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Making The Grade

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The number of students in Emery's classroom varies--today there are only about a dozen. Several have parole officers. Some, like Emery, have good academic skills because they didn't start cutting class until after they got out of grammar school. Others can barely add or read. Emery's classroom is nothing fancy. It has the usual requisite wall hangings--a poster of the Treasures of Tutankhamen, a picture of a football player extolling the importance of knowing how to read, maps of the world and blackboards. After lunch, Emery and his friends sit outside on the steps waiting for school to start. This pleases Sue Ellen Eyre, Emery's reading teacher, who says she'd rather have her students milling around outside than down by the football field smoking a joint. Eyre teaches three hours of reading in the morning, Gwen Holmesley takes over for three hours of intensive science in the afternoon. During their spare hours, they tutor kids and check in with parents. Eyre hugs, nags, disciplines. Holmesley, who is teaching for the first time this year, is patient and even, which isn't always easy when every kid in the room will try to make you think he doesn't care about school.

When Holmesley starts her science class, Emery and a kid named Manny, who calls himself "Little Man," work on a science experiment. They are loud and rowdy today, possibly because they are sitting near a pretty brunette named Alex, who drives all the boys crazy. They are several units ahead of everyone else in the class.

Even though Emery is smart, he's not always motivated. Holmesley has still had to call Clifford from time to time to make sure Emery is following his contract. "Emery's grandfather is very concerned and compassionate and warm," says Holmesley. "He has all the right feelings going on. And Emery is this incredible student as far as ability. Most of the times I don't have any problem with him, but I think he's involved in other things in his life and can't always see that school would be beneficial. The first step is getting him through high school. The second step is getting him to see the value of college. I think he'll make it because he's so smart, and if he gets into more trouble, he'll overcome it, I hope."

Except these days, Emery actually is talking about college. He figures he'll study computers someplace after he graduates from high school, "I will graduate, I know that," he says, although he still claims school is "something I can just breeze right through."

After Christmas, Emery will probably be transferred into regular classes. Because of the South Mountain Plan, he'll be in a "family" of about ninety kids who share the same teachers. If he starts cutting again, or acting up, the teachers will notify Dr. Muhammad, who once again will send Emery to the at-risk classroom. Some kids purposely start acting out so they'll be transferred back to the at-risk classroom where it is safe, says Muhammad. "We want to get them through to the junior year," he says."Usually by then, they realize they're going to make it and they do pretty well on their own."

THERE ARE THOSE cynics who say Superintendent Tim Dyer's attempt to make a dent in the lives of kids who've already had their share of bad breaks is quixotic and too optimistic. "How can you break the cycle of poverty with a few phone calls by a few teachers who have a little extra time," they ask. At-risk kids have so many serious problems--temptation of the streets, low academic skills, sad troubles at home--that they're not likely to succeed.

Dyer, himself a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, doesn't agree. "Sure they have terrible problems," he says. "But what's our alternative? Our only other alternative is to give up.

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Terry Greene