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Transfer High: A choice for Renese and Abré: A year's journey to an education

Luque's class, English III FCAT, is for 11th-graders who failed the reading exam the previous spring. It offers no lessons on novels, plays or poetry -- just constant drilling on reading comprehension, the heart of FCAT. Like other F-rated high schools in Florida, Evans has been forced to focus on boosting reading skills.

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series.

By Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal

Thousands of Florida parents get letters each summer, offering their children a chance to transfer out of public schools that fail to meet state and federal academic standards.

About 3,000 parents in Florida and 32,000 across the nation took the offer in 2004 and sent their children to schools with better test scores. Orlando Sentinel reporters Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal, along with photographers George Skene and Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda, spent 10 months with two Orange County teenagers offered the chance to transfer out of F-rated Evans High.

This is the first of three stories about their choices

She transferred to Freedom

It's the first day of Renese Ingram's freshman year at Freedom High, a school she knows little about other than that it is very different from Evans High, the neighborhood school she transferred from. She could have walked to Evans, but instead travels 2 hours each way to and from Freedom, 17 miles distant. She gets the window seat next to her sister Tiara. She hopes to get a better education at C-rated Freedom.

He stayed at Evans

Abré Leggins walks to the bus stop several blocks from his family's home, which is about 4 miles from Evans High. He could have transferred out of Evans, but he and his parents thought moving him to a new school would be more disruptive to his education.

Renese Ingram boards the school bus in the pre-dawn darkness with new tennis shoes and a dose of freshman jitters. It is the first day of school, and the 14-year-old has fled Evans High, her failing neighborhood school, for a chance at a new campus 17 miles from home.

By the second day, she will be crying on her bed. Her mom's van has broken down, so Renese can't get to the bus stop or to school. Her spotless white Reeboks lie on the floor.

For Abré Leggins, getting to class is no problem. On his first day of school, the tall 11th-grader boards the bus near his home for the four-mile trip to Evans, just like the year before. Before 8 a.m., he is walking across the familiar campus, heading to classes and then to afternoon football practice.

Like Renese, 16-year-old Abré could have gone to another school. He chose instead to stay at Evans, a campus where he feels comfortable even if the school has one of the worst failure rates in Florida. But he, too, is gambling with his future.

Renese and Abré, two very different teenagers, don't know each other. They share little except addresses in the Pine Hills community near Evans High, west of Orlando. But both are beginning the school year with no idea whether they are doing the right thing.

The two teens are exploring the frontiers of a statewide social-science experiment called "school choice." Florida is giving thousands of students an offer that sounds simple at first: Stick with your struggling school or transfer to a higher-performing one elsewhere.

As Renese and Abré will find out, the consequences of staying or going are anything but simple.

Nine months later, one teen will sail into summer with decent grades and a bright outlook. The other will limp there, failing some classes and shaken by the experience, though still determined to succeed.

A chance to leave

The experiment begins when letters arrive in Renese's and Abré's mailboxes in June 2004. They and more than 25,000 other students in Orange County find out they can transfer out of their public schools under either state or federal school-choice laws. Most parents show little interest. But some are excited at the chance to flee Evans -- one of the county's three F-rated high schools.

Opened in 1958, Evans is a run-down series of buildings sharing a block with a pawnshop and a check-cashing store. Because of leaky roofs and walls, the school is in a constant battle against mold and mildew. One building is uninhabitable. Despite repairs to the band room, the marching band has to store uniforms at a dry cleaner to protect them.

Beyond the physical problems, Evans suffers from academic decline. Scores on the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test show only 13 percent of students reading at or above grade level, and only 35 percent performing adequately at math.

In part, this reflects its low-income Pine Hills neighborhood, where nearly a quarter of the adults lack a high-school diploma, where many residents are renters rather than owners and where almost half the children live with a single parent.

The second F from the state in two years ranks Evans -- along with Jones and Oak Ridge highs -- among Florida's lowest-performing schools.

Renese (pronounced ra-NEES) is ecstatic when a school-district letter arrives. Her sister Tiara, who has just finished 11th grade at Evans, received one a few days earlier.

Their mother, Angela Cole, wants both girls out of Evans. Her oldest daughter, Crystal Ingram, also attended Evans but never received a diploma because she failed the FCAT. Crystal complained that she could not always get help she needed from teachers.

Cole rarely had time to go to Evans during the years Crystal and Tiara attended, but had a lot of issues with the school. She complained about a range of problems, from teachers' lack of support to the way the instructors dressed. "There were so many issues," she says. "From the principal all the way down to the teachers, it was a mess."

