It's not quite summer, the half-empty season between the annual state tests and graduation, and most of the students of Central High School are somewhere else. Some have been purged from the rolls after months of absences. Others know they've already failed their classes and see no point in coming. A few more are simply enjoying the springtime, knowing a parent will write an excuse. Bryan Dial is at school even though at this hour, his attendance isn't required. Neither of his two classes occupies first period this semester. At a little after 7 in the morning, he's fitting teachers for graduation robes, wheeling a cart full of gowns through the school's field house. He stops at a man wearing a whistle and hands him a robe to try on. Bryan glances around. The field house is an impressive space, as wide as a Boeing hangar. An unmarred eight-lane rubber running track circles the hardwood floor. A couple dozen kids mill about in street clothes, chatting, occasionally slapping hands. "This is gym class," Bryan says absently. "If they don't suit up, they'll get a zero for the day."
Bryan writes down the man's name and robe size and moves along, using the cart to push open the doors and leave the field house. He glances to his left through a window toward the Olympic-sized pool. It's the centerpiece of this school known by some as "the jewel of the Kansas City School District." In 1991, Missourians laid out $32 million to build the school here on the corner of Linwood and Indiana. The goal was to desegregate by erecting razzle-dazzle schools to lure students from distant white neighborhoods. At the peak of the experiment, in 1995, Central's white student population rose to 12 percent. Now fewer than 4 percent of the students are white, and it's a neighborhood school again, drawing students from some of the poorest areas in the city. Regardless, Bryan's pride in his alma mater is undying. If there is a Mr. Central High School 2001, it's Bryan Dial: senior class president, student body president, honor society president, senior editor of The Luminary, the school's newspaper, and cocaptain of the debate team.
He wheels into the school's main-lobby atrium, an open, round room with a dozen or so doors and two metal detectors. Along the walls are several cases packed with trophies and memorabilia. There's one for band, two for sports, another for peer counseling and another devoted to the school's history, which stretches back to 1867 and the corner of 11th and Locust streets, where it opened as the first public school west of the Mississippi. Bryan pauses at a sixth case and admires the trophies and plaques. This is the one he helped fill, the one for the debate team. He absently strokes the stubble on his chin and smiles slightly. Of all that he and his classmates have achieved, nothing declares their intelligence and potential so triumphantly as these glass shelves full of shiny metal. He's proudest of the square plaque with the blue plate engraved "Sweepstakes Winner, Lincoln Prep Invitational." Lincoln Prep is a cross-town rival, the school with the highest test scores in the district, the school where students must perform or be sent back to neighborhood schools such as Central. Bryan was thrilled by the victory on Lincoln's turf "because I really dislike the snobbish students there. I wanted to win very badly, and we did."
He moves past the trophy case and into the English wing, toward the first classroom on the left. Jennifer Balke, an English teacher, is standing in front of the room's closed door, listening to a skinny young girl's crying. "I couldn't get no sleep last night," the girl wails as a friend holds her around the shoulders. "I'm so stressed out! I'm losing sleep! I want to give up on all of it!"
Bryan hands a robe to Ms. Balke as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Still focused on the crying girl, Ms. Balke reaches for the robe and fits it over her arms and shoulders. Then a commotion breaks out in the classroom, two girls shouting at each other. Ms. Balke pokes her head in: "Keep it down in there!" She takes off the gown, hands it to Bryan, then races into the class, shutting the door behind her. Bryan pushes the cart neatly against the wall and follows the teacher inside. The girl leans into her friend, crumples onto the floor and cries even harder until another teacher, Susan Dunham, comes along and asks, "What's wrong?"
"She ain't got no place to go," the friend says.
"Come on," Ms. Dunham says, reaching for the girl's elbow. "Let's go get you some help. We don't want you sleeping on the street tonight." A homeless child is no anomaly at Central. In this case, bureaucrats discovered too many people in her federally subsidized home and ordered her to leave at once. Other students have parents who are financially incapable of caring for them. Each semester at least one child's home burns down, destroying everything he or she owns.
In Ms. Balke's classroom, Bryan finds his friend Denise Wise, a fellow senior and shining star at Central. There is a class in progress, English for juniors, but neither is enrolled in it. Ms. Balke's room is a gathering place for newspaper staffers, who write articles and editorials on a computer and printer in the corner or work on other projects, such as essays for college scholarships. But sometimes they just hang out and visit, catch up on the latest gossip. At this moment, Bryan and Denise are looking through Bryan's personalized yearbook of cut-out pictures of all his friends.
As they stand in a front corner, flipping pages and laughing and teasing each other about the photos, junior English proceeds. Eight students are in attendance today, although in the fall roughly thirty were enrolled. Three sit at a table in the back chatting quietly. A handful of students are near the door, two standing, two sitting on top of their desks, talking more loudly. Ms. Balke is beside a desk toward the front, helping a girl with her persuasive essay. Bryan's girlfriend, LaToya Williams, strides in and sidles beside Bryan and Denise, peeking over their shoulders into the yearbook. "Ugh. I hate that picture," LaToya says, pointing to an image of herself.
Denise quickly turns through the book, past pages with headings that read "My Best Memory" and "My Best Friend" and "My Favorite Teacher."
"Where's the page for the worst moment?" she asks. "Your worst moment."
"I didn't have one," Bryan says calmly and without a hint of irony. During Bryan's four years at Central, the Kansas City School Board deposed two superintendents. The district lost its accreditation because most of its schools' academic performance levels were unacceptably low. Central -- where roughly 98 percent of the students tested below state standards in math, communication arts, science and social studies -- ranked near the bottom and was dubbed one of Missouri's worst-performing schools by state education officials. Central's principal, Willie Bowie, though greatly revered by Bryan and his fellow students, was notified this spring that his contract would not be renewed in the fall, largely because of the low test scores. And just a few days after this perusal through his book of good memories, a team of auditors will visit Bryan's school to identify causes of the school's academic deficiencies. The team will pass its findings along to the state board of education, which will then appoint a management team to help local officials turn the school around. But Bryan has little time to fret over such matters in these dwindling days of his high school career. He has far too much to do.
