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Transfer High: News good and bad brings year to close

Part 2 in a series. There's a lot going on in these articles. I can't help but return to my old theme: If Renese's mother ha more disposable income, Renese would be doing better in school--because Renese's mother would have the time and energy to bird dog homework the way Abré's Mom does. The article also points to subtle problems not mentioned when considering kids who transfer out of "failing" schools. For starters, because of transportation issues, they can't stay after school for extra help. And that's just for starters.

By Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal

It is the day before the biggest project of her entire freshman year is due, and Renese Ingram is just getting started.

Much rides on this long-term English assignment. Without a good grade, Renese likely will have to repeat the class. She is on the verge of failing several classes at Freedom High, where she transferred last fall.

The task: Create an album detailing the life of a famous author. Renese has chosen suspense novelist Lois Duncan.

The Pine Hills girl has no computer at home and can't stay after school to use Freedom's computer lab without missing the bus. So her mother, Angela Cole, brings home photos she downloaded at work from the Internet. They go to Wal-Mart for scrapbook supplies. Cole helps create a handwritten letter the author might have written. Mother and daughter burn the edges for an authentic look.

By the time Renese finishes cutting, pasting and writing a poem, notes and observations, it is 2 a.m.

While Renese scrambles to keep her academics on track, Abré Leggins makes steady progress at Evans High, despite its F grade. Passing the FCAT reading exam confirmed his family's choice to turn down a transfer like the one Renese requested.

Now the 11th-grader can start making plans for college. His only disappointment is how little he gets to play on the Evans basketball team.

Both are wrapping up a school year that is ending somewhat differently than either imagined the previous summer.

Project earns an A

Atop a waist-high bookcase in the Freedom High media center is a row of photo albums -- the best work by freshmen on their annual English project.

Near the end of the row stands Renese's 15-page album. It earned an A. She is elated.

"I was laughing, like man, I got an A," she says.

"She's doing great this nine weeks because of that project," teacher Jamie Newcomer says.

Other albums on display have the polished look of computerized graphics, headlines, custom typefaces. Renese's has a handmade quality.

"You could tell I did it overnight," she says.

Renese knows she could work harder. Stretched out on the cushy green couch in her family room, she admits she would do things differently if she had another chance.

"I wouldn't slack off as much," she says. "Instead of coming home and getting on the phone, I'd do some work."

Still, the A on her project has not inspired Renese to put more effort into her classes. She has a 180-question biology exam coming up and says she will study for only part of it. A failing midyear grade in honors biology shook her dreams of being a marine biologist. Now she thinks of being a veterinarian or a teacher.

Renese's mother comes through the front door after tending medical records all day. She recently quit her overnight job at 7-Eleven but says she will have to find another job soon. She has more worries: Oldest daughter Crystal is on the verge of quitting her job at Universal Studios and middle daughter Tiara is struggling at Freedom.

And then there's Renese, relaxing on the couch.

In her still-childish voice, the 15-year-old asks whether she can meet her friends.

Cole walks through the tidy family room and around the corner to face a sink piled high with dirty dishes.

"Cause you ain't going nowhere," Cole says. Renese is stuck at home because she hasn't cleaned her room.

"Maaaa," Renese pleads.

"What?" her mother snaps.

"Never mind," Renese says.

Cole implores Renese to get up and help rinse the dishes.

Renese rises from the couch and heads to the kitchen.

Keeping up the pressure

Abré is home on the last Friday in April, a school holiday and a day off for mom Sanya Spivey. He is preparing to go to Tallahassee with his aunt. They plan to pick up his cousin, who just wrapped up her year at Florida A&M University, and tour the campus.

Abré remains a solid, if not stellar, student. He hasn't missed a day of school. He hasn't been tardy once -- or in trouble either.

Spivey feels better about her son's third report card, which recently came home. Abré ended the term with a B average and just a single C, in American history. He has pulled up his English grade from C to A.

His mother finds much to appreciate in Abré's teachers.

Math teacher Greg Shirley, history teacher Jennifer Bohn and English teacher Joseph Luque are her "team," Spivey says. "Between the four of us, we're on top of him."

At her request, the teachers call and e-mail her to let her know, for example, when Abré got a C on his midterm math exam.

In history class, Bohn has been pushing Abré to do more than the minimum. He is in an honors course and, though he turns in his assignments on time, he needs to show more effort to get something more than a C.

The class is usually lively, with many students eagerly sharing their views. Abré, ever reserved, never does. But one morning, the class gets a little glimpse of his thoughts.

