Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman



Evaluating Clarissa

Clarissa Ruiz is such a quiet student that I do not notice her during my first two weeks in Mrs. Lynns’ classroom. While other children call attention to themselves by waving their hands wildly in the air volunteering to give an answer (Peter), shouting out when not called upon (Carlos), or confidently explaining answers no one else has figured out (Jessica), Clarissa tries to make herself invisible. But one day, during my third week in school, Mrs. Lynns calls on Clarissa to help solve a division problem. From my notes:

November 6: Mrs. Lynns is teaching the children how to divide a two digit divisor into a three digit dividend (i.e., 75 into 413). Jessica suggests that the answer is 5 with a remainder. When Mrs. Lynns asks how she arrived at that answer, Jessica says she tried 1 and found that was not enough, so she tried 2; when she tried 5, that was enough. “That’s okay if it works for you,” Mrs. Lynns responds, “but let me tell you another way.” Mrs. Lynns then shows them how to estimate, using place holders. “How do we check that “5” is correct?” she asks? “Leomar, what would you do?” “Multiply,” Leomar answers. “Very good,” Mrs. Lynns responds.

Mrs. Lynns turns to the rest of the class. “How many of you don’t understand how to solve this problem?” she asks. Seven children raise their hands. “Be honest,” Mrs. Lynns insists. A few more hands are raised. For the rest of the period, Mrs. Lynns and I circulate around the class, helping those children who don’t understand how to do division. Clarissa is one of three children who ask me for help. Helping her takes so much energy, I forget to type my notes.

When I next come to class, November 8, I make sure to check in with Clarissa. I see the Thanksgiving story she has written at Mrs. Lynns’ request; I am amazed at her spelling and grammar deficiencies and copy it verbatim:

On Thanks given—they a long of family that get together and have a good time they eat turkey and potatoes salad and yellow mole and many other thing and family have funny get together they love be with each other family funny be to gether and all family like to be with each other and family happy Thanks give by Clarissa Ruiz.

Curious about why Clarissa makes so many basic mistakes, I watch her coloring the map of her house—Mrs. Lynns’ latest assignment. Noticing my eyes on her, Clarissa beckons me with her tiny index finger and the sweetest little helpless smile. She tells me that she wants to do her map over again because she doesn’t like hers. She asks me how to draw “something in the kitchen that you bake in.” I tell her that I am the world’s worst artist, but that Sean is drawing a really nice stove. “Do you want to look at it?” Clarissa walks over to Sean, says she likes the drawing he’s done of an oven, and asks him to draw one in her map. Sean smiles and does so.

One week later, November 14, I meet Clarissa’s mother at the first parent-teacher conference. From my notes:

Mrs. Ruiz comes in shyly, wheeling a shopping cart, with Clarissa and Clarissa’s sister by her side. I smell something on her breath; I guess it’s wine.

Mrs. Lynns starts out positive. “Clarissa is a well-respected child,” she says, “but she’s capable of doing better.” Then Mrs. Lynns makes clear her first priority. “Clarissa often doesn’t hand in her homework.”

Mrs. Ruiz appears very nervous, but she responds immediately to make clear that she agrees with the teacher about homework’s importance: Clarissa’s been doing her homework for two hours every night, she explains. Clarissa joins in, claiming that she does the homework but she doesn’t always hand it in because her notebook is messy. “I lose the homework before I turn it in,” she explains. “I told you to organize your notebook so you won’t lose things,” Mrs. Lynns responds. “She has dividers,” Mrs. Ruiz insists, trying to make sure that Mrs. Lynns knows that the family is supporting Clarissa’s efforts. But Clarissa’s explanation doesn’t inspire confidence: she gets her homework lost, she says, “mixed up with her sister’s.” To this, there’s not much Mrs. Lynns can say: “Be careful you don’t lose it” is her last word on the subject.

Mrs. Lynns then goes on to her second priority: “Clarissa needs to work on her script writing,” she reports to Mrs. Ruiz. “This is the first time I had to write script,” Clarissa explains. Mrs. Lynns tells Clarissa’s mother that the children who were in her fourth grade class last year had all learned to write script then. Clarissa is going to have to catch up. “It’s very important that they learn to write properly. In junior high school, their work won’t be accepted if they don’t write script.”

Next, Mrs. Lynns points to the area of the report card where teachers must mark if the child is in danger of being held back. “Clarissa is far below grade level on her reading. Her reading score last spring was four percent. Mrs. Howton (the assistant principal) is going to review her grades in December to see if she has worked hard enough to stay in fifth grade. She’ll need to work harder if she is to graduate in the spring, she tells Mrs. Ruiz.

Mrs. Ruiz tells Mrs. Lynns that she has two children in addition to the two who have come with her to the conference. Nevertheless, she assures her that she will make sure that Clarissa shows her all her homework. Pleased by Mrs. Ruiz’s expression of concern about her daughter’s work, Mrs. Lynns offers another positive comment: she is proud of Clarissa for solving her two digit divisor problems. But Mrs. Lynns’s last word contains a caution: Clarissa needs to improve her attendance. She’s already missed class ten times.

The next time I’m in class, November 18, I begin to understand why Clarissa is having such a difficult time. The class is going over a vocabulary story. Mrs. Lynns had asked the children to write definitions of new words that appear in the story that the class is reading together. A number of children have not brought their definitions. Among them is Clarissa.

Mrs. Lynns asks each child for an explanation. As she’s going around the room, Clarissa asks me for help getting a dictionary out of the closet. Whispering, I ask her why she hasn’t done the work. She answers that she looked for definitions in the glossary in the back of her reader, but many of the words weren’t there. She says that she doesn’t have a dictionary at home.

Later, when I tell Mrs. Lynns about Clarissa not having a dictionary, Mrs. Lynns stops the class to make sure that everyone has a dictionary. But Hector, who lives in a nearby homeless shelter, raises his hand to say that he doesn’t have one at home either. Mrs. Lynns tells Clarissa and Hector that from now on they will have to take a class dictionary home on weekends when they have vocabulary homework. I decide to buy them dictionaries.