A few days later, back in Ms. Balke's room, first hour and junior English again, he's working at the computer in the corner of the room, which, like all the other classrooms in Central, has a couple dozen computers. They're part of a 1,200-unit network that was once acclaimed on national TV but no longer works. Only a couple of the machines in this room are equipped with a mouse ("Kids keep stealing them," Ms. Balke says), and only the one in the corner and Ms. Balke's are attached to a printer. Bryan is designing a handout for the senior dinner coming up at the end of the week at Embassy Suites on the Plaza. The class president has to take care of everything, "down to the little stuff."
When he's gotten the type aligned just so -- with a little help from his friend Kaleena Rounds, who is the school's valedictorian but who also is not enrolled in this first-hour session of junior English -- he feeds a sheet of fancy stationery into the printer, clicks the mouse, nods approvingly at the results and heads for Sharon Brown's classroom, two doors down. She's faculty sponsor of the class of 2001.
"Oh, Bryan," she says when she sees the program. "It's beautiful!"
She's at a computer herself, working on another handout -- the program for the graduation ceremony. Eight students are here: Two work quietly on computers; two sit at a long table in the back with textbooks open; one girl works by herself, scratching words in a notebook with a blue Bic pen; another girl sits in a front-row desk resting her chin in her hand, watching Bryan and Ms. Brown with a blank waiting-room expression. An empty Fruitopia bottle sits on the desk beside her. Two more boys sit facing each other at the desks closest to the door, carrying on a conversation when they should be completing their final projects. Ms. Brown says to an adult visitor, "They're supposed to be working on their portfolios." They keep talking loudly, so she turns to face them and raises her voice. "You're supposed to be working on your portfolios."
They look up, fall silent for a moment or two, then resume their chat at a reduced volume.
Ms. Brown returns her attention to the computer screen and clicks open a Word file, this one the program for the school's baccalaureate prayer service. Bryan stands over her shoulder with his arms behind his back. On the wall behind the computer screens are selections from her students' portfolios, biographical poems: "Alfonso/Hateful, vengeful, respectful, creative/son of a loving mother and a dead beat dad"; "Shearise/Sweet, kind, caring, generous/daughter of a very sensetive mother/ and a never seen dad/who feels nervous, shy and challenged/who needs sleep, love and bed." There's another by Bryan's younger brother, Brandon, describing his pain at their mother's death some seven years ago. Bryan says he lost his best friend when his mother passed away, and he lost some of his childhood as well. At the time, eleven-year-old Bryan and his siblings moved in with their grandfather, who needed almost as much care as he could give the kids. Their mom's Social Security checks went to Bryan's father, who spent the money and rarely visited them. At age sixteen, Bryan waded through layers of bureaucracy and got the checks sent to an aunt, who then supplied the money to him, his brother and his sister. Through it all, he kept focused on school.
"We need to make this special," Ms. Brown says to Bryan about the baccalaureate, getting up so that he can copy the files on a disk to take to Ms. Balke's room for printing. "I hope we can make this thing exceptional! You need to make your prayer just umph!" She pumps her fist.
As he leaves, the girl with the empty Fruitopia bottle takes their place at the computer; she was waiting for them to finish. She types from a blue notebook. The screen is filled with misspellings, each noted by the computer with a squiggly green underline. She clicks on "spell check," and the green lines disappear.
On his way back to Ms. Balke's room, Bryan ducks into a senior English class. As he pushes the door open, the din of two dozen voices pours into the hallway. The desks are arranged in a U shape, but half the students aren't sitting: They're standing, walking around, talking, shouting and laughing. "Ahem! Excuse me, seniors!" the teacher, Shelia Witt, yells above the din. "You are talking too loud!" A split second of silence follows, then is buried as the many conversations resume simultaneously. Bryan leans over Ms. Witt's desk and writes a sentimental note on the back of a wallet-sized senior picture. As he writes, Ms. Witt calls for quiet three times, and three times the students roll right over her. One girl slaps her fist into her palm and shakes a finger at the girl she's yelling at. A boy in a North Carolina jersey jumps up from his seat and thrusts his pelvis against his desk several times before leaning back and shoving his fist down his shorts to simulate a massive hard-on.
Bryan ducks back into the silence of the hall and reflects on all he has to do in the next several days. "It still hasn't sunk in that we're graduating," he says.
He runs into his good friend Danielle Hicks, whose Spanish teacher did not come to school today. So, she says, she can roam free and, as a fellow member of student government, deal with graduation stuff with Bryan. Because there's so much to do, Bryan says, he'll be calling an emergency council meeting in Ms. Brown's room next hour. Danielle tells him she'll be there, despite her second-hour class. "I got Current Events, but we don't do anything in there," she explains. (On the one day the Pitch attended this class with Danielle, the teacher, Robert Lee, showed up fifteen minutes late and casually handed out weeks-old copies of U.S. News and World Report to the half-dozen students who were lounging on and around their desks and his.)
Bryan has a class this hour as well: gym. He started the year with a full schedule: African-American history, college history, college algebra, newspaper, debate, college English -- but now that it's May, only English and P.E. remain. He dropped the rest because he didn't need the credits, although he still participates in debate and writes a column for the newspaper. He dropped college algebra when he heard the teacher would be on leave; he didn't want to bother with subs. When he found out that the college credits for his history class would count only as electives in college, he let go of that. "It was a good class, though," he says of the course taught by Susan Dunham. "The hardest class I've had up here. She's such a good teacher."
