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Transcript

Dropout Nation

CO-PRODUCER
Lisa Kalikow

WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY
Frank Koughan

ROB GASPARELLO, Principal: [PA system] Good morning, Apollos! Today is day 109. It is Thursday, February 2nd. At this time, we ask that you stand as we honor America and Texas with our pledges.

BRANDI BREVARD, Campus Improvement Coordinator: C’mon guys, straight to 140, you’re late. Detention! You’ve got to get to school on time. Stop! Don’t even try it. Go to 140.

[on radio] Make sure black Adidas jacket with white stripes down the sleeves comes in there. He’s trying to escape.

Our attendance is really low, and so we’re trying to do whatever it takes to get them to know that it’s important to be here for homeroom, first period, second period, every period.

YOLANDA TREVINO, Secretary: IDs, have them out.

ROB GASPARELLO: We’re a school of about 1,300 kids. We’re mostly Hispanic and African-American, but the common denominator is poverty. Our kids come from some of the— some pretty crappy conditions in and around Houston.

It has been a school that maybe people forgot about over the years. It has had a terrible reputation— “It’s all ghetto there,” and “That’s where the pregnant girls go.” It’s called a “dropout factory.” I mean, those numbers don’t lie.

The pressure is to get better. And so we’re still working to change that culture.

NICK WILKINSON: Why do you want to drop out? Why are you leaving?

JESUAR: Because I don’t like school.

NICK WILKINSON: Why don’t you like school?

STAFFER: Hey, hey, hey. Look at him when you talk to him.

NICK WILKINSON: Come on! You can talk to me.

YOLANDA TREVINO: OK, first of all, I don’t understand why you think you’re going to not go to school. You’re only 16, OK?

JESUAR: I’m going to be 17 in May!

EBONY WASHINGTON: What does that mean?

JESUAR: When I come back to school, I’m going to be 18.

EBONY WASHINGTON, Drop-Out Prevention Case Worker: He had it planned in his mind that when he turned 17, then 18, he was going to drop out. And there was nothing— and that’s the sad thing is they feel that when they turn 18, we can’t touch them.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Where you going to live at? You going to live with your mom?

JESUAR: Yeah.

EBONY WASHINGTON: For the rest of your life?

JESUAR: No.

EBONY WASHINGTON: You going to work? I’m asking you, are you going to work? Hello? You have a plan?

JESUAR: That’s a secret.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Why don’t you want an education, sweetie?

JESUAR: That’s a whole issue, not a story.

EBONY WASHINGTON: You want to talk to me privately?

ROB GASPARELLO: Take him. You can talk to Miss Washington.

EBONY WASHINGTON: And so I had to break down, you know, “What you are going to do? Where are you going to live? Where are you going to”— “I’m going to live with my mom.” And then after a while, when we broke it down, that’s not where he wants to be. And he would— if he does, and when he does graduate, he will be the first one his family to graduate high school.

INTERVIEWER: So you saved one today?

EBONY WASHINGTON: Yes! [laughs] One of many. Always putting out fires.

BRANDI BREVARD: We are going to get Marcus this morning. Marcus is failing both of his first and second period classes. He usually doesn’t get here until about third or fourth period. He has, like, a 28 average in Spanish, and he needs Spanish to graduate.

There’s a lot of students that, you know, I either text or call them to make sure they’re up and get to school because a lot of them don’t have transportation or even an adult in their life that could help them with those kind of things that they’re not prepared to deal with. It’s all a part of Sharpstown.

Oh, my God. This is so close to the school. This is a joke. It’s not even a block! There he is.

I am going to give you a piece of my mind!

MARCUS, 17 Years Old, 11th Grade: Oh, shoot!

BRANDI BREVARD: You hear me? How far do you think you are from the school?

MARCUS: It’s, like, five minutes.

BRANDI BREVARD: It’s not even five minutes!

MARCUS: I usually miss the first and second period. I got to my first period class and did some work. The classes I’m here, A’s and B’s.

INTERVIEWER: And the classes you’re not here for?

MARCUS: Yeah, them F’s. I don’t go because it bores me sometimes. That’s why I go home early. I go to school half a day and then just walk off, go home.

BRANDI BREVARD: What time did you go to bed?

MARCUS: Like, 2:00-something, 3:00.

BRANDI BREVARD: So that’s your problem. And that’s why you can’t wake up. What’s causing you to stay up so late? Stress? How was your dad and your mom last night?

MARCUS: My pops was drunk, like, pissy drunk.

My parents, they drink a lot, every day, every day. My mom, she has a job. She’s a good lady. She is. But she just has a drinking problem. And it’s because of my dad. He’s a— he doesn’t work. He— he drinks, you know? But when he get— when he’s not drunk, coolest person in the world. I love him to death. Cool. Cool. But when he get drunk, he acts like he’s 6. And you know, I got to take care of him, basically, when he drunk.

BRANDI BREVARD: So did you have any confrontations?

MARCUS: A little bit. But—

BRANDI BREVARD: Did you do what I said?

MARCUS: Uh-huh.

BRANDI BREVARD: What’d you do?

MARCUS: I just went in my room.

BRANDI BREVARD: OK. And what’d you do in your room?

MARCUS: Smoked.

BRANDI BREVARD: Do your parents know that you’re sitting in your room smoking? And they don’t care?

MARCUS: They— I mean, like, yeah. They don’t like that I smoke. But it’s, like, I smoke. I mean, that’s just me.

MARCUS: I got a lot to deal with, you know? I got personal home problems. But I try not to let that get in the way of my school because I don’t like walking around with a mad face, you know, just angry at the world because— because my parents making me mad. I can’t take it out on everybody else. But I got a lot of stress on me.

BRANDI BREVARD: All right, we need to get you to Spanish.

MARCUS: I don’t put in the effort. I know that. I have everybody that’s just really putting the effort in and helping me. And it’s my life. And I realize it, though. I do.

BRANDI BREVARD: You get up there. Get to class.

MARCUS: Yes, ma’am.

BRANDI BREVARD: All right.

TEACHER: All right, welcome! Everybody should have a warm-up. Take a seat. Take a seat. Take a seat.

LAWERANCE, 19 Years Old, 12th Grade: It’s been plenty of occasions I wanted to quit school and drop out. But it seems like every time I think that I want to drop out, people been telling me not to. “If you drop out, then you’re going to be like everyone else,” which I don’t want to be like everyone else. I want to be different.

TEACHER: We got a couple seats left here.

LAWERANCE: And my mama wanted me to graduate. I’m going to be her only kid to graduate, so that’s my goal right now. She didn’t graduate. Neither did my two— my two older sisters or my two older brothers. And I’m in the middle, so I have got to be the positive role model for my two— my younger siblings. So I want to show them. I want to graduate so I get my diploma.

TEACHER: Number one! What is it?

STUDENT: Angry.

TEACHER: Angry. Yes.

STUDENT: I’ll go frustrated.

TEACHER: I’ll take frustrated.

STUDENT: Mad.

BRANDI BREVARD: This is his fifth year in high school. You know, he’s 19. He should have graduated last year. But Lawerance just— he has major anger issues. He blows up and is disrespectful and he curses and stuff like that. And that’s what’s hard for me because he’s so close. And he’s a smart kid. He’s an articulate kid. So that’s my— my biggest goal is to get him through the next four months.

TEACHER: All right, third one across? No, they have hopeful. Hopeful.

BRANDI BREVARD: I want to see him succeed because you feel like if they get to the point where they drop out, then it’s just downhill from there. I mean it’s just, what would become of him?

ROB GASPARELLO: Lawerance, he’s a hard one to figure out. He’s a personable kid, and when he’s OK, he’s as nice as can be. But when he’s not OK— something obviously has caused him to be very angry.

ROB GASPARELLO: You can’t stay inside with a hat on.

LAWERANCE: Is the hat on my head right now? No.

ROB GASPARELLO: No, but go ahead.

LAWERANCE: Mr. G. be trippin.’ Like, he takes the smallest things, try to blow it to the biggest proportions. It seems like every time I come to Sharpstown, there’s something. I get in trouble for the little, pettiest things. Sometimes it feel like everybody against me here sometimes. And then some days, it feels like everybody with me. So them days, I just roll with the punches. I keep going.

ROB GASPARELLO: You can’t wear a hat in there!

LAWERANCE: Everybody wearing their hat. What are you talking about? Everybody wear their hat in there.

ROB GASPARELLO: No. Come on in here. Come here.

ROB GASPARELLO: It’s the whole interaction of doing school that he doesn’t get. You just saw it today. It’s the hat there. It’s the officer that’s telling him to stop.

But you got to give up the hat.

LAWERANCE: Oh, that’s definitely not going to happen!

ROB GASPARELLO: OK. That’s your choice. It’s a bad one.

And the odds are probably that he’s not going to make it. But you don’t give up on him.

BRANDI BREVARD: Get in here. Where’ve you been? Three days?

SPARKLE, 17 Years Old, 10th Grade: Home.

BRANDI BREVARD: All right, come on. Let’s get you a pass to class.

SPARKLE: I have been missing some days. But like, I know missing days, like, bring me back on my work. But I’m a very intelligent person. I can do it. I believe in myself.

BRANDI BREVARD: So you haven’t been here for the last three days? Why?

SPARKLE: Because I ain’t been feeling good.

BRANDI BREVARD: How you going to graduate? How you going to do well?

SPARKLE: I’m coming to school now.

Sometimes it ain’t easy to get up and go to school because you don’t want to be around everybody with your problems. It really is, when you ain’t got nobody there. I’m doing all this by myself. On my own.

BRANDI BREVARD: And you going to have a good day today? No problems?

SPARKLE: No.

BRANDI BREVARD: OK. OK.

She doesn’t live with anybody, so she’s been all over the place. She stays with friends. She called one night, like, at 10:00 o’clock and didn’t have anywhere to stay. She was staying on the streets. But she’s here, so we’ll do the best we can.

SPARKLE: Life is life. School is school. School and life are two different things.

RANA BOONE, Dean: Juniors, what year are you graduating from college?

1st STUDENT:2017.

RANA BOONE: 2017. Sophomores?

2nd STUDENT:2018.

RANA BOONE: 2018.

SPARKLE: I love school. I want to go to college and stuff. I want to be something. I want to be a obstetrician. That’s what I want to be! [laughs]

RANA BOONE: There’s so many endearing qualities to Sparkle. She doesn’t think anything is impossible. On her good days, she’s just the sweetest, greatest, smartest kid.

Why is it helpful to understand the concept of future value? Go ahead, Sparkle.