Cole, a single mother who works two jobs, wants better for Renese and Tiara. Renese is no A student but is strong enough to enroll in honors biology. She is the family champ at Boggle and Scrabble games, able to turn her letters into a three-syllable word, when other players might settle for one-syllable words.

She loves science and wants to study marine biology in college. Renese's favorite teacher, Joyce McInnis of Carver Middle School, said her former student was quiet, with "wonderful potential," even though she sometimes fell behind.

While other girls her age wear mascara, lipstick and blush, Renese rarely goes for makeup and opts for comfortable jeans and T-shirts more than clothes designed to show off her shape.

Pet hamsters scramble through a maze of clear plastic tunnels in her room. Former residents of the cage are buried next to the house.

Renese says little when she first meets someone but keeps the telephone lit up chatting with her girlfriends. She knows how to wield her high-pitched voice to stake her ground in a house filled with women.

"Momma, I told you what I was gonna do," she says in almost a defensive squeal when her mother challenges her plans for the night.

She is determined not to graduate from Evans, convinced that too little learning is going on.

"It is easier at Evans," she says. "You could just sit there and do nothing and get an A."

Her mother doesn't want her finishing high school without a diploma as she and her oldest daughter have done.

As soon as she gets the transfer notices, Cole faxes requests for her daughters to attend Winter Park High, Orange County's only A-rated high school. She does not know that 309 other families have requested similar transfers.

That's 80 students more than Winter Park can handle.

Stay or go?

Abré's mother and stepfather, Sanya and Curtis Spivey, face the same decision, well aware of Evans' shortcomings.

Abré (pronounced AH-bray) is a B student who loves sports.

An exceptionally quiet teenager, Abré never speaks in class unless called on. As his English teacher will soon discover, "you have to pull it out of him" if you want more than a "yes," a "no" or a shrug for an answer.

Still, Abré's football coach sees him as a team leader. Other boys look up to the tall, respectful teen who works so hard in the weight room and on the field.

Like many students, Abré dresses in baggy shorts and T-shirts. He likes video games, listens to rap artists like Lil Jon and loves sneakers. Nike is his favorite brand, but he is eager to buy anything he can find in size 15.

Much of his life revolves around sports, including practices, games, spring-training sessions and summer leagues. Sports trophies are the main decoration in his uncluttered bedroom.

Last year, Abré made a place for himself on Evans' football and basketball squads. He is comfortable at the school his cousins attended, and he has made friends, mostly other guys on the football team.

"I don't want to move," he tells his parents.

But like many Evans students, Abré has a problem with the FCAT.

Teens must pass the 10th-grade reading and math exams to earn high-school diplomas. Abré passed math easily when he took it in the spring but failed reading, as did 73 percent of his 10th-grade class.

Sanya Spivey, who prides herself on keeping careful tabs on her son's schoolwork, is shaken by that failing score.

"Would he do better at another school?" she wonders.

Spivey, who works in the marketing department at SeaWorld, and her husband, a welder at the theme park, find the school's F grade hard to swallow. But they see more risk in switching schools.

A transfer would mean a third high school in three years -- too much upheaval, they think. Abré spent his freshman year at Oak Ridge High and then moved to Evans for 10th grade when the family built a new home in that attendance zone.

Sanya Spivey has heard talk that Evans is rife with fights and drugs, but she's not convinced that's true. If it is, she's sure her son, who worships with his family at Macedonia Baptist Church in Eatonville, "knows his values" and will steer clear of trouble. Besides, at 6 feet 3 and 250 pounds, Abré is hardly an easy target.

Most importantly, in contrast to Cole's experience at Evans, the Spiveys found good, caring teachers there. That fact, coupled with solid support at home, outweighs a frayed campus and a lousy state grade, the parents decide. They hope that can propel Abré to pass the FCAT makeup test in October.

"In my house, C's are not allowed," Sanya Spivey says, a message she knows Abré hears even if he doesn't always heed it.

When it comes to academic success, "we've always been a firm believer that it's the support you get at home," she says. "I truly don't believe it's the school."

Next door, the Ritz-Carlton

While Abré gets ready for another year at his old school, Renese learns there is no room for her at Winter Park High or two other campuses she was offered: Hungerford Prep and Apopka High.

Instead, she is assigned to Freedom High, a 2-year-old campus south of Orlando that is 17 miles from her home.

Days before school starts, the family visits and is struck by how different the new campus is from half-century-old Evans. Freedom sits amid new industrial and office buildings, and a Ritz-Carlton hotel looms in the background.

The buff-white, concrete-block school resembles a shopping mall with a sweeping drive that leads to the main entrance. Inside, Renese's family finds spotless corridors and tile floors gleaming with reflections from the overhead lights. The hall in the administration building leads to a courtyard flanked by two-story classroom buildings.