About fifteen minutes after the second bell, which marks the official beginning of class, Bryan saunters to the field house, where kids stand around in street clothes. He takes his place among them, and a few minutes later a teacher with a whistle around his neck shows up and calls roll. "You need to go either to the pool or to the softball fields," the teacher declares. "If you're not in either one of those places, you fail."
The group disperses, and Bryan heads straight back to Sharon Brown's room, where his fellow student-council members have assembled for their emergency meeting. Danielle bursts into the room shortly, announcing, "Man, I'm glad you called me out. Mr. Lee was just about to make us actually do some work."
Bryan launches into the business at hand: senior-class gifts. He begins writing a long list of deserving people -- teachers and faculty members such as Ms. Brown and Mr. Bowie. Six entries into the list he writes a familiar name. "Myself," he says, with a little emphasis.
"You?" cries the girl to his left.
"Yes, me," he says. "I've been doing this for four years. I deserve a present."
What Am I Supposed to Do?
Willie Bowie is a very tall man, but he's slumping now in a chair in the corner of the office of Rhonda Fenner, who, among other things, is the keeper of statistics on Central High School. Mr. Bowie's been out ill for the past several days, and his doctor says he shouldn't even be at school today. He's had a heart attack before, and early in the week, he felt as though he might have another. But he couldn't stay away. There are too many things to do, not the least of which is crafting the budget for the 2001/2002 school year, which will begin in August without him as principal. In early April he was part of a mass demotion of nine principals across the district. He was in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when he found out, on a trip to recruit teachers -- "doing the district's business," as he now says.
It was a by-the-numbers action. Former Superintendent Benjamin Demps Jr. promised early in his tenure that he would remove principals who had presided for more than three years over schools that have chronically low test scores. It was one of the last things Demps did before he was fired and then reinstated by a federal judge, only to resign a few days later. Such drastic intervention seemed understandable, at least to most who follow the saga of the Kansas City School District. Missouri standards call for every child in the state to score at either "advanced" or "proficient" levels on Missouri Assessment Program tests in math, communication arts, science and social studies. At Central the percentages of students scoring in the top two levels in each of those categories were zero percent, 4 percent, zero percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, in 2000. That same year, 30 percent of the grades doled out were Fs; 45 percent of the students failed two or more classes. The graduation rate was 58 percent. A survey revealed that half the students didn't like class and only a third of the teachers believed the students were learning everything they should.
But Rhonda Fenner is quick to point out another mass of statistics: More than half of Central's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, a chief indicator of poverty in schools; only a third of the adults living within the school's neighborhood boundaries have a high school diploma; more than half of the students live in single-parent homes. Many live with just a grandparent who is feeble and on a fixed income. Some kids have no home at all -- according to one internal study, 4,344 out of the district's 30,000 students were homeless last year, although district officials admit that some students may have been counted twice.
To adapt, Central and Mr. Bowie launched a slew of initiatives: an attendance committee; a trauma team; a youth employment-opportunities program called Yo!; education programs for adults in the neighborhood; after-school MAP test preparation classes on Wednesdays; after-school tutoring two other days per week; after-school seminars on subjects ranging from car repair to cooking; evening school for juniors and seniors who are in danger of not graduating; the district's only high-school-level "reading strategies lab"; an award-winning peer counseling program; a nationally competitive debate team; senior mentors who take incoming freshmen under their wings; an adopt-a-senior program in which faculty members shepherd students through graduation; a junior Army ROTC program, which gives kids with discipline problems community projects to work on; a clothing exchange. Mr. Bowie even approached a church that owns houses nearby and persuaded elders to give one to the school for temporary shelter of homeless kids. "We have kids who plain don't have a place to stay," Ms. Fenner says. "Here lately it seems like about once a week.
"A house for homeless kids -- to me that's progress. Maybe it's not progress to the state, but how are you going to do good on the MAP tests if you don't know where you're going to stay? Or what you're going to eat? Or if you have a relative who has been killed?" she continues.
"Yet I am to be fired," Mr. Bowie says out of the blue, his eyes fixed on a spot on the floor. "It doesn't make sense. What am I supposed to do? After thirty years in the district, all of a sudden I am labeled as a failure. I am not a loser. Yet this has done something to me on the inside because this has told me that I am a loser and I will not have the opportunity to coach on this team anymore."
Mr. Bowie has no idea what his future holds. His former supervisor, school district executive director Linda Lollis -- who herself recently was demoted -- says she envisions him carrying on as a leader for one of the district's athletic endeavors. "The principal is a nice guy, but the school was too out of control," she says. "It's too much for one guy. I told Mr. Demps I don't know which one leader can make a difference at Central. I'm not sure anything will work unless we come in there and clean the whole thing out, children and staff." Current Superintendent Bernard Taylor is cautiously vague about his plans for the administrators demoted by his predecessor: "I think we are going to look at that with as broad-based an approach as possible. No decision has been made yet." His evasion is understandable considering how politicized the demotions became. For several successive school board meetings following Demps' actions, throngs of angry teachers, parents and students called for the reinstatement of their beloved leaders. Some board members, who voted in a closed session to support Demps' recommendation for the demotions, are buckling under the pressure. "Parents and students shouldn't have to beg for their principal," Duane Kelly said for the record at the May 15 meeting.
Mr. Bowie slowly lifts himself from the chair, picks up his megaphone and wanders into the halls, where he'll direct students through passing period like a drill sergeant. Ms. Fenner watches him go. "I'm sorry," she says. "I think it's ridiculous. We spend all year with the threat of the state taking over the school district and then all of a sudden: 'Surprise! We're firing principals! And we're doing it right during the MAP tests!'
"Teachers here give everything they've got, and all you hear is how incompetent they are and how stupid the kids are, and it's like hell here. They don't acknowledge that we're working our butts off here. I don't know how many times a teacher has found a homeless kid and has taken them home." She removes her glasses and rubs her eyes. Her chin quivers. "The dedication here is phenomenal. And all you hear is how awful it is."