As Clarissa proceeds to define her vocabulary words with the aid of one of the classroom dictionaries, I discover that there’s a more fundamental problem standing in her way: Clarissa can’t find the words in the dictionary because she can’t read the cursive script that Mrs. Lynns has written on the blackboard. When she copies the word “rains,” she writes “marined” (at least, that’s what Clarissa’s writing looks like to me). I suggest to Mrs. Lynns that Clarissa move her seat up closer to the blackboard so she will be able to decipher Mrs. Lynns’ (beautiful) handwriting better.

The next time I attend class, November 20, I find Clarissa sitting up closer to the blackboard, where she has a much easier time copying down her assignments. However, when I ask her if she’s happy that she changed seats, she gives me a pained look. “What’s the problem?” I ask, alarmed, fearing I’d inadvertently hurt Clarissa in my effort to help. Clarissa explains that she liked her old seat, next to Lisette, because Lisette used to help her with her work. In her new seat, she’s afraid she’ll be on her own.

Mrs. Lynns confides to me that Clarissa’s fourth grade teacher told her that she was surprised that Clarissa had been promoted to fifth grade because she (the teacher) had strenuously recommended that Clarissa be kept back. Mrs. Lynns tells me that she’s quite concerned that Clarissa won’t be able to go on to sixth grade. Unwilling to see Clarissa fail, I point out that her handwriting has been improving. Then I ask a question that’s been bothering me all week: “Was Clarissa’s mother drunk when she came to the parent meeting on Thursday?” “Yes,” Mrs. Lynns whispers, “she was, and she was incoherent. Clarissa and her sister have to take a lot of responsibility at home.” A few days later, when Clarissa misses her third day of class that week, Mrs. Lynns suggests that Clarissa’s absences have more to do with her mother than with Clarissa. Clarissa tries hard, Mrs. Lynns affirms.

That Clarissa tries hard becomes apparent the next day when Mrs. Lynns is teaching a lesson on pronouns. “Give me an example of a pronoun,” Mrs. Lynns asks. Justine and José can’t do it. Finally, Mariaelena and Jessica explain the definition of pronouns. Mrs. Lynns asks if everyone understands. Everyone says yes. But when Alicia is called on, she says nothing. Then Mrs. Lynns asks Clarissa, and Clarissa says she understands. Asked to give an example of a pronoun, Clarissa says, in a tiny, quiet voice, “You could use she for girl.” Glad to hear Clarissa get an answer correct, I ask Clarissa to repeat it. She does, this time in a louder voice. Mrs. Lynns tells the class that Clarissa gave a good answer and repeats what Clarissa said previously. This is a small victory for Clarissa, but it’s not easily won. She’s still afraid to state her answers aloud.

Three days later, the positive trend continues. Mrs. Lynns tells me that she’s proud of the way Clarissa has improved her handwriting.

On December 11, I bring in dictionaries for Hector and Clarissa. Hector thanks me profusely and shakes my hand. Clarissa doesn’t thank me. Later, she asks me if I have given her the book to keep. I tell her yes, and then remind her to thank me. On the way to lunch, Clarissa is smiling. She shows me that the dictionary has sign language in it, which is good because her sister has a hearing problem. She shows me how to sign “I love you.”

The following day, I talk to Loretta about my growing interest in and concern for Clarissa and her family. Loretta tells me that Clarissa’s younger sister, Theresa, is partially deaf. The school-based team charged with evaluating whether children need special education services recommended last year that Theresa be sent to an MIS-3 class, which is smaller and allows for intensive remedial work, but Loretta advised Mrs. Ruiz not to allow her to be sent to special education class. “The girl is smart,” Loretta says. “She needs services, not special education.” With help from a hearing specialist twice a week, Theresa progressed and graduated from second grade. She’s now in a different school that provides special support services for bright students with hearing difficulties.

The girls’ mother is another story, Loretta tells me. She is an alcoholic who sometimes comes into school and argues loudly with Loretta. Last year, something went wrong at home and the family had no money for Christmas presents. Loretta bought a gift for Theresa and is still indignant. “Imagine,” she fumes, “the mother is reeking with booze, and there’s no money for Christmas presents.”

After Loretta tells me these stories, I’m confused: I admire Loretta for intervening to help Theresa, but at the same time, I can’t stand hearing such a negative picture. I tell her how sweet Clarissa is, how hard she is trying, and how far behind she’s already fallen. Loretta tells me that Clarissa used to be a real problem because she talked all the time, especially at lunch. “Well, she’s well-behaved now,” I respond, defending Clarissa, but at the end, I throw in a comment to indicate that I share Loretta’s outlook: “But she looks like she has to take care of herself.”

By now, I have become quite concerned about Clarissa. She seems to be drowning and no one seems to be doing anything about it. When I make my first decision to ask a child if I can include her and her family in my study, I ask Miriam Milagros, not Clarissa. Why? Miriam Milagros seems more typical. I don’t want to start with someone having unusual problems. Besides, Miriam has been friendly, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her.

However, a few days later when I ask Miriam if her family will participate, she gives me bad news: her mother says no. I panic; if Miriam, the friendliest child in the class, can’t get her family to agree to be interviewed, will I be able to find anyone to let me into their home? I decide to ask Clarissa. I know she’ll be happy if I ask her; besides, if her family is as desperate as they seem, will they really be able to turn down the $1,000 I can pay?”

When I ask Clarissa if her mother will participate in my study in return for $1,000, Clarissa answers, “Yes, definitely. My mother could use the money to buy furniture for my room because it’s empty.”

Once I decide to make Clarissa and her family subjects of my study, I begin to focus on Clarissa’s academic experiences. On January 6, I follow Clarissa into her reading class where Mr. Gilbert Reno, a novice from the Teach for America program, instructs fifteen children reading on a second grade level.

District 9’s reading program for elementary school children, the “Streaming Program,” was designed by Allen Howton, Loretta’s husband. For one hour each day, the children leave their regular teacher and meet in groups selected on the basis of the children’s standardized reading test scores. There, they work on the particular skills they need to master to progress to the next grade level.