Between two buildings is a walkway leading to rows of portable classrooms. Ten new ones have been added to get ready for about 700 additional students, swelling the enrollment to 3,400. About a third of the extra students are transfers.

Only about a third of Freedom students read at grade level, but that's more than twice the percentage at Evans. Freedom also is more multicultural, split more evenly among whites, blacks and Hispanics than Evans, which is mostly black.

Renese isn't happy about going so far to a school that, in her opinion, has a stupid name.

"I was feeling like, man, no," she says later. "I know I'm not fixing to go to this wack school."

Regardless of her doubts, Renese sets off early Aug. 9 for the first day of school. A sliver of moon is still out at 6:39 a.m. when she and Tiara board the yellow bus. The chrome on Renese's Reeboks glistens as she walks down the aisle. The only sound is the hum of the air conditioner and whispers from two boys in the back row.

About two hours pass before the bus pushes through rush-hour traffic and pulls up to the front entry at Freedom. The bus arrives 10 minutes late for the start of Renese's first high-school class.

On the second day of school, Renese's mother says she can't drive the girls to the bus stop a half-mile from home because her minivan needs new brakes. She forbade the girls to walk to the bus in the dark, having checked the state's list of sexual offenders and deciding there are too many of them in her neighborhood.

Renese is stuck at home, less than a mile from Evans. She easily could have walked there, once the sun was up. She cries herself back to sleep, upset at missing school, missing everything. She was supposed to choose an instrument today for her orchestra class. It's the first of many days this year she will be marked absent.

FCAT in every class

Back at Evans, Abré walks quickly between classes, his blue backpack slung over one shoulder, rarely talking with anyone along the way. Except for his size, he could almost pass unnoticed on campus.

English teacher Joseph Luque finds that Abré, who arrives on time and doesn't miss classes, is a welcome exception to the typical student he teaches.

"It was a privilege to have Abré in class," he says later. "He's a very well-adjusted young man."

Luque's class, English III FCAT, is for 11th-graders who failed the reading exam the previous spring. It offers no lessons on novels, plays or poetry -- just constant drilling on reading comprehension, the heart of FCAT. Like other F-rated high schools in Florida, Evans has been forced to focus on boosting reading skills.

"Boring," Abré says in his typical terse style.

Forty-nine students pack the room. Lots of Evans classes are crowded, in large part because about 140 students who applied to leave the school show up anyway when school starts. The school lost 462 teens to transfers. But administrators are scrambling to find enough teachers to handle the more than 2,200 students on campus.

By September, new teachers are hired, and Abre's English class shrinks to 24 students. Many don't seem to care about their grades or the FCAT.

"The extent of the problems we have -- I don't think the public has any idea," says Luque, who has been at the school more than two decades.

Many Evans students struggled with reading and schoolwork for years and arrive at high school far behind. At that point, Luque says, many are also turned off by school, so they have neither the attitude nor the study skills needed to improve.

"We do what we can," he adds.

In his honors American-history class, Abré listens as teacher Jennifer Bohn tackles the nation's early years. He doesn't speak and looks uncomfortable when called on. But he hands in his homework when it's due.

He sits silently, too, as Bohn teaches the meanings of stagnant, tangible and other words. New Principal Karen Wilson has told all her teachers to give these daily vocabulary lessons, in hopes the school can improve its FCAT scores and shed the F grade.

Bohn, who loves teaching at Evans despite the finicky air conditioning and the faulty wiring that made new computers hard to install, knows many of her students need extra help. But she worries all the talk about the test weighs on them.

"On some level, I think they get burned out hearing FCAT, FCAT, FCAT," Bohn says. "It creates a lot of anxiety."

Struggle to fit in

By late September, Renese's white Reeboks -- shoebox-new when school began -- are scuffed with dark marks. Freedom has 561 more students than it should, so the teens who jam the halls can take only small steps. Sometimes, their feet scrape the new girl's shoes.

The lanky teenager tries to make friends. On the first day of school, she goes up to strangers in the courtyard at lunch, extends her hand and says, "Hi, I'm Renese Ingram." Some laugh; others chat.

Early on, she is one of seven girls picked for the color-guard team. But then she backs out. Renese worries she won't have a ride home from twice-weekly practices because of her mother's work schedule.

"Maybe I'll do it next year," she says.

Classwork also remains a challenge. In Renese's third-period world-history course one morning, a projector beams a pop quiz onto a screen.

"A group of parishes is headed by a priest. True or false?"

In a scene common at high schools, one of Renese's classmates is asleep, her head resting on the desk.

