Oregon Public Broadcasting

The state of Oregon has set an ambitious goal to graduate 100 percent of high school students by the year 2025. OPB is following more than two dozen six and seven-year-olds who are in the class of 2025. For the next twelve years, OPB aims to follow these students, in school and at home. These are some of their stories from first grade.

Like most first-graders, Josh likes to ask a lot of questions. But the budding scientist also likes coming up with the answers on his own.

"What do you think has the biggest ears in the whole entire world?" the seven-year-old muses one day at home with his mom, Sharnissa Secrett and then he starts to draw his answer: An elephant, of course.

Secrett is a social worker who works long hours. But she manages to find the time to help Josh and his siblings with their homework, and to make sure they're doing well in school.

Still, she is concerned about how Josh's teachers deal with all his energy -- especially because he's an African-American boy.

"You know, African-American males are labeled and stereotyped, and being sent to the office," she says. "Their behaviors are more isolated -- and they're pinned as being an issue."

Secrett wonders, for example, whether a white boy who is Josh's friend is being treated the same way at Earl Boyles: "Because I know, alongside of Josh is his good friend, and they both go at it."

Josh has been referred to the office and often gets warnings in class. Teachers track behavior based on a system where they label good days as "green," and days with warnings as "orange." Secrett takes issue with the number of "oranges" Josh gets. When Josh got a referral for writing all over his hands with a thick black pen and then rubbing that on his face, the school categorized his behavior as "destroying property."

Behavior, Bias and African-American Boys

There's federal data to back up Secrett's concerns. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights office found that African-American males are three times more likely to be suspended than other students.

"There are a number of studies that show that young black boys, from a very early age are rendered 'deviant' or 'rebellious' or quote -- 'bad,' " said Prudence Carter, an education and sociology professor at Stanford University. "And their white male counterparts and female counterparts don't have the same kinds of conditions ascribed to them, even though they may act out as young children, too."

And academically, African-American boys are among the least likely to graduate from high school. In Oregon, the graduation rate for African-American boys from low-income families is 46 percent. That compares to a graduation rate for all students in Oregon of 68.7 percent.

So it's going to be an even steeper climb for 100 percent of African-American boys to achieve graduation by the year 2025.

Josh's teacher, Karen McDonald, says there are white students in her class with more orange days than Josh, and the principal says the building-level data don't show a racial bias.

But administrators at the district office say that nationwide there are issues around racial bias -- and they acknowledge David Douglas isn't immune.

A few weeks before spring break, Josh sat cross-legged on the carpet in McDonald's first grade classroom at Earl Boyles Elementary, listening as his teacher tried to get students to see themselves in stories.

McDonald has chosen a book about loose teeth. That's something these kids know a lot about, and she used the book to prompt them to speak up.

The students were expected to sit on their bottoms and face forward, but sitting still is hard for Josh, much as he likes to please his teacher. "Josh, have you never had a wiggly tooth?" McDonald asks, a direct question that she hopes will help him stay focused.

Josh eagerly shares his loose tooth story: "I was wiggling it, and wiggling it, at home. I kept trying to eat my apple, and then when I ate, I swallowed it and started choking, and coughed it out!"

"Okay. So you made a text-to-self connection then, didn't you?" McDonald says.

Success. But a moment later, McDonald has to pause again, to get two kids back on task. Josh is one of them.

Reading and Arithmetic

Josh does seem to have a connection to reading. He's always happy to read books at his after-school program, where one day he stumbled a little over a new book called "Bear Snores On," but doggedly kept trying.

"With his ees shut - eyes shut..." he sounded out the words, slowly and correctly. He's already met two standards for first grade reading, and is on track for the rest.

Math is tougher.

Back in the classroom, Josh struggles with a math test that asks first graders to do a kind of algebra: Find the missing number in an addition equation. He's having a hard time with one particular problem, trying to add different numbers together, counting on his fingers to come up with an answer.

He's not alone: Math is tough for many of the Earl Boyles kids. To keep up and meet new academic standards, kids have to do more work at home. That means parents have to pitch in.

The Common Core is a series of tough new learning standards that are being implemented in 45 states, including Oregon.

School Work At Home

Sharnissa Secrett is more than willing to do her part, but it can be a struggle to get Josh to focus at home. Over spring break, for example, she wanted him to work on his math skills via an online app, but Josh had other ideas -- he would rather play computer games.

His mother didn't let him off the hook.

"What's interesting to me is you can go through all these levels, and know all this different stuff, and know how to say 'slug zombies' -- and just navigate through, but then the math-- you should be getting halfway done, you should be done," she says.

Finally, Josh relents and does some math. But when his mom's not looking, it's back to video games.

The Relationship Between Parents and Teachers

Secrett's parent-teacher conference with her son's teacher, McDonald, starts with a friendly greeting, and with some good news. Josh is doing well in reading, his teacher says.

But then this: "I'm a little worried about his math," McDonald adds.

McDonald says Josh's broader issue is staying focused. Secrett has heard it before. She works on it with Josh at home, but she also gives him a lot of room to play and explore.

"He's an active boy, and he's not going to be as focused as maybe a quieter girl," says McDonald. "And that's okay. He has made some progress though."

Like many parents, Secrett is watching her kids grow up with different academic expectations than those she remembers from her own schooling.

"Gosh, you guys are doing a lot," she says to McDonald.

It is a lot, McDonald agrees--this year is especially difficult because of the Common Core. "I've been teaching first grade for 20 years, and this is the hardest year," McDonald says.

After the conference, Secrett says she appreciates the teacher's honesty.

"I felt like the connection came from her being able to say 'This is damn difficult,' and from me being able to say 'You're damn right it's difficult,' " Secrett says.

This project is part of American Graduate -- Let's Make It Happen! -- a public broadcasting initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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