For Clarissa, this means leaving Mrs. Lynns’s class for the first period every day. Since she is the only student from Mrs. Lynns’s class reading on the second grade level, she’s the only student from that class to meet with Mr. Reno. Clarissa doesn’t like being separated from the friends and classmates who are so central to her life. Mrs. Lynns doesn’t like her students to leave her either; like many teachers, she feels that she knows her own students best and doesn’t trust other teachers to give them adequate attention and follow through.

I’ve never seen the Streaming Program in action, so I’m curious to see what goes on:

When I walk into the room, children are taking turns reading aloud the story “Chin Chiang and the Dragons’ Dance,” from the reader, a book named Adventuring. Every once in a while, Gil interrupts with a question. “What does ‘muffled’ mean?” he asks. “Fierce? Give me your fierce face.” When Gil reads, he puts real expression into his voice, and the children follow the story. In order to provoke the students to think about what’s going on in the story, he asks children to predict what is going to happen next.

Clarissa is sitting at her desk, holding the book standing up in her lap. She’s wearing a red sweatshirt, a hair clip, a bow in her hair, and a necklace. When she reads along, she moves her finger from word to word. She’s attentive but doesn’t volunteer. After I’ve been in the room five minutes, she gets distracted, starts playing with the ring on her finger, and starts to yawn. When Gil calls one of the boys to attention, Clarissa comes back to the story. Gil asks the children to finish reading the last page, giving them three minutes. Clarissa reads attentively, but other children begin either talking to each other or looking at me and my computer. Gil ends the class by reading aloud the page he’s asked his students to read by themselves. “For homework guys, page 155, questions 1–4. Answers in complete sentences.” It’s then time for Clarissa to return to Mrs. Lynns’s classroom.

After all the children return from their “Streaming” rooms, Mrs. Lynns begins by asking one of the students to collect the homework—a comic strip drawing. Clarissa tells me she didn’t do her assignment because she went to the hospital with her sister. Today’s lesson is to determine whether a sentence is declarative, interrogatory, or exclamatory. Clarissa tells me that she knows what to do because there are examples on the previous page. But before long, she asks me for help on the sentence, “She predicted a rainstorm.” I tell her that she should tell Mrs. Lynns when she doesn’t understand something, then Mrs. Lynns will explain the problem for the whole class. Clarissa nods yes, she will. But she never does. Whispering, she asks me—or one of the other students—for help instead.

As the New Year begins, I begin my home visits. By now, Clarissa and I like and trust each other, and I’m anxious to find out what happens in Clarissa’s home. Does her family sabotage her efforts to succeed in school, as it appears to Loretta, Mrs. Lynns, and me? Or is Clarissa’s mother telling the truth when she says that she supports and monitors Clarissa?

Visiting Clarissa and Her Family

To answer these questions about Clarissa and her family, I go home with Clarissa after the school day ends on January 6. We decide to walk so she can show me her daily path from school to home. Lisette and Sean accompany us, since they both live in the same direction.

The block where CES 518 stands is up on a hill, and the only way down this hill is an outdoor concrete stairway that I had not previously noticed. Clarissa tells me we have to walk down the staircase to get to her house. The staircase is steep, thirty steps down, and isolated. At each of the three landings, garbage lies in piles and litters the walkways—mostly crushed cardboard boxes, torn black garbage bags, beer cans, and soda bottles, but also broken shopping carts, hamburger wrappers, and assorted odds and ends. I ask the children if they mind walking up and down the dirty staircase, and Lisette tells me, “Yes,” she does. “It’s dirty and ugly,” she says. I cannot believe how vulnerable the children are, walking so far away from the traffic on the streets above and below.

But in mid-afternoon, descending the staircase is not a problem. When we reach the street below, Lisette points to her building and says she has to go home where her older sister is awaiting her arrival. Sean walks another block with us and points out a tenement building with a door painted blue, and says that’s where he lives. As Clarissa and I walk the remaining block to the housing project where she lives, Clarissa points out her building and tells me proudly she lives there with her father and mother, two sisters, and a brother. Her mother and father have always been together, she tells me proudly, and will always stay together. It’s the first time I’ve learned that Clarissa’s father lives with the family. Clarissa warns me not to tell anyone.

When we cross the avenue, Clarissa waves to her mother and brother, Richie, who are waiting for her at the front entrance of the building, a twenty-story apartment tower. In front of the building are benches, a wire fence, and lots of children playing hopscotch, hanging out, or running back and forth. Mrs. Ruiz greets me and tells me that she’s waiting for Clarissa’s younger sister, Theresa, to return from school on a bus. While we wait, Clarissa’s older sister arrives and then Theresa. When we’re all assembled, we ride upstairs in the metal clad elevator.

The Ruiz’ apartment opens onto a cramped kitchen. Beyond the kitchen is a dining alcove with a glass-topped table. The living room is beyond. I see a Puerto Rican flag on one wall, a poster of Lower Manhattan with the Brooklyn Bridge on another. The television set is placed centrally in the living room and is turned on as soon as the family settles in. Clarissa’s father arrives, shakes my hand, and introduces himself as José. Mrs. Ruiz asks if I’d like something to drink, and I ask for some fruit juice.

I’ve imagined doing home visits with children from CES 518 for months, but now that the moment has arrived, I’m not sure where to start. I improvise, asking Clarissa if she’d like me to help her with her homework, and her eyes light up. She opens up her math book, and we sit down at the dining room table to start doing arithmetic. I ask Clarissa to read me the first problem, and that’s where the trouble begins.

When Clarissa comes to the word “presents,” she can’t read the word. I suggest we get the dictionary to look up how to pronounce it. Clarissa goes to the bedroom she shares with her sister and brings back the dictionary I bought her the previous month. She looks up the word “present”; we check the pronunciation guide at the bottom of the page, and she determines that the word is “presents.” But a few words into the problem, there is the word “data,” and Clarissa doesn’t know how to read that word either. The word “spend” is central to the math problem Clarissa is supposed to be doing: “According to the bar graph, how many more students want to spend 3 months, rather than 6 months, in space?” Since Clarissa can’t read the word “spend,” she can’t understand the problem, much less read the graph and find the answer. I show Clarissa how to sound out “sp” and “end.” Is Clarissa’s problem that she doesn’t know phonics?