After the students have taken and scored their quizzes, teacher Brett Palmi asks: "How did we do? Good, bad, ugly?"

Several boys on the front row respond: "Ugly."

Sitting in the back row, twirling the gold-threaded braids that fall past her shoulder blades, Renese gets just half of the questions right.

Studying is not one of her strong points. Her mother says Renese could spend less time on the phone and more time on schoolwork.

Late one afternoon, Angela Cole returns from her medical-records job about 4:30 p.m. and finds her daughter in the backyard talking on the phone instead of studying world history.

"Renese, you get in here," her mother calls.

"Who is she talking to?" she asks daughter Tiara.

"Some boy," Tiara says.

"OK, Momma. OK," Renese says.

In an hour or so, her mother will get ready for bed and try to get some sleep before she starts her second job, the third shift at the 7-Eleven in College Park. Weary from working about 16 hours a day, she said she sometimes has to roll down the windows in her van just to stay awake while she's driving

After dinner, Renese and her sister are on their own to do homework, although older sister Crystal sometimes looks on.

Facing the big test

As the makeup reading exam nears, Abré feels anxious. He badly wants to clear the FCAT hurdle and be done. His mother tries to reassure him. But when the two talk at home, she sounds scared that Abré might not pass again.

At first, Sanya Spivey fretted that her schedule -- she travels in her SeaWorld job -- was to blame for his failing the test as a 10th-grader. Later, she decided he just didn't read enough, so she told him he would spend the summer reading.

Every night, she checks to make sure he does his homework and studies, if he has any upcoming tests. Spivey, who graduated from Oak Ridge High and Florida Metropolitan University, wants to make sure Abré has a clear road to college.

She doesn't like that the FCAT carries so much weight, but she also knows her views on high-stakes tests don't matter. Abré just needs to pass the reading test.

Oct. 4 is test day. More than 400 Evans 11th- and 12th-graders -- some of whom have failed FCAT more than once -- file into classrooms to sit for the untimed reading exam, which has about 50 questions.

Abré thought he rushed through the exam the previous spring. This time, he slows down as he reads the long FCAT essays and fills in his answer sheet with his pencil. It seems easier on the second try. As he leaves Room 108, Abré feels good about it.

Later that night, the Spiveys are buoyed by his confidence, but they know only the score counts. They must wait two months to get it.

"I was really nervous," Abré says later. So was his mom.

"She just really wanted me to pass it," he says.

With the test over, the family can enjoy Abré's first love, sports. A cool Friday night that month finds the Spiveys back in the stands, as always, cheering their son on the football field.

Evans' team is 4-1, pumped from its win the week before. Tonight's challenger is West Orange High. Abré, who is on the squad's starting defensive line, often stands alone when he is not in the game, subdued as always. When his team scores, he pumps his fist. When West Orange scores, he drops on one knee.

In the stands, little brother C.J., just shy of 2 years old, dances as the band plays. "Brey! Brey! Brey!" he shouts.

Suddenly, Curtis Spivey spots someone walking below.

"There's Abré's teacher," his stepdad says, getting up and hustling down the stadium steps. He chats with the teacher of Abré's algebra 2 honors class. Abré struggled on a recent test, and both parents were eager to hear how he had done on the latest one.

"How'd he do?" Abré's mother asks when her husband rejoins her.

"He pulled out a B," the husband says.

With less than six minutes left, West Orange runs for a touchdown and pushes ahead of Evans 14-13. That will be the final score.

"We were robbed," Abré says when he emerges a bit later from the locker room.

"Brey!" says C.J., pulling from his father's arms.

Abré takes the toddler, and the family heads to the car.

Yearning for a date

Abré thrives on the excitement of Evans' football season, but Renese is still just another newcomer at Freedom. When the homecoming court is announced, she doesn't know any of the students chosen.

Caught up in the pep rallies, football posters and gossip about who is going with whom for homecoming, Renese buys a $25 ticket to the dance. Unlike other Freedom girls who are planning trips to Macy's or Dillard's to buy new dresses, she thinks she can borrow something from one of her sisters.

It's her first formal school dance, and she wants to look right. That night, she is getting her braids taken out, and her grandmother, who works at a salon, is going to cut her hair.

But one thing is missing: someone to go with.

It has been hard making close friends at the new school. She misses her old pals from middle school, none of whom came to Freedom. The few girls she has started hanging out with aren't a good crowd, her sister warns.

With just about a week until the dance, it looks as though Renese might have to go alone.

"If no one else will go with me? I'll just go by myself," she says. "I have to. I already paid $25 for my ticket. That's a lot of money."

Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538. Leslie Postal can be reached at lpostal@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5273.

— Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal
Orlando Sentinel


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