Yet she knows that something is going wrong. "Somewhere between sophomore and junior years we lose a lot of kids," she says. Few succeed the way Bryan Dial has. "You knew when he was a freshman that he was going to be successful," she says. "Jane [Rinehart, the debate coach] got ahold of him and protected him from falling through the cracks. It's real depressing when you lose a bright kid in the shuffle.
"We have a ton of Bryan Dials here, but we're not getting in touch with them. That's what's hard."
The Whiz Kid
Micheal Thomas is a very big kid, more than six feet tall, with the build of a linebacker in pads. Seated at a long table in the back of Ms. Balke's classroom, he looks like a sixth grader stuffed into a kindergartner's desk. The class is junior English. He's a senior, but he didn't finish English last year, so here he is again, doing what he must to graduate. A minute or so after the bell, Ms. Balke comes in and gives each student a list of term paper topics. Micheal briskly grabs a sheet and scrutinizes it. "All this is right up my alley," he says, scanning the list of thirty social issues. "School vouchers. That's very simple. Drug legalization. That's very simple. I had these topics in debate last year."
At the urging of his good friend Bryan Dial, Micheal joined the debate team as a sophomore and immediately found success. It's a major source of pride for him. "I eat, drink and sleep debate," he says. Just the day before, he was carousing a shopping concourse of Crown Center with Bryan, Denise, Danielle, Kaleena and a few others when he suddenly broke into a debate about the virtues of prenuptial agreements. He stepped up to shoppers to ask their opinions on the topic, and before they could even finish answering he was either agreeing with or discrediting them.
Now he doesn't want to be in class. "I guess I got senioritis," he says, flicking a pick through his tight, curly hair and glancing around with disaffection. "I cannot wait until I graduate. This is the last month. I cannot wait until I am up and out of this building. I will not be coming back."
The class has thirteen students; at the beginning of the year there were about thirty. Some have been purged from the rolls, Ms. Balke later explains, having not shown up for months, if ever. Others have acquired more than the maximum allowed unexcused absences -- four in a semester -- and know they have no hope of passing. "They've just fallen by the wayside," she says. "They know they're going to fail, so they don't come anymore."
She lectures the students on the process of writing a research paper. She doesn't get far before the girls in the front begin to interrupt her.
"How long this have to be?" asks one.
"One page?" asks another.
"Four to six," Ms. Balke says slowly, knowing what's coming next.
"Four to six?!" The class erupts.
Ms. Balke tells them not to cheat by typing in a huge font; twelve to fourteen points are the maximum sizes she'll allow. "There are some fonts out there that are real stretched out," she offers. "And if you know which they are, that's fine; that's what I did in college."
Micheal grabs a lined piece of notebook paper and writes as Ms. Balke proceeds haltingly through the interruptions. She tells the students they'll need to get note cards, and she's forced to stop again.
"Why we got to get note cards? I ain't spending all that money."
"Oh, come on, you can spend a dollar on note cards," she replies, smiling.
"Why we got to do it your way when we have our own way to do it?"
"Because I want you to learn this way."
Micheal pounds down the last period on a single paragraph, the thesis for the paper he plans to write: "Americans are wrongfully accused every day. Eyewitness misidentification is exacerbated by live witness lineups. 100,000 innocent citizens are victimized each year."
He raises it into the air.
"Tamika!" he says to the girl sitting at a desk in front of him. "Take that up front."
Without hesitation she grabs it and delivers it to Ms. Balke, who pauses for a second and continues her lecture.
Micheal leans back and laces his fingers together. "I already read, like, probably a hundred books on that last summer," he says proudly about his chosen subject. "So basically I know everything there is to know. So basically it's already done." And now, as far as he's concerned, he's done in this class for today. No point in listening to Ms. Balke's lecture, which has just now gotten to the part about where one might find research materials.
"I don't got no library card."
"Well, get one."
"I don't know where the library is."
"There's one right up the street at Prospect and Linwood."
"I ain't got time to do all that."
As early as grade school, Micheal finished his assignments early, only to sit around bored while others caught up. The only challenging course he can remember was an advanced English course he took in seventh grade with his friend Danielle. They read Shakespeare and classics of American literature that year, but "after that, I just fell off," he says. "I was extremely lazy and I got through very easy."
As Micheal sits there drumming the table with his thumbs, the boy beside him, a junior, writes his thesis statement and hands it to Tamika for delivery to Ms. Balke, who is wrapping up her lecture. For the rest of the period she'll tour the room for a few minutes to work one-on-one with each student. What she likes most about teaching is the relationships she has with the kids, the kind that come not from lecturing but by kneeling at their sides and helping them learn. "Part of it with me," she says, "how I work with the kids, is I try to show my human side. Not necessarily to be a friend, but to be friendly."
While Ms. Balke makes her way slowly, student by student, toward Micheal in the back of the room, Tamika gets up and turns to the table where Micheal and his neighbor sit. She begins talking about various family dramas. She can't wait to get enough money for an apartment. She's making good money helping out at a beauty parlor -- $70 per night -- and part time at Kmart. She's seventeen. As she pontificates, her banter gets excited, and the volume rises until Ms. Balke is standing right beside her. "Tamika, who are you talking to?"
"Them," she says, pointing to Micheal and his neighbor.
Ms. Balke leans against an empty desk and reads the statement scrawled by Micheal's tablemate: "My topic is on gun control because, there is a lot of innicent kids as well as adults dieing every day from guns. I fill that the law that has been past will stop a lot of killings."
She considers it for a second and asks, "So are you going to propose a solution?"
"What is the solution?"
"We need to change our guidelines."
She hands the paper back to the boy and kneels beside Micheal. She lays out the thesis statement and taps it with her index finger. He looks around as though he knows what's coming:
"So tell me, did we have a debate on this?"
"How much work did you already do on this for debate?"