Finally, I decide to coach Clarissa each step of the way. I read her the problem, but to solve the problem, she needs to be able to multiply 4 and 1/2 times 6. She can’t do that because she doesn’t know the six times table. 4 x 6 = ? I tell her that if she can’t do the multiplication, she better learn her times table, but in the meantime, she can get the answer by counting out four groups of six. Clarissa doesn’t know how to do that either. I draw four and one half groups of six lines for her, and Clarissa counts them out. When she gets 27, I tell her to check it with the bar graph.

Clarissa then tries to compare the two numbers on the bar represented by the bar graph. She doesn’t know how to do it. I have to give her another answer before she realizes she has to subtract. She now subtracts successfully. After she ascertains that the next problem requires her to do the same thing, she does the next problem successfully too. I am overwhelmed. How does anyone expect Clarissa to do her math homework when she can’t read the problems?

After we’ve done the math homework, Mrs. Ruiz, Clarissa, and I talk. Clarissa begins by complaining that Mrs. Lynns gives too much homework. Mrs. Ruiz agrees, stating that Clarissa doesn’t have time to read because she spends so much time doing her homework. Then she explains that she herself did learn to read in school. She came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was three years old and attended school in the Bronx. She says she stopped going to school after going through ninth grade four times. The only thing she learned in school, she tells me, was how to read. Mrs. Ruiz tells me that she wants to help Clarissa with her homework, but can’t do very much. She can’t even read the homework assignments because Clarissa writes them in cursive script, which Mrs. Ruiz never learned how to read. Besides, she explains, Clarissa is taught differently from the way she was taught. She learned from a book that had answers in the back; to get the answers, she tells me with a smile, she cheated by looking up the answers in the back of the book.

Mrs. Ruiz tells me that she grew up in the same neighborhood where Clarissa is now going to school. One of her children chimes in that Mrs. Ruiz was left back so many times because her ninth grade teacher didn’t like her. Mrs. Ruiz smiles to acknowledge this story, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Later, after we’ve gotten to know each other better, she tells me that she kept failing ninth grade because she used to stay home all the time. Her family didn’t have much money and rather than wear the same clothes to school each day, Mrs. Ruiz would hide in the closet. She also tells me that Clarissa was a good student in first grade, but then started having problems. Clarissa chimes in that she began falling behind when she started hanging out with her older sister. Mrs. Ruiz agrees.

To break the ice further, I offer chocolates to Clarissa and her mother. (Miriam Milagros had given me the chocolates in school.) Later on, I offer a chocolate to José, but he turns it down. He’s drinking something from a bottle in a brown paper bag. I assume he’s drinking beer and that he doesn’t think chocolate goes with beer. When Clarissa asks me for another chocolate, I tell Clarissa she’ll have to ask her mother. Mrs. Ruiz says it’s okay. I give the box of chocolates to her, and she gives a chocolate to Clarissa, her brother, and her younger sister.

Mrs. Ruiz tells me that she’s concerned about getting her money from my research grant without having the sum deducted from her welfare check. I tell her I’ll find out how it can be done.

As I talk about money with Mrs. Ruiz, I allow Clarissa, her brother Richie, and her sister Theresa to play games on my computer. At first, Richie plays Treehouse and his sisters join in. Then Clarissa asks for another game, the one she’s been playing in school—Reader Rabbit 2. The three children learn how to play it. They figure out how to complete sentences by choosing the appropriate word. One of the children suggests that the family should get a computer—and not a baby computer.

At this point, it’s 5:00 p.m. I’ve been in the apartment just one hour, but my computer’s battery fails, so the children can’t play on it anymore. I leave before I overstay my welcome. To get back to my car, I have to climb back up the outdoor staircase. It’s dark and absolutely still; I shiver with fear, wondering why I ever put myself in such a position. I resolve that the next time I visit Clarissa’s family after school, I’ll drive the car so I won’t have to walk back in the dark.

Referring Clarissa Is Difficult

When I get back to school on January 8, I tell Mrs. Lynns how upset I am by Clarissa’s inability to read the math problems. Mrs. Lynns is sympathetic. She tells me that she knows Mrs. Ruiz because Clarissa’s sister Blanca was her student a few years earlier. Indeed, Clarissa was placed in her classroom this fall because Mrs. Lynns had worked successfully with the family when Blanca’s hearing problems were diagnosed and rectified.

Mrs. Lynns says that Clarissa should have been given reading help in first or second grade, but at that time the then-Chancellor Fernandez was discouraging special education referrals, which may explain why Clarissa was not evaluated to determine if she needed modified instructional services. Now, Mrs. Lynns explains, Clarissa can’t get extra help until she’s evaluated. The first step is for Mrs. Lynns to request that Clarissa is tested by the school-based support team. Mrs. Lynns agrees to ask Shelly Howell, the Educational Evaluator, for the forms that she must fill out to begin the process. As far as I know, Mrs. Lynns does not do so.

Many weeks pass before Mrs. Ruiz and I request that Clarissa be evaluated. In the meantime, Clarissa struggles in school while I work to develop a trusting relationship with Clarissa’s family. Getting Mrs. Ruiz’s agreement to participate in my research project turns out not to be a problem. My wife, a school social worker who was born in Puerto Rico, speaks to her on the telephone and explains how the family can be paid for participating in the research without losing its family assistance payment. Mrs. Ruiz sends in her social security number immediately; when Clarissa delivers it to me, she warns me not to give the number to anyone.

Getting Clarissa help proves more difficult, however. On February 3, Mrs. Lynns tells me that Clarissa has not done well on her recent tests—she got a zero on the spelling test and only 23 percent on vocabulary. Furthermore, Mrs. Lynns reports, she has spoken to Clarissa’s third grade teacher, who told her that Clarissa was, at that time, below grade level in reading. Mrs. Lynns is troubled. “Why did they pass her on?” she asks me. “Now she’s got big problems.”