SPARKLE: So you can prepare and know what you’re getting yourself into, and you will know where to go and how far to take it.

RANA BOONE: She has great aspirations. I mean, what she wrote her vision of her life in 10 years, not only was she a doctor, but she had lived in Europe, spoke many languages and had taken etiquette classes in Paris. And all I can think is, if you don’t at least get out of high school, every one of those dreams is pretty much snatched away from you.

Does anyone want to come up and do this example from the binder, to set it up? Go ahead, Sparkle.

As much school as she’s missed, I feel like she’s guaranteed to have to do summer school, unless she feels like repeating 10th grade. She’s already a little bit older than she should be to be in the grade she’s in. Once a kid repeats two grades, they’re almost completely on track to drop out. So the next few months are crucial for her.

SPARKLE: It ain’t just school. It’s my life, too. So it’s a lot going on. I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to cry in front of all these people.

Sometimes, I have different moments to where I push— the people that are really here for me, I push them away. Why? Because in my life, a lot of people they came in and then left out. So I don’t let nobody in. I’m going to leave you where you at, on the outside looking in.

ROB GASPARELLO, Principal: I was in North Carolina. I was retired from the public school system after 31 years or so, but still working. I wanted to look at something a little different. We still have too many kids that don’t believe they can have a successful future. Our kids come from stuff that we don’t even want to think about. We can’t even begin, I don’t think, to grasp and understand.

What poverty does is, our kids come and go. They start academically a year or two behind. Somewhere along the way, they’ve gotten lost and they have to catch up. You see the signs— erratic behavior. Sometimes it’s isolation. Sometimes it’s just blatant acting out, excessive absences.

ROB GASPARELLO: Did you eat this morning?

And then you start to have the conversation over breakfast because they haven’t eaten and then they say, “Well, I don’t have a place to stay.” It puts a strain on people.

Why are you not in class?

MARCO, 18 Years Old, 12th Grade: I’m starving. It’s because I didn’t eat last night because of my job. I got off at 12:00.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK.

MARCO: So I just try and get here.

ROB GASPARELLO: Well, I’m glad you’re here.

MARCO: I wasn’t able to eat breakfast, either, so—

ROB GASPARELLO: Do you eat bananas?

MARCO: Yeah.

ROB GASPARELLO: Do you want that one?

For Marco, getting a snack out of that cabinet is his touch base and just letting me know, “I’m here.”

MARCO: Thank you.

ROB GASPARELLO: It’s all good.

MARCO: I’ll see you later.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK.

INTERVIEWER: When was the last time you ate?

MARCO: Yesterday at school, until right now.

INTERVIEWER: Why haven’t you eaten?

MARCO: I work, and I wasn’t able to eat because I don’t have money. And I went home, and right away, I had to go to work.

My junior year, that’s when my father got deported, like, the first year. And that’s when everything just went and changed. Like, my whole life changed. Just seeing my mom cry just made me want to not go to school anymore and just help her pay her bills and help my little sister stay in school

Need some help?

FEMALE CUSTOMER: Yes, can I get some of the spicy jerk turkey?

MARCO: I dropped out for a whole semester. I was 17 at the time, 16, and I was, like, working 40 hours or more a week, which I still do. And I didn’t get off until, like, 3:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning. Got home, like, around 4:00 or 5:00. Then I’d sleep for, like, 3 or 4 hours. And I don’t know— I was never used to that life, you know, so I just had to suck it up.

My mother, she cared. She used to tell me, “You’re going to go back to school one day, right?” And I was, like, “Yes, Mom.” I have to graduate from high school, no matter what. My brother didn’t do it, and I don’t want to be cutting grass like him.

It was just one day I was coming from work, like, around 3:00. I just saw the sign that said Sharpstown High School. And I was just, like, “I need to come back.” Like, “I have to go back to school.”

COZETTE CHURCH, Dean: When Marco came to school— and I remember this— he was so happy. He goes, “Ms. Church, Ms. Church,” you know, “I came back to school. You know I dropped out, Ms. Church, but I’m really going to give it a try. I’m really going to give it a try!” However, I must be transparent with you. It’s a big push for him to graduate on time right now.

ROB GASPARELLO: Marco’s no angel. Every day isn’t a wonderful adventure with Marco. Well, it is an adventure, it’s not always wonderful.

COZETTE CHURCH: First of all, I wanted to talk about Marco’s behaviors in class because, as you know with Marco, there was an issue in your classroom the day before yesterday.

We’re trying to support Marco to help push him through this process. He’s going through a process right now.

Ms. SEMIEN: When Marco came into the classroom, I thought he was going to do well. And he started acting out. And I tried to talk with him and I called his parents, and I was unable to get them.

COZETTE CHURCH: Marco’s mother is actually in the process of being deported. That’s pretty much the reason why when you were making those phone calls at home, you could not reach a parent.

MARCO: My mom was arrested January the 1st. I was worried about my mom getting deported.

COZETTE CHURCH: To be in this position, when your father’s already gone and now you’re at risk of having your mother be deported— that’s a lot.

MARCO: That day, I just lost it because of my family problems, you know, what I was going through. I snapped real quick and I didn’t— I couldn’t control it. That’s something I should learn how to do, control my— like, my emotions and my behavior, and just, you know, be the bigger person and walk away from it.

COZETTE CHURCH: And do you know that with all this going on, Marco’s here at 7:45 in the morning, with all of this going on. So to me, you know, yes, he’s at risk. He’s tremendously at risk. But is this student trying? Yes. Does this student always make the right decisions? No.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think we’re going to see him in a cap and gown at the end of the semester?

COZETTE CHURCH: We better see him in a cap and gown at the end of semester! [laughs] I’m going to say yes. However, if we do not, we’re going to lose him, and I don’t want to lose him.

TERRY GRIER, Superintendent, HISD: In a few years, Houston is supposed to surpass Chicago in terms of size, so we will become the third largest city in the country. We serve about 204,000 students. We have 70,000 children that can’t read on grade level. There’s no question in my mind, when I got here, our graduation rate was too low, our dropout rate was too high.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: There’s no discussion. We have a motion to second. Please vote.

TERRY GRIER: I got a letter from our commissioner of education, said, “You have these four high schools that are— we have designated as dropout factories.” Sharpstown High School was one of those four schools.

We used to do focus groups with kids who dropped out, and we’d ask, “Why did you drop out?” I was just shocked when I heard more and more and more about, “School’s not interesting. It’s not challenging. It’s not engaging. They don’t care about me there.” And that’s the part that we can fix. And so we started making a program called Apollo 20.

XOCHITL RODRIGUEZ-DAVILA: I want to get started by telling you a little bit about Apollo, and it is called the Apollo 20 because we started off with four high schools and then we had some middle schools, and we just included elementary schools last year, which makes 20 schools. We have five tenets. Human capital— that means to have a highly effective teacher and principal in every school.

TERRY GRIER: We started making some changes and holding people accountable.

XOCHITL RODRIGUEZ-DAVILA: Increased time on task. And that is, we have a week that we come in earlier—

TERRY GRIER: We ended up adding an hour to the school day. We added two weeks to the school year.

XOCHITL RODRIGUEZ-DAVILA: High dosage of tutoring. It’s great service to our students—

TERRY GRIER: We tutored all 9th graders in math for 70 minutes a day.

XOCHITL RODRIGUEZ-DAVILA: A culture of high expectations, and data-driven instruction, making changes as needed so you address student needs.

TERRY GRIER: We also went out and raised about $17 million. We got a huge award from J.P. Morgan Chase. And the foundations here in Houston really stepped up. We had individual contributions. And I’ll honest with you, I was a little miffed that we had to go out and raise the money. I quite frankly believe these are our kids. We ought to be figuring out how to find the money in our budget. But we got a lot of pushback from some folks here in Houston. It’s, “Why are you spending that amount of money on those kids?”

And it’s been controversial because we decided we would reconstitute the school and replace the principals, all the assistant principals. The teachers would have to reapply for their jobs. Quite frankly, Rob was the first person who came to mind. He is the kind of guy that is going to do whatever it takes. He cares deeply about all kids. And Rob doesn’t understand failure. He sees success.

ROB GASPARELLO: They called me on a Tuesday, I was here on a Thursday, and that afternoon, they wanted an answer. That’s how our superintendent works.

There’s no reason to have a school, even an inner city school, that has kids of poverty, that can’t be a good school. Whatever it takes. No excuses. And that’s what it should be.

Brandi was one person that I wanted to have on campus— half mom, half statistician. I keep forgetting her title because I’m not into titles. But Brandi is here to help us focus in on the data. I can’t figure out all the stuff that she does with data. And she likes it!

BRANDI BREVARD, Campus Improvement Coordinator: So this is our data room, part of the Apollo 20 program. It’s a visual of every student on our campus by class period, by subject, and it tracks how they’re doing and what we need to do to help them improve academically.

The students down here that failed have a yellow dot or a brown dot, which means that those students are in some sort of double-dose math. So they’re either in a math— an extra math computer lab course or they have a two-on-one tutoring course.

We have a lot of kids that do really well in elementary school and kind of fell off in middle school and then keep falling in high school. Somehow, they fell off being involved and learning in school. And so we use the data to kind of pull those kids and talk to them.

See? Look at that. You got 45. You only missed 12 of the multiple choice. All you need is the writing.

So are you going to spend every waking hour with her doing the writing? And you’re not going to drop out. Look at me. You promise?

I mean, I got him to pass the math. What are you doing?

Excelling academically helps them emotionally, you know? It helps them feel confident and successful. So we work on all of it, every side of it.

RAMONA: I’m 17 years old. I have two kids. My newborn is 2 months. His name is Joaquin. And my daughter is about to be 3 years old next month.

BRANDI BREVARD: So for her high school career, she’s had a baby. And she’s going to graduate this year.

One of the things that I noticed when I started here at Sharpstown was that there were a lot of girls that were pregnant and/or that had kids. There were probably 30 to 35 girls on our campus. So I started the Teen Moms and Expectant Moms Club.

We’ve had lot of girls in the last four months end up pregnant. So what you’re doing right now is writing your story. Convince the other girls in this school to try to wait until after you graduate. OK, who wants to go next? Come on. Nakia, go.

NAKIA: I have a 2-year-old daughter. Her name is Kianna Jenkins—

BRANDI BREVARD: Nakia, at the end of clubs, reluctantly told me that she’s worried that she may be pregnant again. So I’m going to go get a pregnancy test, and she’s going to come down and we’re going to find out.

So what’s happening? Are you scared?