"Not much," he says, adding quickly, "a lot. I've probably read a hundred books."
Ms. Balke laughs. "You guys are so predictable," she says. She looks down at the thesis statement again and back at Micheal, slyly. "I'll think about it."
She walks away, and moments later the bell signals the end of class. "I'm doing my topic on what I already wrote down," Micheal says, slamming his notebook shut, pushing himself up on his feet. "I don't care what she says."
Now Micheal is complaining about politics. Not George W. Bush or the Missouri Senate or even the school board but real politics, the politics of the Central High School debate team, the politics that will keep him in Kansas City over Memorial Day weekend during the Catholic Forensic League's national championships in New York City. His friends Bryan and Danielle are going, though they won fewer matches than he. Fact is, Micheal was never in the running: Central debate coach Jane Rinehart didn't even enter his name for consideration. "Man, you need to do a story about the politics of this team," he says to the visitor who just entered Ms. Rinehart's room at the end of this late-spring school day. "I'm the best debater on this team, and I ain't going to New York. Man, there is definitely something wrong with that."
Micheal is sitting on top of a desk with his feet planted on the chair, and Ms. Rinehart is at the front of the room, preparing for an eighth-grade debate match that'll take place this afternoon in the Greek theater. She shoots Micheal a look. He's not going to New York because a month or so ago he and a friend were doing pretty much what he's doing today -- undermining Ms. Rinehart in her own classroom. "We just had a disagreement about her coaching style," Micheal says today. "We went over the top on a few things."
"That's an understatement," Ms. Rinehart says. "Micheal plays games, and sometimes his games catch up with him." Besides, Micheal ought to know that Ms. Rinehart deserves more respect. When she came to Central six years ago, the debate team was struggling, just three nervous kids on the roster. She plunged into recruitment and got ahold of Bryan Dial, who then pulled in some of his friends. Bryan told Micheal it would be an easy A, but then he got caught up in the excitement: "Once you start winning, you be like, 'Damn!'"
For Ms. Rinehart, it all began to come together when Micheal and Bryan were juniors and the team piled into a van and headed up I-35 to Dowling High School, a top-notch private school in West Des Moines, Iowa. It was their first taste of real competition, and she recalls that as they drove up to the school they saw no buses, just BMWs and Mercedeses and Lexuses. The kids thought, "Oh my God, we're going to lose." As the matches proceeded, Ms. Rinehart got even more nervous. The Iowans were fast debaters, faster than she'd ever seen. Then, late in the day, Bryan suddenly bolted up to her and blurted: "We won! We won! I love Iowa!" Central debaters nabbed the top three speaker awards that day. "That was a point when I thought, 'Yeah, we can do this,'" she says. "I think it's funny how we can be from a poor, failing school district and we can go in and win national debates. We're up against the Cadillac school districts. I just feel this program was meant to be."
Yet the team struggles in Kansas City because volunteers who often are not cognizant of debate rules are recruited as judges. When Ms. Rinehart comes in with her crew of fast-talking, podium-pounding debaters, the suburban soccer moms with the scorecards become a little too judgmental, despite the Central kids' knowledge and abilities. "When you've got a judge that doesn't know debate rules, they're going to go with someone who is sweet and nice," she says. "Well, we're not sweet and we're not nice. We've made little girls cry."
And when he's on, Micheal is one of Central's best, she says. He stands tall and speaks clearly. He reaches beyond his natural talent; he actually works for it. He's a born leader, she says, but sometimes he leads the wrong way. When he starts hotdogging, she can't even bear to watch him: "He's gotten wrapped up in this high-speed thing, and when he does he sounds like a dolphin."
Micheal doesn't understand how much Ms. Rinehart cares about him. "I don't think Micheal has even begun to realize his full potential," she says, adding that a lot of teachers have basically given up on him. Right now she's pushing him to consider a better college. With next to no effort, Micheal landed a full-ride scholarship at Southwest Missouri State to be on the debate team. But just recently Ms. Rinehart received a call from the debate coordinator at UMKC who said she was approached at a debate conference in Atlanta by coaches from such schools as Emory and Northwestern, all of whom were interested in Micheal. "He could go anywhere he wants," Ms. Rinehart says, clearly frustrated. "I mean, Emory or Southwest Missouri State? You tell me. Where would you go?" But she can't even persuade him to pick up the phone to call the woman at UMKC.
Asked why he's never called, Micheal loses his bluster. He pulls his head slightly in toward his shoulders and averts his eyes, blushing. "I'm gonna go to SMS for a semester and then transfer," he says. This fall he plans to turn his life completely around. It's college: the make-it-or-break-it scene, the gateway to big-money jobs. Micheal plans to rise to the challenge and score. But that's months away. "Right now I'm just coasting," he says. "I'm not trying to be valedictorian or anything. I'm just trying for Cs. I'm trying to get out of here."
Bring It On
Denise Wise is standing outside Central's main office when they stride in. She's leaning against a wall, scoping the frenzy of the before-school rush, dressed in a pink summer shorts suit and pink flip-flops -- a fashion choice that will earn her some razzing from her friends on this first day of Missouri's audit of her school. The original plan was for all the seniors to dress in business casual, to impress the visitors from Jefferson City, but Bryan wasn't around to make the announcement over the PA system yesterday afternoon.
"Uh-oh. Here they come," she says, looking nervously toward the metal detectors. Ten adults file through in dark suits with yellow name tags. Denise shudders slightly and heads for her first class, college algebra. The bell rings, and hallway traffic thins to just one boy in a baseball hat and baggy pants. "Get to class," barks a crusty hall guard with a megaphone in his right hand. "We don't want nobody roaming the halls today."
"I'll walk the halls if I want to," the boy scoffs.
"Then you can just walk right out the front door."