Even in the enrichment activities, which ought to be a source of enjoyment and a spur to self-esteem, Clarissa meets failure. For Black History Month, CES 518 has arranged with a group called Arts Connection to teach children an African dance. Mrs. Lynns’ class has been selected to participate in the dance lesson, and in mid-January, a dance teacher and drummer begin working with Mrs. Lynns’ students for one period three times a week. Clarissa volunteers enthusiastically, while many of the boys and a few of the more bashful girls hold back. Those not participating sit in the auditorium and watch—there is no activity planned for them, and for some, it is lost time. But Clarissa is up on stage, listening to the dance teacher, trying to catch the beat, dancing in a group with the best dancers, the most popular girls. In the second week of rehearsals, as performance day draws near, the dance instructor begins to press the children. “There’s a lot to learn, and only one more rehearsal after today,” she tells her troupe. The she calls out Clarissa’s name, telling her to leave the stage because she doesn’t know the dance steps well enough. When Justine and Alicia collide on stage because of Alicia’s misstep, they are told to leave as well. Clarissa and Justine are devastated. I sit next to Clarissa to comfort her, putting my arm around her shoulder. Mrs. Lynns and I decide to invite the two crying girls to join us for lunch. Mrs. Lynns shares her meal with Justine, while I share mine with Clarissa.

After lunch, a small miracle occurs. After I play some music in the classroom for those children who are not rehearsing on stage, they decide to practice the dance on their own. Justine takes the lead, and all six children in the room participate. Justine shows everyone the dance steps, the most elaborate steps done by the “first” team of dancers. As Justine and Clarissa dance, they assign themselves the roles of the people on the first team. “I’ll be Jessica,” Justine calls out. “I’ll be Lisette,” responds Clarissa. The impromptu dancers have great fun until their classmates return.

Moments of freedom like this are rare, but in the next few weeks, in the interstices of the school day, Clarissa begins telling me stories about her life with her family. For someone who tried to make herself invisible, Clarissa’s change towards me is startling. I am becoming a confidant.

On January 23, for example, Clarissa tells me that her older sister, Blanca, plays an instrument very well. Clarissa doesn’t know the name of the instrument, but when I prompt her, she describes a clarinet. Then she tells me that her mother wants to take Blanca out of her junior high school because there are too many children there who are bad. One boy was thrown out of the window recently, Clarissa tells me excitedly, and there are children who are “perverts.” They touch girls’ breasts. No one has done that to Blanca, Clarissa says proudly, because if they tried, “Blanca would shove her fist through their nose.”

The following week, when I take a group of girls out to lunch, they begin telling funny stories about times when their relatives got drunk. Michelle starts off the session telling about an incident in the Dominican Republic when her sister went to a party where there was alcohol and she drank from a cup that someone had put on the floor. That episode got her sister a good talking to by their father.

Justine told a similar story about going to a party where somebody put alcohol in the punch. When Justine drank from it, she got dizzy and her father (who works as a cook and counselor in a substance abuse counseling center) grounded her for three weeks. The person who put the alcohol in the punch was sent to jail. Justine went on to tell about an uncle who gives people money when he gets drunk. He once gave Justine $20.

Clarissa has a similar story to tell. When her mother is drunk, Clarissa says, she gives her children more money than usual. Her uncle does the same thing. This same uncle got into a fight with a man over the man’s girlfriend. The uncle’s sister, Clarissa’s aunt, rushed to her brother’s defense, threatening to kill the man with a knife.

Violence and family solidarity are intertwined. The next thing Clarissa tells me is that today is “family day.” Her mother is going to buy pretzels, and the whole family is going to stay together and play games. More good news: with the money her family anticipates receiving for participating in the research, Clarissa got new sneakers. Also, her mother is going to buy her a desk where she can do her homework.

A few days later, Mrs. Ruiz asks me to meet her at the school so I can be present when she talks to Mrs. Howton about getting help for Clarissa. She tells me that she feels too shy to go there herself. On February 3, I meet Mrs. Ruiz at Loretta’s office. Clarissa is proud that her mother has come to school. She goes out into the hallway to give her mother a big hug. I comment to Mrs. Ruiz that her facial expressions and Clarissa’s are identical. Mrs. Lynns comes out of the classroom to greet Clarissa’s mother as well. She, too, comments on their similar facial expressions.

After we wait for several minutes in front of Loretta’s locked and dark office, I go down the hall to see Susie Martinez, CES 518’s Parents Liaison, to ask her if she knows where Loretta can be found. I tell her that Loretta had mentioned to me the possibility that the resource room teacher would begin an “emergency intervention” with Clarissa. Susie informs me that Loretta had to leave for an hour. Since Mrs. Ruiz is waiting, and Susie is the school’s Parent Liaison, Susie offers to meet with Clarissa’s mother in Loretta’s stead.

Susie asks Mrs. Ruiz if she prefers to speak in English or Spanish. Mrs. Ruiz says she speaks both. The conversation continues in English. Susie begins by describing her role as the school liaison with parents. She enumerates the education programs for parents that CES 518 conducts to prepare parents to help their children. One option, Susie explains, would be to teach Mrs. Ruiz how to teach Clarissa: the program is called “Reading Recovery.” Mrs. Ruiz says nothing. Realizing that Mrs. Ruiz doesn’t feel able to teach Clarissa to read, Susie mentions that she is trying to set up an after-school homework help group. She needs additional parent involvement. Could Mrs. Ruiz help? Mrs. Ruiz explains that she has four children going to school; she doesn’t really have time to participate in an after-school program. Finally, Susie suggests that if Clarissa can get to school early in the morning, by 8:00 a.m., Susie herself will teach Clarissa phonics. Clarissa says that she always gets to school by 8 o’clock, and Susie says that she will talk to the security guard to give Clarissa a pass to enter the school early in the morning.