NAKIA: Yes.

BRANDI BREVARD: Have you thought about what happens if it’s yes?

NAKIA: I don’t know yet, but I’m not ready for another one.

BRANDI BREVARD: I’m going to support you, no matter what. But I am disappointed that— you know, you been through this before, you know? And I want you to go to college.

NAKIA: Yeah. I want to go to college, too. That’s why I’m, like, saying I’m not ready for another one.

BRANDI BREVARD: All right. You need the directions? You know what to do. OK. So just go into the— you know where the teachers’ bathroom is right there?

NAKIA: Yeah.

BRANDI BREVARD: Have you looked at it?

NAKIA: No.

BRANDI BREVARD: It’s no.

NAKIA: Oh, yes! Thank you, God!

BRANDI BREVARD: This is good news!

MARCUS: Some stuff to me is more important than others. Football is one of the most important to me. I love football because it’s so physical. It’s, like— you can actually hit somebody and not get in trouble for it. All your stress that you’ve had for the past any time, just period, you can take out on the football field.

It feels so good when you hear everybody calling your name just from the stands, everybody. That feel good. Then the lights. That’s the best part, the lights. They:re just shining down and just— you’re running the ball, the light’s showing. It’s beautiful.

DALLAS BLACKLOCK, Football Coach: You don’t give me what I want now, I’m going to take it out of you after practice. So you better get after it.

He could definitely go to college and play football. Hands down. I have kids that are going to college this year that aren’t nearly as talented as him. That’s how much talent he has.

MARCUS: That’s really the only reason I come to school, to play football. During the football season, since 7th grade, I make good grades, come to school every day. And then soon as the football season’s over, it seems like I just fall off.

DALLAS BLACKLOCK: Marcus went to Westbury High School, which is a school right down the way, actually, our rival school. And he got kicked out of Westbury and the principal would not allow him to come back, and he didn’t come here until November of last year.

Marcus’s problem is, is that there’s a rule in place that if you transfer from one school to another school, you have to sit out a full calendar year. Because he’s a junior, he actually arrived here after football season, he technically wouldn’t be eligible to play until after football season.

ROB GASPARELLO: If you had to sit out a year because of the transfer rule, if the year’s until November 21st, you’d be eligible for basketball.

MARCUS: But I wouldn’t be eligible for football.

ROB GASPARELLO: But you wouldn’t be eligible for football.

MARCUS: I have to play football. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t say that I’m going to finish school because, really, football is my life, you know? I got to play football. I have to. There’s no telling me I can’t play. I can’t deal with that. That’s basically telling me don’t come to school no more.

ROB GASPARELLO: I want you in school playing because this could be your ticket. You have $25,000, $30,000 to go to the school of your choice right now—

MARCUS: No.

ROB GASPARELLO: —what would that be? What school would that be?

MARCUS: I just want to go to college, period. I really— I really— it wouldn’t matter, yeah, because, really, I never thought that I actually could go to college. Nobody did. My mama never went, my brother, my dad and my sister, nobody, you know? If I go to college, that’s a big, big step, a big step for my whole family— any college, any college.

DALLAS BLACKLOCK: If Marcus doesn’t have the opportunity to play football, there is a great chance that Marcus won’t finish high school, a great chance.

FEMALE STUDENT: This is a poster of my life. I was born Houston, Texas, on August 31st, 1994.

RANA BOONE, Dean: My class is called “The Game of Real Life.” The class is aimed primarily at kids at high risk of dropping out of school.

Why were you arrested?

CARLOS: For vandalism of school property.

RANA BOONE: And this class is to teach them financial literacy and college application/skill-building.

RAMONA: In order to get that kind of job, I need to have a degree in criminal justice or chemistry, one of those.

RANA BOONE: The idea is that if we show them what is attainable and how to get it, then, hopefully, they’ll stay in school and pursue those dreams.

RAMONA: That’s my life. A little bit.

RANA BOONE: But Sparkle, I haven’t really seen her this semester. And it’s February, and literally, I think she’s been in class about five times in five weeks.

I need to know where you’ve been. You haven’t been in class.

SPARKLE: Oh. Because, Miss— I don’t know, Miss. I was sick. That’s why I wasn’t here for a long— like, a week. I was sick. I wasn’t feeling good.

RANA BOONE: What I’m trying to get to, Sparkle, is we looked at your records. We know your real address is nowhere near Sharpstown High School. So this school and this district do not have to allow you to be on this campus. And Mr. G. and everybody else is asking, “Why are we spending all these resources, our time, our energy, our patience, our money, our space to try to make a way for you to be successful?” But we all feel like we’re meeting a wall with you.

SPARKLE: I think school— it ain’t nothing but adding on to my problems. It’s a big situation right now with my son. And that situation is not making me happy.

RANA BOONE: All I know about Sparkle’s background is what she first shared in class. She shared that she had a baby. She’s from New Orleans. Moving from New Orleans to Houston after Hurricane Katrina was really traumatic. And then her mom died. And she lived with family. And slowly throughout the year, it’s become, “Now I live with just my friends. I sleep on their couch. I sleep on their floor.”

And apparently, somewhere between all of this, now her son has been taken away from her, as well. Even if a quarter of that is true, it’s a devastating reality for, you know, a kid in high school.

The last time I even really seen you besides yesterday was about two weeks ago.

SPARKLE: If I can’t do it, then I can’t do it. I’m one person trying to do a whole bunch of million other things.

RANA BOONE: What about if I say to you, as a student, that’s your only job. Your only job is to come to school.

SPARKLE: That is not only my job. School ain’t my life. School ain’t the only thing that’s working through my life right now. I got a whole bunch going on right now, a whole lot. I got to get my son. I got to work on school. I got to try to get a job, make sure I can lay somewhere every night, make sure I can eat every day. That’s my job.

RANA BOONE: Do you want that to be your future?

SPARKLE: Not at all. It shouldn’t even be like this right now. I’m too young for this.

RANA BOONE: That is your future from this moment forward unless you decide to get here every day and get your education and get your diploma. Isn’t that enough for you to put forth your full effort?

SPARKLE: No. Because let me tell you why. I’m so used to people coming in my life and leaving out, I’m scared to let any of you all in. I really am. I can’t let nobody in that’s going to leave. Either you there, you there, or you’re not, you’re not.

RANA BOONE: I don’t think any educator ever forgets the kid or the kids they believed they failed, but it stings so bad when you can think of someone and go, “Oh, my God, I hope that kid turned out OK.” But if you’ve had that experience, I think all it does is fuel you to work that much harder.

So for me, clearly, I’m thinking of a kid my first year of teaching who was a nightmare. But I hope he learned to read! [laughs] I hope he learned to behave! But maybe because I had that burn my very first year, that’s why I want to work so hard with the next one, or the next Sparkle.

If we fail, it will be a great tragedy for us, for Sparkle. But I think everyone is going above and beyond to do everything they can so that she doesn’t fail and we don’t fail her.

BRANDI BREVARD: Lawerance doesn’t really have an adult in his life. And even though he’s 19, I feel like I want to be that adult that’s kind of pushing him along. Otherwise, I feel like he’ll just fall off.

Good morning. You still sleepy?

LAWERANCE: Uh-huh.

BRANDI BREVARD: So how come you didn’t go talk to Mr. Gasparello yesterday? Mr. Gasparello said you walked through his office or whatever, but you didn’t say anything to him.

LAWERANCE: I wasn’t in the mood to speak to him, to people— like right now.

BRANDI BREVARD: My relationship with him began with him being disrespectful to the teacher and me kind of pulling him out. And that’s where I kind of found out about his background and the things that had been happening to him with his family and things like that.

You’ve got a goal and you’re so close to it. Right? What’s that goal?

LAWERANCE: Graduating.

BRANDI BREVARD: OK. How long you got?

LAWERANCE: Four months.

BRANDI BREVARD: That’s right. It’s four months. I mean, surely, four months— you can do it. You can avoid confrontation.

LAWERANCE: My personal life is crazy. I don’t think nobody can deal with it, but Ms. Brevard tried to help me with it. It’s driven her crazy. So I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It feels like all the weight was on my shoulders, for some reason. So the smallest thing is big to me now. So it just keeps piling up. But I talk to Ms. Brevard, so she help me knock stuff down so it’s not as big as it was.

BRANDI BREVARD: Lawerance? What’s going on? Come here. What’s wrong with you? Come here! Why are your eyes all red? Hey. Hey, hey, hey! Can we go sit down and talk?

Lawerance was sent here from California. He was involved with gangs and drugs. He lost some people very close to him and came here to get away from that, and that’s how he ended up here at Sharpstown.

What’s wrong? What’s going on? What happened?

His mom has been in and out of prison, and I think that affects him a lot, that he has no control over her, you know, and what happens to her. So he goes all day thinking about it and being sad, and then just kind of gets to that point where it wells up and he can’t control it anymore.

LAWERANCE: I try to hide it, but I just started thinking about it today. The main thing is I don’t got my mom. That’s the only thing I care about.

BRANDI BREVARD: OK, but let’s be honest. What was she doing?

LAWERANCE: Staying in trouble. That’s why I wanted to graduate, so I could move her down here. That was my whole goal since I’ve been down here. It’s seems like all the joy, all the happiness, all everything is gone.

BRANDI BREVARD: Don’t take today and make it the way your life is permanently. Today is just a bad day.

LAWERANCE: I’ve been feeling like this every day.

BRANDI BREVARD: You have not. I have seen you. Lawerance, you’re telling me that—

LAWERANCE: I’ve been hiding it. I don’t like showing my emotions to nobody. That’s why I don’t like crying right now.

BRANDI BREVARD: You love your mother. Love her. Respect her. But do something with your life so that you don’t end up like that. You don’t want to graduate? You don’t care?

LAWERANCE: I don’t know. It’s just too much. It’s way too much right now.

BRANDI BREVARD: It’s going to get better, I promise you. I know it’s hard now, but it’s going to get better.

I can’t look at somebody like Lawerance or Marcus and not want to do everything I can to help them. But there’s 1,302 of them here, and it’s just hard to make sure that every single one of them is OK every day. That’s the burden that we deal with, knowing that there are kids that may slip through the cracks.

COZETTE CHURCH: The biggest obstacle I think that Marco had to, you know, overcome this year— his mom is at risk of being deported, and so that was very, very heavy on him. Keeping in mind that while he’s dealing with that, he’s also looking at, “Oh, my gosh, am I going to graduate on time?” That’s how Marco may— you know, really, really doesn’t look good right now. We’re going to try to graduate in December of next year. And then his mom got out. That was almost like the birth of a second chance.