Bohn reads aloud the last few passages from Night by Elie Wiesel, horrifying descriptions of the death of the author's father at the hands of a concentration-camp guard.

She tells students to talk with a partner about the book's ending. Abré and another boy chat. Bohn calls on Abré's partner, who reports what Abré thought: "He would have killed the guy who hit his father."

In Luque's class, English III FCAT, Abré has started getting separate assignments now that he has passed the state reading exam. The idea is to help him get ready for 12th grade and then college. One task is to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and then write an essay.

Abré does the extra work, but complains that it is too much -- the book is about 400 pages long. Luque tells him, "You have to get used to this kind of stuff."

When Abré falls behind, Luque calls home. Spivey is one of the few parents he knows who will make sure the problem is corrected. It is.

For the most part, Luque thinks Abré does well in balancing his schoolwork and his sports life, which takes up hours of his afternoons.

Shirley, Abré's math teacher and basketball coach, agrees and also admires the way Abré doesn't let his frustration about basketball spill into class.

Abré, who plays center, gets only a few minutes of court time per game. His best performance comes against Colonial High, when he scores 8 points, grabs 6 rebounds and hits the shot that put Evans up for good.

Much of the season, however, is like the Lake Brantley game. He sits alone on the bench most of the time and doesn't get up for the after-game handshakes with Brantley players until an assistant coach gently tugs on his jersey.

Abré started playing basketball at age 5. He calls it his "first love." The proof is on his bedroom dresser, which is covered with sports trophies, mostly from basketball. But now that he has grown bigger and broader, coaches tell him he may be better suited for football as he looks ahead to college.

"It's been hard," he says. "You learn from the experience."

Despite this setback, Abré has the right formula to succeed in high school, Shirley says: "Good student, nice young man, active parents."

Before Abré leaves for the state capital that Friday, his mom makes sure he does his homework, then sits down at the computer to check it.

Summer ahead

It is chilly in the guidance counselor's office, and Renese hunches down in one of the two chairs as though to marshal her body heat.

Students have filled out blue forms to indicate what they want to do in life. Renese's blue sheet is empty except for three words she used to describe herself: realistic, social, enterprising. She was absent the day students worked on the forms.

The counselor looks at the form, her computer screen and then at Renese. She has good news and bad for her.

The good news: Renese is set to take drivers education, cooking and Renaissance Leadership next year. Her older sister took the leadership class, which lets students plan student- and teacher-recognition events.

"It's you becoming a leader for everyone else in this school," says Renese, who wears a pink and white T-shirt with "Glamorous" airbrushed across the front. The shirt is more form-fitting than the loose shirts she wore early in the year. Her hair is pulled back, leaving a fluffy ball in the back.

The bad news: Renese will have to repeat English, science and a semester of world history because she is failing those courses. She tells the counselor that she plans to take English during summer school and science during night school.

But Renese has no ride. The school district does not provide transportation during the summer. Neither of her sisters can take her; they don't have cars.

Her mother says she may have to drive the 34-mile round trip before the first of her two jobs each day. Renese may have to catch a Lynx bus to get home.

Although the A on her English project ends the semester on an upbeat, Renese's first year of high school has not worked out as she hoped.

What went wrong?

Many of Renese's problems are common to freshman making the transition from middle school. For one, her hardworking mother, like many single parents, does not have time to baby-sit her daughter's homework or keep current with her teachers.

But Renese also had the challenges of coping on an unfamiliar campus -- the long commute, crowded classes, the lack of longtime friends to help with homework, and no way to get to school or home if she misses the bus.

Her experience mirrors that of other Orange County transfer students whose grades suffered at new schools. Several Florida school districts have found that students who stay at their old, low-performing schools show more improvement than those who leave.

Absences, distractions and missed assignments took a toll.

Looking back, Renese's mother admits it would have been easier to send her down the street to Evans. Renese could have slept an extra hour rather than catch the bus at 6:25 a.m. She also could have joined in after-school activities.

But the fights and other problems also would have happened at Evans, Cole says. Her daughter's interest in the social scene is just one example.

"Coming into high school, it was all 'Look at all those boys. They're all so cute,' " Cole says. "It was just like someone dumped her in a candy jar, and she lost her mind. She lost her focus, and she lost her concentration."

Renese missed 32 of 180 school days. Renese's two-week suspension accounted for 10 of those, but many others stemmed from lateness or car troubles that kept her from getting to the bus stop on time.

Missing days is bad for any student, but transfer students like Renese have a bigger problem: They cannot meet with teachers before or after school about making up their work, says Mark Brown, Freedom's principal.

"If you miss it, then teachers are willing to work with you, but you have to be able to come before school or stay after," he says. "And if transportation is an issue, that can be tough."