Throughout the conversation, Susie makes sure to praise Clarissa for working hard, for “making the effort.” She suggests that the resource room teacher might provide additional help. Maybe Mrs. Pound, the resource room teacher, could take Clarissa out of the classroom during the school day, as she does with Carlos. Susie says that this is not certain; there have been cutbacks that reduce the amount of help the school can give children, but perhaps within the next few months, they may be able to set something up for Clarissa. Clarissa doesn’t seem to like this idea. She would not look forward to being pulled out of Mrs. Lynns’ class, away from her friends. Besides, getting singled out as needing help, as Carlos is every day when he leaves for the resource room, is the last thing Clarissa wants.

Since Clarissa seems unenthusiastic about getting resource room assistance, and since resources are limited, Susie asks again if there is someone at home who could help Clarissa. Her older sister? Any friends or classmates in the building where Clarissa lives? I mention that Clarissa often asks Lisette to help her. Mrs. Ruiz is skeptical; she doesn’t know Lisette’s mother. We agree that Clarissa and Lisette will ask Lisette’s mother to allow the girls to study together.

Susie leaves the room to find a phonics book for Clarissa. While she is away, the principal stops by and I introduce him to Mrs. Ruiz. He doesn’t appear to know who Clarissa is, and he looks uncomfortable. After he leaves, I try to introduce Mrs. Ruiz to Gilbert Reno, Clarissa’s reading teacher. But he’s busy disciplining one of his students, and I never get to make the introduction. Nevertheless, when Susie returns with the phonics book, Clarissa looks happier. Although Mrs. Ruiz has said very little, Clarissa is pleased that her mother has come to school and is happy to have a book from which to study.

Evaluating Clarissa—The Process

After this meeting, the wheels continue to grind slowly and fitfully. One week after the meeting between Mrs. Ruiz and Susie Martinez, Shelley Howell (the school’s Educational Evaluator) comes to Mrs. Lynns’ classroom to speak with Mrs. Lynns about Clarissa. She complains that Clarissa was done a disservice by being put in fifth grade when her reading score was only at the fourth percentile nationally. She suggests that Clarissa be evaluated to determine whether she suffers from any learning disabilities.

That same day Clarissa comes in late, explaining that her father and sister have overslept. As a result, she missed her appointment with Susie to learn phonics. It’s a cold day, and Clarissa is shivering in her tee shirt. I bring her to Susie’s office to see if Susie can find her a sweater to wear. Susie promises to look for one.

When I get home from school that day, I find a message from Mrs. Ruiz on my phone machine. She has received her first payment but is unable to cash it because the store won’t accept a check made out to Clarissa. I call her back and suggest that she sign the check over to me, so I can cash it for her. Mrs. Ruiz tells me that Clarissa is feeling happy because she has gotten her new desk.

Although this is good news, things aren’t going so well on other fronts. On February 24, Clarissa tells me she got to school late and once again missed her appointment with Mrs. Martinez. Susie tells me that she had been at a meeting until 8:15 a.m. and might have missed Clarissa. So far, Clarissa has been able to attend only one tutoring session, mostly because she’s missed school because of a lingering ear infection. Both Susie Martinez and I are getting discouraged. Clarissa suggests that maybe Mrs. Martinez could be her reading teacher. When I relay this information to Susie, she tells me that Clarissa needs to be evaluated to find out why she forgets so easily. She also suggests that Clarissa has an attention problem.

I am troubled to hear that Mrs. Martinez believes that Clarissa has a learning disability, and I am frustrated because I know that no steps have yet been taken to refer Clarissa for an evaluation. I know the delay does not stem from indifference. In early March, the principal shows his concern for Clarissa by agreeing to allow her to attend the new after-school program, aimed at helping children who are reading near 50 percent reading level to raise their scores to above 50 percent on the upcoming important fifth grade reading test to be administered in April. The principal’s decision means a lot to me. Clarissa is clearly not going to improve enough in one month to go over 50 percent, so giving her a spot in the program is not an “efficient” use of the school’s money. Clarissa’s need is recognized, however. CES 518 is trying to help her. (At the same time, I can’t help but wonder about the wisdom of spending money to help children who have a chance to go from below 50 percent to above 50 percent, but not helping the children who are doing significantly worse.)

Ten days later, Clarissa is attending the after-school program, but nothing has been done yet to begin her educational evaluation. Working with Clarissa and some of her classmates that day helps me to see better where Clarissa’s strengths and weaknesses lie. March 4 is the day students get back the tests, determing what reading class they should be in. Mrs. Lynns asks me to work with Justine, who failed the test with a score of 54, but it turns out that Alicia and Clarissa have not done well on the test either, so I decide to work with all three girls.

When I begin going over Justine’s test with her, we find some questions that ask students about how to use an almanac. Justine tells me she doesn’t know what an almanac is; clearly, her low score reflects lack of general knowledge (as defined by American mainstream culture), not a specific reading problem.

When we get to a section that asks students to decide the base words of complex words, I discover that while Justine and Alicia have problems determining the correct answers, Clarissa can do these. But when we come to the reading comprehension section, all three girls have trouble. When the test asks students to identify the main idea of a paragraph, and there are two plausible answers, all three girls do no better than if they were randomly guessing.

After working with the girls, I tell Mrs. Lynns that Clarissa got the base word questions correct and, therefore, scored a 50 on the test. (Clarissa had not taken the test on the day it was given because, once again, she had been absent). Mrs. Lynns compliments Clarissa for getting half the questions right. Clarissa seems surprised to be praised.

Nicole scored a 65 on the test and requested that she work with Alicia, Clarissa, Justine and me, but Mrs. Lynns ruled that Nicole had to retake her math test before she could work with us. As the three girls and I report to Mrs. Lynns that we’ve gone over the reading test, Nicole begins to cry. Although Mrs. Lynns is gentle with her, Nicole continues weeping. I ask Mrs. Lynns if she wants me to talk with Nicole while she conducts the class, and she agrees.

When I ask Nicole what she wants to do, she doesn’t answer and just keeps crying. I suggest that we go to the Parents’ Association room. When we get there, Nicole refuses to tell me what’s bothering her, but finally, she laughs when I make jokes about my asking her too many dumb questions. She agrees to go over the reading test with me.