College algebra begins with fifteen minutes of Channel One, the morning news program that beams commercials for Gatorade, McDonald's and Pepsi into classrooms. There are six students in the classroom, including Bryan Dial, who dropped it months ago. The room is almost unbearably cold. For some reason, the air conditioning is blasting harder here than in the rest of the school. Denise sits in the front row. Her friend Kaleena Rounds is in the desk behind her, flipping through materials for Xavier, a top-notch private Louisiana college she'll attend this fall. As Central's valedictorian, Kaleena earned $8,000 per year in scholarships to go there. She'll need to come up with another $7,000 each year to cover everything.
"How come you wind up going to Xavier?" asks Denise, turning to face her friend, a little jealous. "It was my idea to go to Xavier." Denise's good grades rank her third out of 194 in the class of 2001. She'll attend UMKC on a partial scholarship.
All at once Danielle Hicks bursts into the room, dressed in clean khakis and a blue button-down shirt -- business casual.
"Why you late?" Denise demands. "Aren't you supposed to be with those state auditors?"
"They can come find me when they need me. I didn't sign up for this crap." Danielle was one of a handful of students chosen to speak with the auditors. Most of the students are leery of the visitors: They're invaders from the boonies, country bureaucrats determined to take over their urban school. "You should have seen them walking in here this morning," Denise says. "They looked like they were armed."
"I say bring it on," Bryan says.
Denise turns her attention briefly to the thick book on her desk, The Children by David Halberstam. A tasseled bookmark pokes out from page ten or so. She has to report on it for Ms. Dunham's college history class by June 3, a date that's coming fast. She cracks it open, reads part of a sentence and then shuts it with a panicked moan: "Ugh! I don't want to read this!" she says, fanning her hands in front of her face to wake herself up. "What is wrong with me? I don't have time for senioritis."
Denise has always pushed herself. Even in these final days of high school, the time-honored slough-off period for students good and bad, she can't give herself a break. She first noticed she was a good student in the fourth grade, when she was invited to participate in the gifted-and-talented program. Since then, she's been driven. In her immediate family, she'll be the first to go to college. "I'm somewhat of a perfectionist," she says. "Nothing is ever good enough for me."
With that attitude, school has been easy. "Junior high, to me, was like a breeze," she says. "It was so easy. We didn't have to do much. I always felt like it was slow. They never challenged me as much as they could have."
Her challenges came from outside the classroom. A child of divorce and shaky finances, Denise moved with her mother several times, back and forth between apartments, her grandmother's house and her aunt's. She was taunted by her cousins. "My family is very negative, especially the younger people in the family," she says. She'd come home with straight As, only to be put down. "You ain't smart," they'd say.
"But my mother is very supportive," she says. "That's the most important thing, to have someone supporting me and backing me. That's what a lot of people don't have."
Like all of her friends in the upper academic echelons of Central -- Kaleena, Danielle, Bryan, Micheal -- she was recruited by Lincoln Prep, an exclusive school located just west of Prospect. She didn't want to bail out on Central: "I was like, 'No way, I'm not going to Lincoln Prep.' We hate them."
But sometimes she doubted her decision. "When we were facing losing our accreditation," she says, "I was thinking about leaving; I was afraid I wouldn't get into a good college."
The first time she really felt challenged was last year, in chemistry. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I have been blinded all these years,'" she recalls. This year she's taking all the college-credit courses Central offers -- history, English, math, debate. Now she feels ready for college. Yet she can't help but wonder "what if?" She says, "I've had friends out in Lee's Summit, and they tell me what classes they've taken, and I'm like, 'Wow, they get opportunities we wouldn't even be able to think about.'"
It's just a few ticks past 7:30, fifteen minutes into college algebra and 45 to go. "Oh, this is going to be the longest time in this class," Denise says, glancing at the clock. The teacher has been gone since mid-March on paternity leave, and they've had substitutes since then -- which means they've done nothing. "I just come and I just baby sit," says the teacher at the desk in the front of the room, Cynthia Sayles. "I have no knowledge of this subject at all. College algebra." She sticks out her tongue. "I hate math." Ms. Sayles is a special ed teacher at Central. Like other full-timers in the school, she has to fill in now and then because the district is short on teachers, let alone subs.
All at once Denise, Danielle and Kaleena decide they've had enough. "We're going where it's warm," Denise says to Ms. Sayles. They head down the stairs for Ms. Balke's room. "That's our hangout," Danielle says. They arrive to find a class in session and file in past the eight students working on papers, who all stop and look when the girls enter.
Kaleena heads straight for a computer and pulls up a file she's been working on, an essay for a scholarship. Danielle looks over an editorial she's written for the upcoming edition of The Luminary: "As of May 4, 2001, my opinion stands that the Kansas City Missouri School District is full of a bunch of self-centered, self-involved, self-concerned, bureaucratic idiots that have no concern for the well-being, education and academic future of the students of the district that they serve." For these three girls, and dozens of other students like them, Ms. Balke's room is a haven. Most days Ms. Balke is here until 4:30 or 5, later than her husband likes, hanging out with the kids, offering assistance on projects and lending a compassionate ear. "They know that I'm here and that I care about them," she says.
Just last week Denise, Danielle and Kaleena were here on senior ditch day, though hardly anyone else was in school. They were a mass of energy that day, bobbing their heads and singing along to Destiny's Child -- All the women who are independent, throw your hands up at me! -- and working on newspaper items as they gabbed about everything from K-Swiss shoes to family planning:
"You're already a mom!" Kaleena said, teasing Denise about her earnestness.
"Not till I get out of college!"
"What if you find a man with lots of money? Like set-for-life money."
"You talkin' millions?"
"Millions." And they slapped hands.
They broke for lunch that day, and as they walked back to the classroom with Ms. Balke they got a cold reminder of how little the world understands their special space in Room 101: They spotted Linda Lollis walking toward the school with a cell phone in her right hand. At the time she was an executive director for the school district, a position equal to the one Bernard Taylor occupied before he was promoted to superintendent. She oversaw Central and most of the other high schools in the district.