17 weeks to graduation

ROB GASPARELLO: OK, so, talk to me a little bit. You were all excited at the soccer game.

MARCO: I had just found out my mom is not getting deported, and I just started crying and I’m just happy I have her back.

ROB GASPARELLO: How long has it been since you smoked?

MARCO: It was, like, whole month.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK.

MARCO: But my dad, he was, like— he got deported three years ago, so that’s all I had. I was just excited to have her back because I mean, no dad and mom and graduating this year, and to have no family member see me, it was going to suck, you know? But now I’m happy to have her back.

ROB GASPARELLO: What was her advice to you?

MARCO: To graduate this year.

ROB GASPARELLO: And are you on track to do that?

MARCO: Yes, sir.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK. Are you sure?

MARCO: Yes, sir.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK. That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing, isn’t it?

MARCO: I can’t believe it. I ran out of here. You know, I’m just happy right now. I’m not trying to walk around. I’m trying to go to class, but you know—

ROB GASPARELLO: Well, get to class.

TERRY GRIER: Here in Houston right now, it’s about 12 percent of our kids drop out. Three years, four years ago, it was 22 percent. And so we’ve made a lot of progress. We’re continuing to make progress. But it’s a challenge, and it’s a huge challenge. And one of the most difficult parts is, how do you count a kid as a dropout? The record-keeping part of it is— it really shouldn’t be this difficult.

BOB SANBORN, Children at Risk: We know that large numbers of kids here in Houston and all across this country are not finishing high school. Children At Risk has been around here in Texas for over 20 years. We look at numbers and we figure out, maybe, what are the real numbers? You know, what’s sort of the truth behind the numbers that they’re giving us?

In the state of Texas, you have the Texas Education Agency, which asks for data in a certain way. And while this is very convoluted— and I think they maybe make it purposely convoluted. They create these things called “Leaver Codes,” which are— a student is a “leaver” for this reason, and when they are a “leaver” for this reason, they are not a dropout.

So they’ll designate things like children that have left for home school, children that have left the country, children that have left for private school— which seem reasonable, right?

When you break this stuff down, what you see is things like, across the state, it’s in the junior year, a time when kids might be dropping out, that the schools are saying that parents are taking their kids out of school for home schooling. We know that that doesn’t really happen. So for us, there’s something going on there.

And then we also see that it’s in their senior year that, across the state, people are being marked as leaving for private school. Now, when do kids leave in their senior year and decide to go to private school? It might happen in the movies— you know, the bad girl or the bad boy goes to another school for their senior year. But it doesn’t happen in the very large numbers that we’re seeing in the data here in the state of Texas.

And if we don’t have the right data, then we can’t begin to solve this. So if we have a dropout problem, what is the size of that dropout problem? And now how do we begin to fix it?

ROB GASPARELLO, Principal: [PA system] Good morning, Apollos. Today is day 114. It is Thursday, February 9th, 2012.

What’s going on this week? I don’t know if there’s a typical week here. We seem to have had a lot of kids in life crisis situations. We had a little skirmish during lunch. A fight broke out and Marcus was one of the kids involved. And in the process of him getting handcuffed and going to the police office after the melee, Marcus was found to have marijuana on him. And that brought a charge, and that brought him off to jail.

DALLAS BLACKLOCK: He looked up at me in handcuffs, and he said, “Coach, so football is over?” And I said, “Probably so.” And I was just totally disappointed. And I looked at him and kind of just walked out. He just made the worst decision ever.

[two days later]

ROB GASPARELLO: Marcus. Any others to follow up?

BRANDI BREVARD: I called and talked to his dad last night. I said “What’s going on? What’s the situation?” And he said that Marcus went to jail. He said that Marcus never called him. It’s just a matter of, Where’s Marcus?

[on the phone] Yeah, I’m trying to find out if somebody that was charged and is said to be in your— in jail is being released today?

I can’t imagine that there’s a training that encompasses everything that you will encounter being an educator. We’re here for students, and that’s the number one priority.

[on the phone] So he’s going to court in the morning, criminal court four. Oh, my Go! I got to go get my son! Hey, I’m on my way!

Usually, every day, my son gets dropped off by the bus at the back of Sharpstown at 3:15. Usually, I’m on time. It’s not very often I’m late. It is hard sometimes because I feel like— I have three kids at home, and I spend a lot of time dealing with the kids here. They have a good life and they have parents that love them, and a lot of the kids here don’t necessarily have that.

Mommy’s got to go to work, baby girl.

CHILD: Why?

BRANDI BREVARD: I think they need that. You know, kids should have that until they’re 17 or 18, so—

LAWERANCE: When I go to jail for attacking Ruffin, you know why.

BRANDI BREVARD: What happened?

LAWERANCE: He just hit me up for no reason! I was playing with this girl [unintelligible] Calm down, said, “Don’t grab me. Don’t grab me. Get off me, son.” He going jerk with me again, said, “Get off me. Quit touching me.” Then he tried to choke me out for no reason. Just know, when I hit him in his [expletive deleted] face, and I go to jail, you know why.

BRANDI BREVARD: Lawerance— Lawerance— Lawerance!

Lawerance just— he just has such anger issues. Typically, something happens every other day. If he’s here for two days, something’s going to happen one of those two days.

LAWERANCE: Just know. He touch me any time before I leave this bitch, I’m going to punch him in his face! I’m not playing. Do you see this face? I’m not playing!

ROB GASPARELLO: I didn’t ask you— enough! Stop. Stop.

LAWERANCE: What you mean stop! What he’s supposed to just do—

ROB GASPARELLO: No, he— hey!

If it was about ego and stuff, it would be, “Get him out of here” But it’s not about that. You just can’t take it personally because most of the anger is about their life situation. It’s displaced onto you, and they’re acting out.

LAWERANCE: Y’all don’t care!

BREVARD: But he’s sitting here talking to you and—

LAWERANCE: But what’s he going to do? He’s not going to do nothing. He’s going to still be here tomorrow!

BREVARD: But he just said— you’ve got to calm down!

LAWERANCE: No, I haven’t—

BRANDI BREVARD: The only thing that’s going to stop him from graduating is not the attendance and not getting the grades. What’s going to be the breaking point is his anger.

LAWERANCE: You see how mad I am? I’m shaking! How am I supposed to be calm?

ROB GASPARELLO: I know you’re mad.

INTERVIEWER: Would he survive in any other school environment besides this?

ROB GASPARELLO: I don’t know if he’s going to survive in this one!

BRANDI BREVARD: Lawerance, stop! Don’t go out that door!

ROB GASPARELLO: Go ahead and walk. Go ahead and walk.

But he’ll be back tomorrow. He might not be back on time, but he’ll be back because this is the best he’s got.

BRANDI BREVARD: Marcus stayed in jail two or three nights, got out. We tried to get him to come up here to school to kind of talk about what the consequences were going to be, what the next steps were, where we go from here. So he agreed to come in Saturday morning 9:00 or 10:00 o’clock.

I talked to him at probably 9:30 or 10:00, and I said, “OK, well, go ahead and get your hair done and then call me when you get done.” And here we are at 1:00 o’clock and I haven’t heard from him. At this point, he’s— I’m worried that he’s avoiding us.

Sorry, I’m trying to find Marcus. Are there any other hair places around here? Barber shop at the end of the strip center.

Hi, I’m hunting down a kid! I think he was coming here to get his hair cut.

Nothing. It was all women. It looks like Marcus ditched me. I just thought that he was the one that I had to worry about the least, as far as surviving and making it. He smokes marijuana, and if he was in jail for three days, I imagine that he really wanted to smoke. So I’m thinking that maybe that’s what he went to do.

He didn’t go get his hair done.

ROB GASPARELLO: Does that surprise you?

BRANDI BREVARD: Uh-huh.

ROB GASPARELLO: Because?

BRANDI BREVARD: I thought— I mean, he— when I talked to him this morning, he was— it was very sincere. It was very normal. And I said, “I’ll call you back, or whatever, and every time I tried to call back, he didn’t answer the phone. [phone rings]

[on the phone] Hello? Marcus! Where are you?

ROB GASPARELLO: Good timing.

BRANDI BREVARD: I’ve been looking for you. It’s 2:20. I want you to tell me what time you’re going to be here. OK, so in the next 20 minutes.

Maybe I was right and you were wrong.

ROB GASPARELLO: What?

BRANDI BREVARD: Maybe he wasn’t getting high.

ROB GASPARELLO: We’ll see if he shows. We’ll see.

BRANDI BREVARD: Do you realize that this is your last chance?

MARCUS: Yeah.

BRANDI BREVARD: What happens if you are sent to CEP for three months?

MARCUS: I mean, that can’t happen.

BRANDI BREVARD: It means you have no future, right? I mean, it means you don’t play football, you don’t graduate, you don’t finish. I mean, that’s the bottom line. This is it. This is everything right here.

HISD has a zero tolerance policy on drugs, and I think HISD policy is 90 days at CEP. CEP stands for Community Education Partners. If kids are expelled or suspended, or when kids do something, CEP is where they go. It’s kind of like our consequence.

If we sent Marcus to CEP, I’m 90 percent sure that would be the end for him. He wouldn’t go. He’d drop out, and he’d probably end up doing whatever he had to do to make money and survive. He would not finish.

MARCUS: I can’t go back to CEP. I went my 9th grade year. Every class, I slept, and I still managed to make at least a C or B. And then the second year I went, my 10th grade year, I was supposed to go there for 60 days again. It took me, like, 100 and something days. It was a lot. I didn’t go to school at all, like, ever. No, it wasn’t good.

ROB GASPARELLO: So where do we go from here?

MARCUS: Give me one more chance just to come to school every day on time, you know, no trouble, you know, none of that. Could you let me finish this year at Sharpstown and next year, play football?

ROB GASPARELLO: Even if you play football, you got to deal with the rest of your life. That’s why I was asking about how are you going to deal with some of the stuff with home and all that stuff?

MARCUS: I mean, the home situation, I mean, it’s bad, you know? But I mean, I can handle it. I mean, I’ve been handling it for 17 years.

ROB GASPARELLO: Right.

MARCUS: You know? My mom— I love my mom to death. She a good mom. Like, she take care of her business. But she drink. That’s what she do. But I mean, I know I can just— I can make it better for them. I know I can help them. If I do right, I can get everything I got to do together.

ROB GASPARELLO: If we were to send Marcus to CEP or somewhere else right now, we’re, like, basically saying, “You’re not going to make it.”