When I go back to the classroom to pick up the reading test, Clarissa asks me if she can join us. I tell her that it’s up to Nicole because Nicole is the one who is so upset. Nicole says it’s okay for Clarissa to work with us, and we go over the wrong answers. Then the girls start retaking the test. By then, Nicole is feeling fine.

March 11 is the day we finally start making progress toward getting Clarissa appropriate help, but the day does not start out that way. Clarissa is sick, but she comes to school because she doesn’t want to miss being fitted for her cap and gown. But before long, Clarissa complains that she’s feeling too ill to stay in school and goes to the office to call her mother to come for her.

When Mrs. Ruiz comes to school, I take her downstairs to talk to Shelly Howell, who explains to her that to speed up the process of Clarissa’s evaluation, Mrs. Ruiz could write a letter and bring it, by hand, to the District 9 Committee for Special Education. Mrs. Howell takes the opportunity to explain the evaluation process to Mrs. Ruiz and offers to let Clarissa do a reading program with her after school on Mondays and Fridays, in addition to the Wednesday after-school program that Clarissa has recently begun.

I am not surprised by Shelly’s aggressive offer of help; Loretta has already told me that when Shelly takes up a student’s cause, she is capable of prodigious efforts. A friend, Virginia Patou, whom I met through Loretta, always praises Mrs. Howell “to the sky” for finding resources to help her own son overcome his severe reading problems. (Mrs. Howell’s efforts get Virginia’s son admitted to a private boarding school for children with learning disabilities, but the school’s scholarship offer is insufficient, and Virginia must decline it.)

Mrs. Howell’s encouragement spurs Mrs. Ruiz to act immediately. She agrees to file the request, and asks me to sit down and write the letter. I write the letter, Mrs. Ruiz signs it, and then she asks me to drive her to the headquarters of the Committee on Special Education, where she can file the papers.

We drop Clarissa off at home and drive down Tremont Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial street. On the way, Mrs. Ruiz shares more of her family’s history. She tells me that her oldest daughter, Blanca, had been held over in fourth grade at CES 518, but she has never learned to read well. Her youngest daughter, Theresa, is the best reader of her four children.

Mrs. Ruiz tells me that she came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was three and has never returned to visit. Her two sisters return frequently, however. When I tell Mrs. Ruiz how much I had enjoyed visiting Puerto Rico in the winter time, she replies that she would like to visit there, too, but not to live. She also mentions that when she was a schoolgirl, her mother never came to school and paid no attention to her education.

When our car passes Junior High School 22, Mrs. Ruiz tells me that she doesn’t like the school because there is too much fighting—Dominicans against Puerto Ricans. “Everyone is racist,” Mrs. Ruiz says. Last year, she tells me, a teacher was killed at Junior High School 22. Junior High School 147, which Blanca attends, is better, and it’s nearer their home.

At this point, I feel confident enough to ask Mrs. Ruiz about her husband’s employment. She tells me that Mr. Vega is not working and that the family lives on welfare. The family doesn’t have much money, Mrs. Ruiz says, but the Supplemental Security Income check that Theresa receives really helps. Her husband usually works as an assistant to building janitors, painting and taking out garbage. His last job paid only $100 for two days work, so Mr. Vega quit. He’s having a hard time finding new jobs because when employers discover he doesn’t speak English, they won’t hire him.

We arrive at the headquarters of the Committee on Special Education and sit in a waiting room for thirty minutes before Mrs. Ruiz is admitted beyond the locked door by an armed security guard. During this time, she tells me that her children have been having stomach pains, which she blames on food from the school cafeterias. “If I had more money,” she tells me, “I’d bring all my kids lunch.” Blanca’s stomach pain has been so severe and persistent that Mrs. Ruiz is planning to bring her to the doctor’s office to have her checked.

As she talks to me, Mrs. Ruiz yawns over and over again. Catching herself, she smiles and tells me she yawns all the time. It’s because she can’t fall asleep until two or three in the morning, she says. Finally, Mrs. Ruiz is allowed to present her letter to a clerk. He tells her that it will take a week for the evaluation process to begin.

Getting Help for Clarissa

When I see Mrs. Howell the following week, she tells me that my bringing the letter to the office of the Committee on Special Education with Clarissa’s mother has done a lot of good: Clarissa is now scheduled to begin the evaluation next week. Shelly tells me that she will not be part of the evaluation process because she does not speak Spanish. I tell her that Clarissa and her mother both speak English; while saying this to Shelly, I can’t help but wonder why she made the assumption that a Spanish-speaking examiner was needed. Mrs. Howell tells me that the social worker will determine this point when she fills out a language survey while interviewing Clarissa’s mother. “Maybe I will be able to do Clarissa’s educational assessment,” Mrs. Howell concludes.

By this time, two months have gone by since I discovered that Clarissa’s reading is weak, and Clarissa has had only one extra reading session—with Susie Martinez, in February. Clarissa has made it clear to me that she doesn’t want to have to repeat fifth grade when all her classmates go on to middle school. If Clarissa doesn’t get intensive help immediately, how is she going to graduate? Concerned that Clarissa begin receiving help immediately, I ask Mrs. Howell if she has begun working with Clarissa. “No,” she tells me, “Clarissa did not begin her reading tutorial last Friday, because Mrs. Ruiz was sick and Clarissa had to go home.” Mrs. Howell was working at another school on Monday and had scheduled Clarissa for Tuesday, not realizing that Tuesday was a half day. Mrs. Howell must complete a program this Friday, so she won’t be able to work with Clarissa until next week. She’ll start reading with Clarissa on Monday and Tuesday of next week.

The next time I see Clarissa is March 20, the dreadful day that Mrs. Lynns is absent and Nicole breaks down after writing “I hate myself” on the blackboard (see Chapter One). On the way out of the building with Nicole and Clarissa, Clarissa checks in with Mrs. Howell to see if we can use her office. Mrs. Howell tells her that she’s testing a student now and can’t help us out; she also gives Clarissa a hug and tells her she can’t wait to start working with her. Clarissa is beaming, delighted at all the affection and attention she’s getting. When I take the girls (and Virginia Patou) to the Italian section of the Bronx for lunch, Clarissa can’t stop talking. She entertains Nicole until Nicole forgets her misery. In the car, returning to the school after lunch, Nicole and Clarissa discover they both have older sisters who have been left back. They agree they have a lot in common.