Ms. Balke hurried back to her room to avoid confronting her. "Is she the one that came here and flipped out?" Denise asked.
"She's the one that came here last year and made me get rid of the couch," Ms. Balke said. The teacher had a sofa in her room intended as a comfortable reading spot for the students. But after Ms. Lollis came into the class on a school visit, she said she found that children were groping on the couch and that it had to be removed at once. Ms. Balke, with Principal Bowie looking the other way, took nearly a year to acquiesce, much to the delight of her students.
"School should be this type of atmosphere," Kaleena says of Ms. Balke's room. "We learn more this way."
Today, different strangers are looking over students' shoulders, smiling people with name tags on freshly pressed jackets. All day, ten adults appointed in Jefferson City roam the school, quietly taking notes. First hour fades into second, and Kaleena and Danielle remain in Ms. Balke's room for newspaper while Denise takes off for a doctor's appointment. A skinny, older woman with wide, plastic-framed glasses comes into Ms. Balke's room with the students of newspaper class and takes a seat in back. Some students eye her warily. Others act as though she isn't there. She is Karen Haynes, a teacher from the Jennings School District, just outside St. Louis. The auditors come from all over the state; half are teachers, and one is an acting superintendent. Ms. Haynes smiles, opens her folder and retrieves a list of questions she should ask herself today: What kinds of instructional strategies did you observe most commonly in the classes? What kinds of interactions did you observe? What kinds of interruptions or disruptions were present that interrupted the learning process?
The class is planning the next issue of The Luminary. Ms. Balke writes names beside assignments on the dry-erase board. A boy works quietly on a cartoon at his desk. Danielle edits a story. Fewer than a dozen students are present. Some girls stand, shouting ideas at Ms. Balke. Others are chatting among themselves. There is constant traffic in and out of the room, and Ms. Haynes' head pivots to and fro, trying to keep up with all the action. For her, this five-day quest began with two days of training. Today she and her colleagues observe classes. Tomorrow they'll interview more than thirty teachers and conduct a ninety-minute student focus group. On the last day, they'll compare notes and come to a consensus.
Their opinions will be presented to Ginny Vandelicht, who works for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Jefferson City. With the help of many, she developed the audit process to comply with a 1996 state law, the Outstanding Schools Act. "This is some of the most important work DESE is doing," says Ms. Vandelicht. "I think, at least at the [state] level, it's the only major effort to deal with individual building improvement."
Over the previous week, four other Kansas City schools were audited, including two middle schools that feed into Central. In the coming years, DESE plans to employ this process at all the state's "academically deficient" schools, as many as fifty per year. That means the department will have to come up with 500 auditors -- half of them teachers -- each year. How will Ms. Vandelicht find so many willing working professionals? "That's a good question," she says. "I don't know how we'll deal with twenty schools, and I can't even imagine fifty."
What's more, the state has to find an active superintendent to serve on every audit team. "That's somewhat problematic," she concedes. "It could be a problem, especially to find a superintendent who understands an urban school district. These folks are very busy. It'll be hard to get them away for five days." (Asked if he would be willing to serve on such a team in, say, St. Louis, Bernard Taylor laughs: "I'm going to focus my efforts right here in Kansas City, Missouri.")
Ms. Balke's class proceeds, more or less oblivious to the auditor. At one point a junior girl belts a friend with a tongue-in-cheek insult, and Ms. Balke shushes her, gesturing toward the auditor. Ms. Haynes smiles gamely. She's reluctant to share her observations of Central. The audit report won't be made public until it's presented to the state board of education in September. She offers only that she's "seeing kids here who seem to really want to learn."
After a pop quiz, Susan Dunham is ready to begin. "Okay, I'm really stressed out today," she tells the eight kids gathered in Room 249 for college history, among them Kaleena and Danielle. "I'm about as stressed out as you'll see me all year. So I really need your cooperation." She launches into a lecture on the Great Depression, listing the various causes for it. "Too many people were buying on credit," she says. "This caused a problem because they were spending disposable income on debt."
She pauses to look up from the open textbook in front of her.
"How many of you have received credit card applications?" she asks.
A few hands shoot up.
"Gosh. And you're only in high school. That's scary." She's forever doing this, relating the subject matter to her students' lives. But she's having a tougher go today. The phone on the edge of her desk rings, as it will again and again this hour. On the other line is the Peach Tree restaurant, which is catering tonight's awards banquet. In addition to imparting college-level knowledge on some of Central's best students, she has to figure out how to feed 200 people.
She hangs up the phone. "I don't know why they're having me do this," she complains to her students. "I can't even make dinner for my family."
Back to the Depression: "So consumption went down ..." Attention has been broken by the phone call. Talking persists.
"Okay, we need to keep going here," she says enthusiastically. They're still talking, so she drops her voice an octave or two: "Hey. Not today." And all is quiet again. Because it offers college credit, this class is more manageable than her others. In freshman history, the battle is nonstop, but she keeps attention by joking and jabbing and annoying the students into alertness. "I try like mad in ninety minutes to teach them everything they need to know," she says.
This class had quite a few more students at the beginning of the year. But once some of the kids discovered she was serious about making them work, they dropped it. Only a few dozen Central students take the college courses that are offered, though they pay less here for tuition than they would at other schools. Central's active alumni association picks up more than half the cost.
Earlier today Ms. Dunham sat through a ninety-minute interview with an auditor, an administrator from Lee's Summit who peppered her with questions about Central's academic rut. At first Ms. Dunham echoed what most of her colleagues likely said during their interviews, that social problems hold back the school. "I don't think test scores will ever be up to state expectation levels," she says later, recalling the interview. "To me, that's because of poverty. That's the biggest problem in this district.
"But then I think, these test scores have been bad for so long -- that can't be explained by poverty.