He’s plugged into us. If he’s not going to make it here, he’s not going to make it.

I’m leaving this open right now. And I’m willing to give you the opportunity. But like I said, the window’s closing and you have to open it back up.

MARCUS: Honestly speaking, I wouldn’t have went to CEP. I probably would’ve just dropped out. And Mr. Gasparello, making this— like, making this happen for me, I appreciate it a lot, and I’m going to do my part. I have to. I’m going to do my part.

ROB GASPARELLO: Make it work.

MARCUS: I got you. I’m going to make it work.

ROB GASPARELLO: Marcus says the right things. And I’m hoping that— more than saying those things, he’s got to want to do it, to make that change, because he wants something better. And he owns it. And that’s the thing I’m not sure about on him yet.

EBONY WASHINGTON, Drop-Out Prevention Case Worker: Where were you yesterday?

MARCO: I was at home sick.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Don’t play. You skipped. Be honest. It was senior skip day.

MARCO: Yeah.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Marco has had attendance problems, so that’s why I stay on him.

You know that’s going to end up costing you. You have nothing to say now, huh?

So we can be able to keep a grasp on him, we have to kind of check in with him regularly to make sure that he knows that, “We are there watching you.”

Don’t try to fight and get out of it, Marco. Do what you have to do—

MARCO: I am.

EBONY WASHINGTON: —so that you can get out of here. Right now, you’re on that verge. Either you going to do it or you’re not.

MARCO: I get worried about my credits because I only have 12.5, and I need 26 to graduate.

INTERVIEWER: That’s a lot. Can you do that?

MARCO: I know I can. Just Saturdays, just come in every Saturday, I think I can. I just got to up my effort so I can graduate this year.

EBONY WASHINGTON: I can see that he’s taking more initiative and he’s being honest and owning up to what he needs to do. So hopefully, he’ll pull through and graduate.

MARCO: Together we can.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Whatever it takes.

MARCO: No excuses.

EBONY WASHINGTON: All right. Make it happen.

MARCO: I will!

EBONY WASHINGTON: I’m so not playing with you.

MARCO: You know what that bell means?

EBONY WASHINGTON: ‘Bye.

RANA BOONE, Dean: Sparkle, where’ve you been?

SPARKLE: Ms. Hayes. She was helping me.

RANA BOONE: How many of you, have been able to find information about your college costs, tuition and fees, so far?

Sparkle, how’s it going?

SPARKLE: I don’t know what they’re talking about.

RANA BOONE: OK. That’s why you need to come to school because we’ve been going over this.

She is definitely slipping. Because she’s not interested, she’s not coming. She’s not here for the discussion. So she’s getting really low grades in every area of my class grading.

INTERVIEWER: How much school did you miss this week?

SPARKLE: I don’t know. I don’t remember.

INTERVIEWER: It’s Friday. Were you here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday?

SPARKLE: I don’t remember. I don’t know, Miss.

INTERVIEWER: Come on, be honest with us.

SPARKLE: I am. I don’t remember. I think— I know I wasn’t here yesterday. I came Wednesday. I came— I wasn’t here Monday. I was here Tuesday and Wednesday and today.

RANA BOONE: Pretty much, I need to know where you’ve been. I haven’t seen you since we had the big talk about you need to really think about how to get here and be here. Is this funny?

SPARKLE: No, miss. My head hurts.

RANA BOONE: Why does your head hurt? This is the first day I’ve been close to you, and you smell like you’ve been smoking, or like someone around you has been smoking.

SPARKLE: Probably. I don’t— I haven’t even been smoking, though.

RANA BOONE: Has somebody around you been smoking today?

SPARKLE: I don’t know. I’ve been at school all day.

RANA BOONE: I’ve never smelled any smoke on you before ever during class. But I when I was over here working with you, I was like, it smells kind of like weed. And I’m not trying to insult you, I’m just saying I haven’t seen you. And then you’re saying, “I don’t feel well,” and you’re late to class. I’m, like, what is going on?

SPARKLE: Nah, it ain’t no smoke!

RANA BOONE: OK.

The fact that she smells very strongly of marijuana, I’m going to follow up with that. I don’t believe what she said about, “No, I’ve been at school,” and “No, no one around me was smoking.” Uh-uh. There’s no way.

SPARKLE: I’m not nervous. If I get in trouble, I just get in trouble. [laughs]

RANA BOONE: I just went to get her from grad lab. And Ms Sharpe told me that she says, “I don’t want to work. I have a headache. I’m hung over.” So—

ROB GASPARELLO: Sparkle continues to be a project. We have continually reached out, provided, provided and provided for her to try to accommodate her needs.

NURSE VANESSA REVIS: She’s good. Probably just hung over.

ROB GASPARELLO: She’s got a great mind. She’s not a stupid kid. But those life things weigh on her. I don’t know how resilient I could be and if I could ever get to school, either. That’s not an excuse. No excuses. But gosh, that’s pretty tough stuff.

You can’t do school the way you are right now.

SPARKLE: It just made me forget about it and go to sleep.

ROB GASPARELLO: And I understand. I get it that there’s a lot of pain. But they just put a little mask over the pain for a little bit. And when the mask comes off today, you feel worse and the pain’s still there.

SPARKLE: Yes, sir.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK.

You don’t want to say, “Hey, you’re not even in our district, we don’t have to do this.” But at some point, we have to say, “We’ve done everything humanly possible to help you, and you don’t want that help.” And she’s about at that point.

BRANDI BREVARD: There’s only so much we can do. In order to be effective at what we’re doing, and to help as many students as we can, you’ve got to be able to let go of some of them. I feel like it’s gotten to a point where with Sparkle and Lawerance both— I think I’ve started to feel like they may not make it.

INTERVIEWER: What time did you get to school today?

LAWERANCE: Like, 1:00 o’clock. Like, that’s kind of late.

DEANZA SHARPE-SOLOMON, High School Graduation Coach: The deadline is May 1st for all seniors to get all classes completed.

14 weeks to graduation

LAWERANCE: I know it wasn’t the best aspect to come in at 1:00. But at least I still managed to come. At least I didn’t just say, “OK, I’m going to stay home,” and sit here and have nothing completed for the day.

BRANDI BREVARD: He’s not doing or finishing what he needs to finish. It doesn’t seem like he’s taking it seriously. Lawerance doesn’t have adults in his life. You know, right now, he’s a kid that’s on his own and nobody’s telling him what to do. So I feel like he’s still needs high school, not just for the academics but for the structure.

DEANZA SHARPE-SOLOMON: Come on, Lawerance,

BRANDI BREVARD: He’s on a list that’s put out that says, OK, these are the seniors in grad lab that at this point are not getting credit for their classes, so they won’t walk and they won’t graduate.

DEANZA SHARPE-SOLOMON: It’s not really bad, but it’s what you need to take care of. You have English 4-A chemistry A, health, spanish 2-B.

He has seven classes that he needs to get credit for. He’s on the fast track to do it, but he needs to work harder and come more often to get it completed.

LAWERANCE: If I get all them completed by spring break, what’s that mean?

DEANZA SHARPE-SOLOMON: Then that means you will be able to graduate in May. If we don’t get these completed, then that means August.

LAWERANCE: It’s no— none of that. It’s going to be completed.

DEANZA SHARPE-SOLOMON: If I can get him here, he can do it. We just need him here every day.

If you have a problem and you can’t get some of this stuff done, then what we’re going to have to do is come double up. OK? All right. You need to come to school on time!

If he doesn’t follow suit to what I was telling him today, he will not graduate because he needs those classes in order to graduate.

LAWERANCE: It made me kind of scared a little bit. Like, I have all this to do in a little bit of time. But it’s going to help me. Either I’m going to put up or shut up. That’s how I do.

BRANDI BREVARD: What were your goals?

MARCUS: Goals. I got six.

BRANDI BREVARD: Come to school on time every day, right? That’s fine. Check. Raise Spanish grade from a 22 to a 65. Did you do that?

MARCUS: I raised it to a 70.

ROB GASPARELLO: The stars have aligned for Marcus. Nobody expects him to be perfect, but you know, Brandi hasn’t been having to take him to school. He’s been here early, checks in, like he’s supposed to. So we’re in a better place than we were when he was in jail two weeks ago.

TEACHER: OK, Marcus, you’re going to go ahead and read your essay. Will you stand at the front for me?

MARCUS: Yes, ma’am.

MARCUS: It’s been real hard, you know, but I’m making it work. You know, I brought every one of my grades up, came to school every day on time, basically following the plan. I’m making it happen, though. It’s going good. But it’s hard, though. It’s hard. I mean, I want to quit. But I’m not a quitter, so, you know.

BRANDI BREVARD: As we start to write the goals for next week, the first one, what should it be? What’s something right now that you’re not doing that you should be doing?

MARCUS: I don’t know.

BRANDI BREVARD: I’m looking for something specific, something that you’re doing that you shouldn’t be doing.

MARCUS: Smoking?

BRANDI BREVARD: Uh-huh.

MARCUS: Because I’ve been smoking for so long, like, so long, every day. I can’t even remember the last day I didn’t smoke. When I go home, I go straight to the weed, man. I’m so used to it, it’s like a daily routine.

BRANDI BREVARD: So you’re telling me you can’t do something to try to stop?

MARCUS: I didn’t say that.

I’m going to try. I’m going to give it my all, like I’ve been doing. And hopefully, I’ll come out on top like I want to.

YOSEF WORKENH, Business Manager: We’ll do whatever it takes for you to come to school. Whatever you need, you can ask us, we’ll help you.

RANA BOONE: Sparkle had connected with Yosef Workenh, our business manager.

YOSEF WORKENH: All we need you to do is just come to school. Not only you’re helping yourself, you’re helping your family.

RANA BOONE: She can relate to his background because he was orphaned at a very young age, came to this country with no family, and I think that she saw traits in him that she could relate to and aspire to be.

YOSEF WORKENH: So there’s no excuse, eh? I want you to promise me that you’ll come to school from now on.

RANA BOONE: I honestly thought she was on the path to dropping out. And then we kind of hooked her back in at the last minute when we saw her, you know, teetering at that precipice, oh, “Well, I’m about to throw everything away.”

Where have you been since the last time we talked a few weeks ago in my office?

SPARKLE: Home.

RANA BOONE: Doing what?

When we had all met— Mr. Yosef, myself, and Sparkle— she didn’t go into deep specifics, but she had to leave where she was living, she had to move away, she couldn’t trust anyone. I mean, really a lot of drama.

YOSEF WORKENH: What was the thing that I told that changed your perception about your wanting to stay in school?