Newcomer, Renese's English teacher, says the girl had a problem turning work in on time -- a common problem for freshmen. Across the state, ninth-graders fail three times as often as other students.

Peer pressure also worked against Renese. One of her friends, fellow transfer student Liesha Matthias, 16, described Renese as shy in school but goofy at times.

"If she had the right motivation, she would have kept her head on," Liesha says. "People could con her into things, like, if someone would say, 'Let's skip class,' and she would say, 'No,' and they would say, 'Come on.' Then she would say, 'Oh, OK'."

Despite her freshman disappointments, Renese is not about to end her experiment with school choice and go back to Evans. She says she thinks she is learning at Freedom.

"I would have had to deal with all the same problems at Evans -- people distracting me from my work, starting stuff with me. The grades went down because I got caught up in my social life," Renese says. "You can put a gun to my head, and I would never, never, never go to Evans."

Future looking bright

Abré comes out of his house at 6:30 a.m., carries a bag of garbage to the curb and goes back inside. Twenty minutes later, he walks out into the soft, warm morning, heading to the bus stop several blocks away.

It is May 27, the last day of school, his final day as a high-school junior.

Abré is wearing an Evans High mesh shirt over a white T-shirt. He has two exams this morning. He studied for both -- no getting out of studying at his house. Before final exams started, his mother helped work out a study schedule for him.

While he walks down the sidewalk, he listens to a rap CD on his hand-held player, his gait easy and comfortable. Abré is first to arrive at the bus stop but is soon joined by two boys.

"Is it too late to do the summer-school thing?" one asks.

Abré laughs and asks the boy where he's been. Abré is already signed up for summer school, where he will take economics and government to get ahead before his senior year.

The last month of school has gone well. His grades are mostly B's and A's, though he still has that C in history. Several times during the school year, Abré made Evans' "Renaissance" list, an honor given to students who have decent grades, no absences and no discipline referrals.

He played the short spring football season and is realizing more and more that football, not basketball, is his sport. Invited to a Nike high-school football camp in April, he has spoken with several college scouts.

His football coach has told the teenager, now 6 feet 4 and 280 pounds, that he could be a sought-after recruit in 12th grade. His mom has told him that though a college scholarship would be "awesome," he can't rely on sports.

"He needs to get an education behind him," she says.

After taking a risk on Evans, his parents have little to fault, except for the run-down state of the campus.

"Each time he wasn't as focused as he should be, it was his own fault," not the school's, Spivey says. "At no point did I doubt."

The bus pulls up a little after 7 a.m., and Abré boards, taking his usual seat in the back. The ride is quiet, the students calm.

Bus driver Angela Greene says this is an easy route, Abré an easy passenger.

"He's so sweet," she says. "He's like that every day."

Won't get left behind

The white Reeboks that were spotless and gleaming on the first day of school have been lost for weeks amid a collection of shoes in Renese's closet.

"I wear them in the dirt now," laughs the girl who has untethered her braids and cut her hair since she first wore those shoes.

It is the last day of her first year in high school, a year of choice, a year unlike anything she had expected.

She is failing several classes and has three exams today -- dance history, algebra and English. She has not studied for them. Oldest sister Crystal says Renese came home from school the day before and fell asleep.

It is the last day she might see some of the friends she made at Freedom.

Her sister Tiara sits on the couch, knees tucked to her chin, still wearing her pajamas. As a senior, she does not have to go to school today, but she is still sad since learning she would not graduate with the other seniors in May because she failed her English course.

"Renese, come on. I've got the car running," her mother urges.

The teen runs outside to the Chevy Lumina parked on the grass near the house. Mechanics who looked at the van the day before wanted to take Cole's keys because the brake pads were so dangerously thin. But she could not afford $475 for the repair.

With neighborhood roosters crowing as if to root for the van, Cole races down a maze of roads and turns onto Beecher Street just in time to see all the passengers have boarded the bus about 50 yards ahead.

The bus is about to leave. Too many times they have arrived at the bus stop and seen those taillights already receding in the distance. Renese has missed that bus too many times. It can't happen today.

Renese's mother presses on the gas pedal. The passenger door on the Lumina opens before the van fully stops, just a few feet behind the flashing red lights on the back of the bus.

With one hand on top of her hair, Renese clutches her books and runs flat-footed next to the long, yellow vehicle.

It is the last day. And Renese Ingram makes it -- just as the bus is pulling away.

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

— Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal
Orlando Sentinel
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/classified/automotive/orl-transferx09080905aug09,0,5561578.story


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