"I think sometimes we baby the kids, when in the end that's going to handicap them," she continues, adding that she believes there's grade inflation going on at Central High School. "Mediocre work sometimes gets a higher grade than it should. I'm probably guilty of that also.
"The lack of expectations across the board, it's terrible here. That's my biggest problem with the district."
Like many of her colleagues -- Ms. Balke and Ms. Rinehart among them -- Ms. Dunham has served on committees and special project teams to devise solutions to the school's ills. Every year there seems to be a new plan. That's all well and good, she says, except sometimes she wonders whether they're spreading themselves too thin. For instance, she was involved in this year's much-vaunted "cluster" initiative, in which a team of teachers representing various disciplines was assigned to a group of incoming freshmen. This, the reasoning goes, allows teachers to meet regularly to coordinate their study plans and to share information. They started with a small group, but a week or so into the semester the teachers discovered they were not, in fact, teaching the same kids. A scheduling snafu had to be undone, and a bunch of students were shuffled nearly a month into the school year. "That was rough," Ms. Dunham recalls.
Sometimes she thinks all they really need to do is focus their efforts on discipline and good old back-to-basics learning. "You've seen it here," she says to a visitor. "Kids should not be walking the halls all the time."
Those hall-walkers are holding her back even today, as she tries to inform her most dedicated students about the Great Depression. Every five minutes or so, a student walks in. Each time she stops her lecture and looks at the intruder expectantly and with very little patience. Most back out immediately. One girl insists she was sent by a teacher, but Ms. Dunham sends her right back saying, "Tell her no more interruptions. This is the college class and we're already far behind." Most of the visitors are seeking tickets to the awards banquet, but Ms. Dunham tells them that only ten remain, and those are for the state auditors.
"Why are the state auditors here?" asks the girl seated beside Kaleena.
"To find out how great our school is," Ms. Dunham replies.
"No. It's because we're academically deficient and they want to find out what's making us that way."
"So why are we giving them free tickets?"
"That's the way things work," Ms. Dunham says.
Central's field house is as close to elegant as it'll ever be. A few dozen round tables are at center court, each draped with blue or white tablecloths and topped with bouquets of blue and white tissue-paper carnations. Kaleena, Denise and Danielle sit together with their mothers, all of them dressed exquisitely. They thumb through the program, scanning the long list of celebrated students.
"Ooh, Danielle, you won an award this year," her mother, Tina Hicks, says. "Last year we came and watched everyone else win awards."
Danielle runs her hands across her throat, the international sign for "cut it out" and says, "Huh-uh. We're not going to tell that story."
This year, Danielle nabbed three awards, including one for finishing with Denise and Kaleena in the top ten. Ms. Hicks says she always had high expectations for her daughter. "We stressed education because no one can take that from you," she says. "They can repossess your home, your car. But they can never take what's in your mind."
Bryan and his girlfriend, LaToya, join the table. No parents are with them. He looks taller than usual in his crisp, white shirt and conservative print tie. Micheal, with no awards, has chosen to stay at home. Denise and Danielle glance around, looking for friends in the crowd. This room is alive with bright kids. Among them are LaTasha Shepheard and Tyrone Williams, who are winning awards for their achievements in mathematics; science honorees Kandra Davis and Tiffany Henderson; salutatorian Gary Coates; and all-around good student Reginald Martin, who has had a particularly busy week. Earlier he stood before the school board during a meeting at 1211 McGee for a presentation on the school's award-winning peer counseling program. Then an editorial he wrote titled "Wake Up (A Letter to My Generation)" appeared in The Call, declaring, "We tend to be like crabs in a barrel, continuously grabbing and clawing, pulling our people down. Many say slavery is dead, but is it? Slavery has been reformed in these generations."
Mr. Bowie takes the podium. "I assume all of you know who I am by now, either from school or from the newspaper or television," he says, adding that tonight they've gathered for an event that won't show up on this evening's news or tomorrow's paper. "Tonight we'll try to show that we deal with more than just bad kids here at Central."
The students and parents listen intently. Mr. Bowie is greatly revered, and tonight, for what could be the last Central awards banquet he'll attend as principal, he receives several standing ovations. But there is sadness in his voice. "My only regret is that no one from the school board or the school district downtown is here to see the accomplishments we have had," he says.
Dinner is served, and the lights are dimmed for a video awash with images of seniors, and an emotional, hopeful song on the soundtrack wets a few eyes in the room.
Mr. Bowie calls the top ten students to the front, and Denise, Danielle and Kaleena move forward to stand at his side. Kaleena's mother stands and applauds three times, three one-person ovations for her valedictorian. Whenever she's asked about her success, Kaleena doesn't hesitate: "My mom always supported me. She wouldn't allow bad grades in the house."
And now it's time for the most prestigious prize, the Principal's Leadership Award, which both Bryan and Danielle are in the running to receive. Mr. Bowie explains how students compete for it by being interviewed and giving an impromptu two-minute oral presentation on a topic of their choosing. "During the interview" with the winner, he says, "I started to cry inside as I listened to this young man speak. This young man reminds me so much of myself in high school. I wanted to be the best at everything I do."
The winner isn't Bryan but his friend Reggie Martin.
Reggie moves to the front and stands at Mr. Bowie's side. He tucks the award under his arm and says, "When he asked me to talk for two minutes, I picked my mother." She is called to the podium, and she wipes away tears as he reads his long appreciation for all she's done. Kaleena's mother nods along with the speech, and Danielle's mom coos "mmhmm" at the end of each sentence. And when Reggie finishes, Bryan, Denise, Danielle and Kaleena rise to their feet as the whole room erupts with applause, a roar that's mild compared with the one that'll rock this room a few days later, when the 194 Central seniors march in two by two, looking fantastic in caps and gowns, beaming as their friends and relatives stand and cheer with abandon for their conquest of the greatest challenge of their young lives.