SPARKLE: Because I see that success could come from anybody. Anybody can be successful.

RANA BOONE: We met with her, gosh, I don’t know, for maybe an hour. And then she and I came in here and talked some more, and she just really let a lot of stuff out. So I felt like maybe this was the moment we were really going to turn the corner with her. And then she was withdrawn.

YOSEF WORKENH: What happened was, she promised that she was going to come to school on Saturdays, on regular days. But she never did. Finally, Mr. Gasparello has decided that they have given her so many chances and they can’t— you know, they can’t keep doing this.

ROB GASPARELLO: We said, “Sparkle, we’re doing all the giving, and you’re not. And that’s got to be understood, that you’ve got to reciprocate. And if you can’t do that, then you can’t be here.” And then she said, “OK, I don’t want to be here.”

YOLANDA TREVINO: She withdrew on March 2nd. I’m printing her withdrawal form.

Mr. Leiva, can I get you to withdrawal— sign the withdrawal for Taunika?

YOLANDA TREVINO: She’s been in and out of so many schools. So I really believe this won’t be her last. She has two more years to go. And she’s 17 at the moment. I don’t know. A lot of them do give up at 18.

RANA BOONE: I feel like this was a special situation, a student with extremely challenging life circumstances. And we then missed the opportunity to follow through and actually support her in the ways we said we would.

ROB GASPARELLO: Sparkle was given lots of opportunities to come back and was given support. She got this sense of almost entitlement, where, you know, we were going to do whatever we needed to do to help her. But she didn’t buy in enough to do the things she needed to do.

YOSEF WORKENH: As a matter of fact, she called me yesterday. And I can show you the text message that she sent. “I have nowhere to go. It’s raining and all my stuff is outside. Can you please just reply back.” And I said, “Please call me.”

And it really— I mean, it really hurt me last night. It just— it just hurt me so bad. I said, how can somebody can live like this? So I was going to call her today.

RECORDING: The Cricket number you have called has been temporarily disconnected. Message 22, H-O-U.

YOSEF WORKENH: That means her phone has disconnected since last night.

[When reached by FRONTLINE, Sparkle declined to continue to participate in this program.]

RANA BOONE: Everyone does all jobs— counselor, social worker, parent, all of that. But ultimately, we’re not equipped to deal with these kinds of circumstances that the students either find themselves in or put themselves in.

INTERVIEWER: And yet do you feel like the world expects you guys to solve these problems?

RANA BOONE: Absolutely. You know, the famous phrase I hear from folks over and over is, “Oh, my goodness, God bless you all. Your work is so noble. I could never do it.” And I’m thinking, “You’re right.” Most people cannot do this work, but you want us to be miracle workers. Like, “You guys take care of it. I’m going to stay over here in my comfortable job that I leave at work when I go home,” you know? But yeah, I think we’re definitely held to a higher standard.

TEACHER: If you increase the pressure, what happens to the solubility of the gas?

STUDENT: Increases.

TEACHER: It increases.

TERRY GRIER: You’ve got to have quality teachers in all of your classrooms. Having said that, we already know— we’ve balance this year’s budget, this coming year’s budget, cut $45 million out— we already know now the following year, we’re going to have to cut $52 million more.

[FRONTLINE was scheduled to interview the district's director of dropout prevention programs. The interview was canceled at the last minute. Due to budget cuts, the position had been eliminated the night before.]

TERRY GRIER: The thing about improving schools, we know what to do. It’s whether or not we have the courage to do what we know. But I just don’t understand ethically how you can walk away, and year after year after year after year, see these kinds of schools when you know what to do to fix them. And it’s just— to me, I don’t understand it. I get angry when I think about it. These are our kids. They’re all our kids.

BOB SANBORN, Children at Risk: By and large, if you’re a school dropout, good jobs are no longer available to you. And so you’re destined to— probably a lot of unemployment over the course of a lifetime. And then we see these large numbers of high school dropouts that really start filling our prisons. And that’s when you become a significant burden on society.

It would be so much less expensive if we were less shortsighted and started saying, “What can we do with our public schools to truly make that investment now and really make more of our children successful?”

I think one of the interesting things about Sharpstown is that they are part of this larger Apollo 20, sort of this experiment within the Houston Independent School District, to turn around schools. And it’s an experiment that everyone in public education really should be watching because, at some point, if as a public, we want to turn around the worst of our schools, and if we now have the formula, we’re going to need to come up with the dollars.

11 weeks to graduation

ROB GASPARELLO: [PA system] Good morning, Apollos. Welcome to Day 137. It’s Tuesday, March 20th, 2010. It’s an SAT day at Sharpstown High School.

BRANDI BREVARD: Have you already taken the SAT?

LAWERANCE: No.

BRANDI BREVARD: You haven’t? You haven’t taken the SAT, but you’ve already applied for college and—

LAWERANCE: I guess I got to take my SAT.

BRANDI BREVARD: So do I need to take him to his room to take his SAT? He’s saying he hasn’t taken the SAT. How do you want to handle this?

ROB GASPARELLO: All right, take— go—

LAWERANCE: No, you ain’t got to worry about it.

ROB GASPARELLO: No, I am worried about it.

BRANDI BREVARD: Lawerance?

ROB GASPARELLO: Lawerance, what are you doing? Just take it and find out where you’re at. Then you can plan from it.

LAWERANCE: High school is getting tiresome. It’s like a big amusement park. It’s full of ups and downs. But after a while, you get tired of riding the ride, right?

ROB GASPARELLO: If I don’t get you in there, once they get started, you won’t be able to do this.

LAWERANCE: Then we won’t be able to do it.

ROB GASPARELLO: But that’s— that’s a bad choice.

LAWERANCE: I’ll take it in the summer.

ROB GASPARELLO: They don’t— they— you just don’t— that’s not the way it works. You said you were focused on wanting to be here.

LAWERANCE: You’re wanting me to take a test I have no to take.

ROB GASPARELLO: It’s not a test that you pass or fail, it’s a test that you take and it gives you a school.

LAWERANCE: Go get it, and I’ll take it.

ROB GASPARELLO: You can’t do it on your terms.

LAWERANCE: You’re getting mad because I don’t want to take the test.

ROB GASPARELLO: I’m not mad, I’m just—

LAWERANCE: Then I won’t take the test.

ROB GASPARELLO: That’s fine. OK. But you can’t just go where you want to go because we are testing up there. Sit in the office and—

LAWERANCE: I’m not going to sit in your office. I’m going to grad lab.

BRANDI BREVARD: We just have kids that deal with so much more than what a typical 16 or 17-year-old should be dealing with. Seventy percent of the time, more of the issues that we deal with on a daily basis have to do with things outside of academic instruction. You know, it’s the baggage these kids bring to school every day.

BRANDI BREVARD: Come here. Lawerance, stop! Stop. OK, so are you going to go take this test? That’s it. Do you want to take it or not? I’m not forcing you. Walk away from me again, and you’re out of here. This is rude and disrespectful. OK, that’s it. You made that choice.

Everything I do for you, and I sit there and I try to talk to you, and you turn your back on me and walk away? You can’t act like that. You can’t act like that. I don’t care what’s going on, you can’t act like that.

LAWERANCE: How am I supposed to act?

BRANDI BREVARD: You can’t— you look at me. You show me the respect of looking at me and talking to me.

LAWERANCE: So y’all are supposed to just voice your opinion, and your opinion’s supposed to matter. It is supposed to matter to me.

BRANDI BREVARD: No. But you have to be respectful, and you’re not.

LAWERANCE: Y’all ain’t respectful. And I’m trying to tell you something and y’all -

BRANDI BREVARD: I’m not respectful to you? Say it again. I’m not respectful to you? Is that what you’re telling me? You’re kidding me? You call me because you’re locked out of your apartment 7:00 o’clock at night. I’m cooking dinner with my family, and what do I do?

LAWERANCE: You bring me the money.

BRANDI BREVARD: OK. And I’m disrespectful to you? That action means that you have the right to turn your back on me and walk away? Why do I do anything for you? You are rude and disrespectful.

I mean, Lawerance, are you kidding me? I bend over backwards. My time with my family— do you know how often, at night with my family, you text me and call me and say, “Can you order me a pizza? Can you do this?” I have three kids at home that I never see because I’m up here all the time.

And you don’t even appreciate it! You turn your back on me. You don’t even appreciate what I do for you.

LAWERANCE: I do everybody like everybody do me.

BRANDI BREVARD: I’ve never done you that way! I’ve never turned my back on you!

LAWERANCE: In due time, that’s all you’re going to do.

BRANDI BREVARD: OK, so that’s why you do it. OK, so do you want to withdraw? Because you obviously don’t want to be here.

LAWERANCE: How I don’t want to be here?

BRANDI BREVARD: Because you’re disrespectful and rude. And we cannot—

LAWERANCE: I don’t want to take this test! You keep trying to force it like I have to take the test.

BRANDI BREVARD: No, I said you don’t have to take the test.

LAWERANCE: And I said OK.

BRANDI BREVARD: He’s disrespectful and rude to everybody. After everything that I’ve done for him and the support that I’ve given him, it just pisses me off. He just has so much drama. It’s frustrating me because I feel like he’s got this chip on his shoulder, and we can’t rebuild any of it.

INTERVIEWER: Are you giving up on him?

BRANDI BREVARD: No, I’m just frustrated right now. He has no one. His mom has been in and out of prison, and I think that’s kind of worn on him a lot.

ROB GASPARELLO: Sit down.

LAWERANCE: For what?

ROB GASPARELLO: Because I need to finish talking with you.

LAWERANCE: [to film crew] Can you please leave?

ROB GASPARELLO: I’m trying to figure out a way to make it work for you, and every time we turn around, it’s— we’re baby-sitting or there’s drama.

LAWERANCE: You don’t know nothing in my life. You don’t know nothing that I go through. And you just keep saying, “Oh, you know”— the same— the same old three line stuff!

ROB GASPARELLO: And you don’t like to hear that.

LAWERANCE: No, it don’t—

ROB GASPARELLO: OK.

LAWERANCE: But all you hear is what everybody else say! So [expletive deleted] it! Just you been saying [expletive deleted] it to me, man, [expletive deleted] it. I don’t care no more. ‘Bye.

ROB GASPARELLO: OK.

He thinks the world can just revolve around what his moods and stuff are. And I can’t— we can’t do that.

Tomorrow when you come back, you’ll deal with Officer Ruffin.

He’s got too much other conflicts going on, so— we’ll see. To be continued. We’ll see.

