skills, all that will be provided, but they have to finish specific curriculum, in order to live there for a certain amount of years."
"Before they transition out, they should present a plan about what their next thing they gonna do when they get out," a student says from across the room. "Let them know they not just gonna go to another housing project. Like, 'Oh yeah, I'm moving out, but I'm going to Boone Heights.'"
"Excellent point," West says.
If students start to get flustered with information overload, West, ever calm, reminds them that they're well-prepared.
"Never underestimate your ability to lead and to create. When you're before the judges, make sure you not only really, really know your material, but that you exude that competence. If they stump you, stay calm. Remember that you are intelligent. Nine times out of 10, you can answer the question."
And it's easy to encourage the debate students. Most of them, West estimates, are in the top 10 percent of their class and participate in other extracurricular activities, as well. Come into one of his history or geography classes, though, and many students are disengaged, often putting their heads down on their desks the moment they sit down, he says.
West tries to reach them all, but realizes it will take more than organizing a trip to D.C. for a handful of smart kids.
"A lot of the young people [at Howard], in my opinion, are marginalized. They've only seen a very, very very small part of the world, you know? If they just knew what else was out there, there'd be so much they could accomplish," he says.