JAMES TAYLOR, Leaver Clerk: We’re going to have kids drop out. There’s no way around it. But hopefully, they go somewhere else and we know where they went to. That’s the goal.

This is the room where we keep the files for the students who are leaving or who have left Sharpstown. When a student leaves, I get a folder. And my job is to find proof that the student— where they are, get an acceptable code for the state so that they don’t become a dropout.

INTERVIEWER: Why is it important for you to have the numbers in order?

JAMES TAYLOR: The state requires it. Our whole rating system for being acceptable as a school depends on it, which means our money. It’s all about money. It’s all about being an acceptable school.

BOB SANBORN: Unfortunately, the education system has sort of created this culture of wanting to make itself look good. And I think that’s all well and good, but any time performance is judged upon the numbers that you give me, we know that we need to double-check those numbers.

When we look at Sharpstown High school, there was an expectation of 343 kids graduating in the class of 2011. The actual number that they had was 177. What happened to the other 166? Forty-five were marked as dropouts. Thirty-eight of these kids stayed in school— still maybe 5th or 6th year, they’ll graduate from high school. Thirty-four were said to be going to other states, 18 going back to home country.

But I think this is a key thing. They said 32 going to Texas private schools, and you know, that is highly improbable. What are the chances that lots of kids from a high-poverty high school are moving to a private school?

EBONY WASHINGTON: The private school numbers are high. I try to steer them away from the private schools. Most people, when they think about private school, they think about your $1,800 tuition a month type of private school. But these private schools, what they are, is you go in and you pay a certain set amount, $300 to whatever it is, and you take a packet home, you check off the answers and you give the packet back, and you get a diploma.

INTERVIEWER: Just like that?

EBONY WASHINGTON: Uh-huh.

INTERVIEWER: Like, how quickly?

EBONY WASHINGTON: From what I can tell, you can get it within a day. We’ve had a student, he wasn’t coming to school. The language, I think, was a barrier from where he came from. So the mom said that she was going to send him to a private school. They withdrew one day. They came back the next day with their diploma on the same day that they withdrew.

INTERVIEWER: Was he even a senior when he withdrew?

EBONY WASHINGTON: No, he was not a senior.

INTERVIEWER: But as far as the state of Texas is concerned, that kid’s not a dropout.

EBONY WASHINGTON: No, because it’s a good code. That school is a private school.

INTERVIEWER: It’s not necessarily bad for Sharpstown High School. It doesn’t affect—

EBONY WASHINGTON: No, it doesn’t affect our number, but it affects my morals.

JAMES TAYLOR, Leaver Clerk: we have to have something to prove where they are. If I can’t prove any of that, that they’re in an educational setting or they’ve got their degree, they’re a dropout in Texas. The only acceptable excuse you can use is to say, “I’m going back to my home country,” and then we don’t require any proof, just a statement.

INTERVIEWER: Is that one easy to abuse, then?

JAMES TAYLOR: Probably, but I don’t think it’s abused as much as what you think.

MARCO: I was supposedly in Mexico. I dropped out for a whole semester, and I didn’t have to prove nothing. You know, they were just, like, OK, he’s going to Mexico. That’s it. And that was it. Like, I was gone. Like, supposedly, I was gone.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Yeah, it shows that he left and went home to Mexico a couple of times, and then he came back to the States to go ahead and finish his education.

INTERVIEWER: So you were never going to go to Mexico?

MARCO: No. I don’t even plan on going there. I don’t plan on going to Mexico ever in my life.

EBONY WASHINGTON: Maybe there— we’ve had some situations like that, that they say that they’re going to go back home, and then they don’t. But there’s no way of us discovering that. So we just go on their word that they’re actually going back home. But I mean, by the looks of it, he probably didn’t because— since he came back here. Yeah.

MARCO: There’s plenty of kids out here that do that, especially at this school, yeah. I think there’s a lot.

BRANDI BREVARD: Marcus in March was doing really well. And it lasted for two or three weeks, and then he ended up disappearing.

ROB GASPARELLO: It’s been a roller-coaster. Two and half weeks, there’s been little to no contact. He hasn’t been on campus.

Sometimes you just have to be persistent. I text him almost every day and just say, “Where are you? You should be here.” A lot of kids, if they stay in the environment that they’re in, no matter what we do, that environment will take them and chew them up and spit them out. So he’s out on the streets doing who knows what.

MARCUS: I been getting money, hustling, just getting it.

INTERVIEWER: This doesn’t sound legal.

MARCUS: It’s not. It’s not.

BRANDI BREVARD: We’re trying to figure out if he’s going to choose to drop out. It’s very likely at this point. It’s kind of the hardest one on me because I feel like this one should make it. He’s got football, which it should be a motivation. But now I’m starting to realize that in his case, all of that stuff may not matter.

MARCUS: Yeah, because people at the school, they expect so much from me. And like, I’m not this little— just this preppy school kid. I ain’t never been that. And it’s hard trying to become that.

I know I have to go to school and graduate. Like, I know this in my heart. But like, it’s just everything in my body, like, my mind, like, do not want to. But I know I need to. So it’s, like, that’s why I’m there sometimes, then I’d be away, then I come back, then I go back away.

DEREK HENDERSON: I was supposed to battle some nigga the other day, bro. The next day, that boy got killed.

MARCUS: Because sometimes I could be feeling like, “Forget all the other bull crap, I’m coming to school and doing my work every day. I’m not going to play no more.” But then, like my old mind says, just, “Let’s go grind, let’s go get it. You need some money in your pocket.”

I know it’s temporary. But it’s, like, everybody around you, they know, too. So it’s, like, they tell me all the time, “Go to school, fool! Stop being stupid.”

DEREK HENDERSON: You know, I really can’t tell him [expletive deleted] because that’s what the game is.

MARCUS: Because, like, all my older partners and stuff, most of them dropped out.

DEREK HENDERSON: Man, they [expletive deleted] his life up!

MARCUS: But they know I’m going to end up— if I drop out, I’ll be just like them, and they don’t want to see me like that. My mama told me that’s all she want me to do is graduate. But there’s so many things that just jump in the way of it, like these streets. That’s a big part of it, right. I don’t know. It’s hard.

LAWERANCE: Unfortunately, I was supposed to attend Sharpstown still, but my actions got me kicked out. It just seemed like Sharpstown was not a fit for me. I was not supposed to be there for that long. I’m surprised I lasted this long.

ROB GASPARELLO: What happened with Lawerance, it was just a series of things. You know, I don’t think there was one thing that broke the camel’s back, but he just became so unmanageable and angry. So at that point, we just needed to part ways. Some kids can’t do school.

LAWERANCE: Yeah. I’ve been hearing that story my whole life. Like, “You’re very smart and intelligent, but you don’t want to fit the rules. You don’t want to obey by our rules.” In a sense, I don’t. I’m going to do it my way because that’s how it’s been for so long.

BRANDI BREVARD: It was really hard for a while. It hurt that I couldn’t get him to change and fix things or take things differently or make better choices or, you know, appreciate what was being offered to him.

LAWERANCE: All the stuff she did for me, she didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve me going off on her like that. I feel like a complete [expletive deleted].

The first two weeks, I was, like, “I’m done with school,” sat home, chilled, played basketball, blew off my day. Thought I had fun, like, in my mind, like, “Oh, this is a fun experience, dah-dah-dah.” But when I really sat down and thought about it, it wasn’t. It’s, like, man, do I want to live like this? Do I want to keep doing the same stuff over and over and over? This is boring. This is dumb. So I decided I want my diploma still.

BRANDI BREVARD: Lawerance enrolled in Twilight, which is considered a separate school. It’s on our grounds, but it’s kind of HISD’s way of trying to help kids that may have dropped out because they can’t attend school from 8:00 to 3:00 or 8:00 to 4:00. They need something more flexible.

I think it really helps us. Not as many kids are dropping out because they have another way to finish school and get their degree. So I think it’s very possible for him to graduate by August.

LAWERANCE: Twilight be better for me because I can be by myself, so there’s no distractions, no nothing. Just me, my work, and the time I got to do it. I can come from 4:00 to 8:00. It’s not long, a couple of hours, do my work. I can get out of there quicker. The more me time, the more I be focused and just try a new step towards a better life.

BRANDI BREVARD: I started my career at a school that— it was more of an affluent neighborhood, kids that had a lot of good home support, that kind of stuff. And you know, I hate to say it, but I felt like I really wasn’t needed. I feel like that’s why I’m doing this, to make a difference. And so I enjoy being at schools like this, where there are kids that really do need an adult to help them.

Parker, did you get everything in your backpack?

CHILD: Yes.

ROB GASPARELLO: Brandi thinks outside the box. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. She’s a very good high school teacher working with kids that no one else wanted to work with and making a difference for them.

I don’t know how she balances. She’s got little kids. Her husband is a saint. It’s like that person who takes in strays. Every time she sees a stray, she takes them in.

BRANDI BREVARD: Marcus!

Marcus asked if for the remainder of the year, he could stay with me. He’s been staying with me for two and a half, maybe three weeks now.

BRANDI BREVARD: Go see if Marcus is ready.

CHILD: OK.

BRANDI BREVARD: He felt like part of his struggle getting to school every day was his self-discipline at home at night. I think he just needed someone to provide a little bit more structure and get him there.

CHILD: Marcus, are you ready?

MARCUS: Getting there.

CHILD: OK.

MARCUS: Football season is coming, so I knew I had to come back. I can’t miss football season. Never. I got to be here. I knew for sure I was going to come every day, like, for sure, and I have. I actually got a chance to go to college. I might as well take it. You know, the streets are going to be there forever, can always come back to them. But college, that’s pretty much the only opportunity I got is right now. Might as well try, try something new.

BRANDI BREVARD: What are you going to take to eat?

Obviously, this scenario is not one that could be done for tons of kids. It’s unconventional, unrealistic. This is a very unique situation where I just had a connection with a student that I felt like really needed support. I mean, I also feel guilty because I know there’s lots of kids out there and how do you pick and choose who you provide this much support for?

COZETTE CHURCH, DAN: Marco came in this year. We sat down, we completed his graduation plan together. And as we were looking at his transcript, I’m, like, “Oh, Marco.” I don’t know. It was pretty bleak. He just said, you know, “Ms. Church, you know, I want to graduate this year.” And I said, “I want you to graduate, as well.” I said, “However,” you know, “right now, I need for you accomplish in one year what it takes most students to accomplish in two years.”

I am elated to say that through all of Marco’s hard work and his dedication, as well as commitment to get the job done, Marco is now ready and able to graduate on time.

SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR: On Sunday, you need to be there at 3:00 o’clock. That’s when you are going to put on your cap and gown, get yourself together. We need to line you up. This is a serious ceremony to acknowledge you for your success.

MARCO: Well, my mom, she thought I was going to be graduating in August. Now that it’s June, and she’s, like, happy, like. This morning, I texted her and she told me, “How much would a cap and gown be?” And I was, like, “$50.” And she’s, like, “Do you want me to buy it?” I was, like, “No, I got money saved up, I’ll buy it.”

ADMINISTRATOR: You will practice the way you perform for Sunday. Stand tall. Hands to your side. Looking forward.

MARCO: She even told me, “Do you want me to give you during the day, do a party or something somewhere?” And I told her, “Nah, I don’t know yet.” But most likely, she’s going to just take me out to eat at Olive Garden, and that’s it.

ROB GASPARELLO: He’s going to graduate and he’s going to go in the Army because he couldn’t afford college, and he’s going to, hopefully, have a decent life.

MARCO: I have something planned to do after high school now. You know how they say you may be strong, but then there’s Army strong? And that’s what I want to be. And it’s just, like, a different opportunity for me just to experience more.

SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR: The issue is marching in properly. You’re going to come in the center isle and turn with your partner, and go to the end of your row to your teacher.

MARCO: I’m proud to be born in the U.S. My parents wasn’t. I think I’m blessed to be born here because I get to do more than them. And I can be a role model to my sisters and cousins because now they’re looking up to me, too. And my aunts that respect me. When I go over sometimes, they be, like, “Look at the soldier, look at the soldier.” And I’m, like, “Calm down. I’m still the same person. I’m still your cousin. I’m still your family. Just because I’m in the Army, doesn’t mean I’m going to change, so”— I guess it’s my year now.

SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR: I am pleased to announce your 2012 prom king and queen!

ROB GASPARELLO: [PA system] Good morning, Apollos, and welcome to the last day of school. It is Thursday, May 31st, 2012.

BRANDI BREVARD: The algebra end of course exam test results had come back. So we had a meeting to talk about the scores.

This is the results based on met minimum for 2012 and 2013. So if you see, we’re 79 percent for satisfactory. Notice that our advanced is the highest in the district. You know, I’m not gong to show the biology and the world geography and everything else, but math is by far the best. Our students are the top students in HISD comprehensive high schools. [cheers and applause]

This is preliminary, but when you look at our algebra scores, they are amazing. Our kids performed at a higher level than most other comprehensive high schools in HISD.

This is proof right here.

Part of that accomplishment was due to the fellows and the math lab and the tutorials and the Apollo 20 program. It’s paid off because our kids are doing better than, you know, most of the other schools in the district.

It shows. It shows because when you look at that and you consider where our kids are coming in, you know, you guys grew them huge. And this is very exciting.

BOB SANBORN, Children at Risk: Initially a lot of things look very good about Apollo 20. We’re seeing good data, Sharpstown High School. We’re seeing good data from some schools. But we’re not seeing in all 20 of the schools— you know, all 20 of them are not being turned around.

But I think it’s very early to draw broad conclusions. While all the indicators look good, I think time will be able to help us in terms of determining whether this is the answer to our dropout problems.

BRANDI BREVARD: Have we fixed it? No, no way. But I think we’re improving it. I want people to see, “OK, they’re obviously doing something right over there.”

Congratulations. It’s awesome.

So while I was having a celebration with the math fellows across the hall, Marcus punched a student in his class.

TEACHER: You all need to go away.

MARCUS: All right. Listen—

TEACHER: Go. Go.

ADMINISTRATOR: Does anyone know where Marcus is?

BRANDI BREVARD: I’m calling.

[on the phone] Where are you? Why? Why? OK, I hope it was worth it because you’re done. You’re done. You’re done. I hope it was worth it. You’re done. You’re done with Sharpstown. You’re done with football. It’s over.

ROB GASPARELLO: He needs to get back here, and we’re going to deal with it.

BRANDI BREVARD: Marcus, you need to get back up here to school and sit down with Mr. Gasparello. Now.

I was shocked. I mean, I was very disappointed because here it was, we were literally two hours from the end of the year.

ROB GASPARELLO: What happened?

MARCUS: I wanted to fight the dude a long time ago, but it was too much stuff I would’ve lost.

ROB GASPARELLO: This isn’t the streets! These aren’t— this isn’t how we settle things. So if you had an issue with him, don’t you think there could have been a better way of dealing with this?

MARCUS: Yeah.

ROB GASPARELLO: Now, he wants to press charges right now. You— you— you— what’s going to happen when you go to court again? I can’t put you on a football team representing this school. If that’s the mentality you have, that, “Well, I’m not going to fight him here, I’m going to fight him at school”— what do you think Coach Blacklock is going to say?

MARCUS: I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to jeopardize all that. I really wasn’t. But—

ROB GASPARELLO: But you did. It is everything.

BRANDI BREVARD: I just can’t even imagine what you were thinking. In the middle of class, you just decided to start punching him. You talk about how good you’ve been doing for the last month. But have you changed the way you think about what’s important and priorities— no, you haven’t.

MARCUS: I have with a lot of stuff, but—

BRANDI BREVARD: But not that! I mean, that doesn’t make sense.

ROB GASPARELLO: There are no throwaway kids. Even that kid that disappointed you and frustrated you and not held up their end of the bargain and what have you, they don’t want to do that.

I don’t think you can go into it saying, “Oh, we won one, we lost one.” You just— you take everyone for as long as you can go and give them as many opportunities as you can, knowing full well that you’re not going to be able to save every one of them.

But you have a moral obligation to try You just sort of plug away each day. And then in the end, some have made it, some haven’t, and some will be in between. Otherwise, you’d go crazy. I think you really, really would.

EBONY WASHINGTON: We will be able to keep track of those students that are potential dropouts because they’re going to have to enroll in school.

When it comes to the data and the numbers, this is a ongoing day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month yearly process. It never stops.

So when Daniela came, she supplied the private school that she was at—

As long as we have good code to know where they’re going and where they’re at, so they don’t count as far as our dropout rate.

JAMES TAYLOR, Leaver Clerk: In 2012, we have 18 students that I’m currently counting as dropouts. Two of those may or may not be. We’re talking an official definition of dropout for the state records in the way they define it. But no, I’m sure many, many more did not get a diploma somewhere.

INTERVIEWER: The pattern is always the same. The 9th grade always seems to be about 450 kids, and by the time they’re 12th graders, it’s like 275. Where do they all go?

JAMES TAYLOR: Well, I can’t tell you where all they went, but they go, is all I can say. The 9th grade is the largest, granted, and about— you’re right that it’s about a little more than half, 60 percent, something like that, ended up in the 12th grade. But they just slow attritioned, and it happens— and I think it happens at every school.

ROB GASPARELLO: I think we lose track of a lot of kids. I mean, that’s one thing. But you’ve also got to realize that we have a transient population. Our kids come, they go, they come back. We try to document, at least in the two years we’ve been here, as many of those kids as we can. That’s a full-time job. I don’t know that we do it better than any other schools. There’s a lot of schools that do it better than we do. But that’s a hard thing.

What we are seeing is more of our kids over the last two years have stayed here.

BOB SANBORN: In a sense, the system sets up these really well-intentioned people at these schools to have to record this data in these particular ways that raises lots of suspicion from people like us.

But when you see these numbers that don’t make a lot of sense around home schooling, returning to home country, going to private school, all of us should really just say a lot of kids who should be finishing school are not finishing school. A lot of kids who should be graduating are not graduating. And what are we going to do about it?

MARIA MELCHOR, Marco’s Mother: [subtitles] I thought he wasn’t going to graduate because he was very far behind and didn’t behave very well. But he tried his best and he made it. He tells me that all the teachers are very proud of him. And I’m very grateful to all the teachers that helped my son because he was very far behind, and they helped him a lot so he could graduate. And I’m very happy for him. He used to tell me, “Mom, I don’t think I will get to walk at my graduation.” And I said, “Try your best, son. Try your best.”

MARCO: It has my name on there. I put, “I made it,” and I actually put my name on it for when I throw it in the air. Yeah, my hat. So it’s really exciting. I asked my brother, my older brother, because he’s a dropout, and I asked him, “Are you going to come see me?” And he said no. Like, he just— he’s, like, “No, I’m not going to go watch you walk a stage.”

And to me, I was, like, OK, you know, I’m not going to worry about it. I know I’m doing better than him. And that’s what I want her to do, my little sister, to be something. I know I’m going to be gone, but I told her she better pass all her classes, and you know, behave because I don’t want her growing up like he did.

She don’t want me to leave.

INTERVIEWER: What’s the matter?

MARCO: She don’t want me to go to the Army, but— yeah, like, a lot of people are telling me not to go, but I’m still sticking to the plan and I’m going to go.

INTERVIEWER: You’re going to miss him?

ROB GASPARELLO: We get caught up in kids that struggle. If that’s the only thing you see, then I don’t know that you’d get up and come to work the next day. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that at the other end and in the middle and in the continuum, there’s a lot of good things going on. That’s the joy that keeps you going.

ANNOUNCER: Graduating with highest honors, class valedictorian Quyen Le. [cheers and applause]

MARCO: I’m graduating, you know, like, from officially high school, not a GED or anything like that. I actually thought I was never coming back to school, too. Before I came, I was, like, “High school’s not for me. I’m not going to school.” I didn’t think I would be graduating at all.

ANNOUNCER: Marco Antonio Donavan Servin.

MARCO: Yeah, I’m proud of myself.

COZETTE CHURCH: He made it! I’m so proud of him! Yes, he had a rough start, but his ending— his ending was like he was going for the gold.

ROB GASPARELLO: The silver lining in some of these struggles is it does make some of these kids tougher, resilient and flexible in dealing with life’s issues so that they can move forward.

ROB GASPARELLO: I would ask the class to stand. One of my last directives to you, take your hand and put it on your tassel. By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you as graduates of Sharpstown High School! Move your tassels! Parents and friends, the graduating class of 2012! [cheers and applause]

I don’t think we’ve overcome the dropout problem, by any means. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always make the best decisions. But I think we’re doing a better job with it and we’re keeping more kids in school. It’s unbelievably hard, but it’s doable if you don’t let numbers define who and what your school is about. The kids are the reason we’re here.

Sparkle moved to Dallas over the summer. She has not enrolled in school there.

Lawerance stopped attending Twilight after three days.

Marcus returned to Sharpstown in the fall. He is still a junior.

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