By March 30, Clarissa and Mrs. Howell have a reading tutorial scheduled for the afternoon when they will work on phonics. While Clarissa is in Mrs. Howell’s office, showing off her work, Mrs. Howell pulls out her candy jar and lets Clarissa select a reward. She tells me that she thinks Clarissa could benefit from the private boarding school that has accepted Virginia’s son. Again, I’m puzzled. The school’s tuition, even with a generous scholarship, is way beyond the means of Virginia’s family. How in the world could Clarissa’s family afford to send her there? Virginia has been working hard with Mrs. Howell for two years to get her son into an appropriate private program; I can’t imagine Clarissa’s family doing the same. Even if they could get Clarissa admitted, would they want Clarissa to live away from the family? Would Clarissa really want to leave her mother, father, sisters, and brother? I’m careful not to say anything to Mrs. Howell that would imply that I think that Clarissa will apply.

On April 7, I call Clarissa and her mother in the evening to check on how things are going. Clarissa is excited; she says that when the family receives its next payment for participating in the research, they’re going to use part of the money to begin buying a computer, on layaway, and use the rest to buy more things for her room. The room is ugly now, Clarissa tells me, but it will become beautiful. The reading assistance she is getting from Mrs. Howell helps, Clarissa tells me. She stayed after school today until five o’clock, working on phonics and writing. She’s also been staying after school on Wednesdays with other students from Mrs. Lynns’ class. At first, Clarissa tells me, she thought these sessions were going to be boring, but they’re not. The children help each other and make jokes and it’s fun. Tomorrow, she’s going to be tested. (Mrs. Howell will do the educational evaluation.) One of Clarissa’s friends told her that the test would take a long time.

The next day when I come to Mrs. Lynns’ classroom, I’m surprised to see Clarissa; I thought she would be with Mrs. Howell. I ask Clarissa why she’s not downstairs doing her test, and she tells me she’s not feeling well. Mrs. Howell sent her to the nurse, who took Clarissa’s temperature and said it was normal. However, Mrs. Howell decided that if Clarissa wasn’t feeling well, she shouldn’t take the test. Clarissa is now sitting in class feeling miserable. I feel Clarissa’s neck, which seems warm, so I tell Mrs. Lynns, who tells Clarissa to go to the office and call her mother. Clarissa calls home from Mrs. Howton’s office. Her father answers the phone and tells Clarissa that he isn’t feeling well enough to pick her up at school. He says it will be fine if I take Clarissa home. When we report this to Mrs. Lynns, she reminds me to go downstairs to tell the School Office that I am taking Clarissa home. (I’m surprised that Clarissa has told Mrs. Lynns that her father answered the phone. Usually, Clarissa pretends that her father doesn’t live with them.) When I go to the office, the school secretary, Clara Diaz, tells me that if a parent isn’t taking Clarissa from school, then two school personnel have to sign her out and take her home. Mrs. Diaz begins asking if a man in the office can accompany us to Clarissa’s house, but at that moment, Loretta comes into the office and agrees to come with me. I make a joke about whether the school has dropped me from the approved list, but Loretta tells me that the school is being super vigilant, because the day before they let a child go home with a noncustodial parent, and the custodial parent came to complain. We walk to my car to drive Clarissa home. When we arrive at Clarissa’s building, I ask Loretta if she wants to accompany us in the elevator to ensure Clarissa’s safety (from me), but Loretta tells me that she doesn’t go into the projects. Since Clarissa is in the car when Loretta says this, I think her remark insensitive. Loretta waits in the car while I go up the elevator with Clarissa. Clarissa’s father meets us at the apartment door.

On April 11, Clarissa gets into a fight in the lunch yard. When the class returns from the playground, they surround me, recounting the details of the fight. I ask the students who were most involved to meet with me in the teachers’ lounge. I seat the children at a large round table, where teachers usually take their coffee breaks, and ask each child to tell me what happened. Apparently, the trouble started when Clarissa came up to Velvet and asked her if she was going to fight with Omega, who had been discovered going through Velvet’s desk. Velvet became angry at Clarissa and threatened her. Then Clarissa punched her and knocked off her glasses. Children from Mrs. Lynns’ class tried to separate the girls. Velvet felt threatened by all the children surrounding her. Shakur, a friend of Velvet’s sister, tried to protect Velvet but she got angry at him and hit him, while warning that she was going to get her sister and her friends to beat up all of the children who had threatened her.

After all of the participants tell their story, it is clear that everyone blames Velvet for the trouble. She’s been getting into fights almost every day; usually Alicia is her opponent, but today Clarissa got involved.

Velvet is the new girl in Mrs. Lynns’ class. She is a fourth grader who has been assigned to this fifth grade classroom because none of the fourth grade teachers want her in their classrooms because she’s disruptive. In her new classroom, Velvet is isolated and lost. Although she is bright, she is unable to do much of the academic work because she is missing some of the skills and knowledge required of fifth graders. She is not accepted socially since she arrived in midyear, after children had formed their cliques and friendships. Because Velvet is unable to complete some of the work, feels isolated, and is full of anger, she has become a disruptive force in the class. Thirty children were quite enough for Mrs. Lynns to handle; an angry thirty-first student makes the classroom more tense and more difficult than usual. The mere fact that Mrs. Lynns has been asked to take Velvet reflects everyone’s confidence in Mrs. Lynns. If anyone can cope with Velvet’s presence, it is Mrs. Lynns.

At this point, I try to tell both girls why they should avoid trouble. Clarissa seems willing to listen, although she has made it clear to me before, that in her family, people are expected to fight to protect themselves. Velvet, however, tunes me out; it’s as if the whole hullabaloo has nothing to do with her.

When I come back to the classroom, Mrs. Lynns is returning the practice reading tests the students took earlier in the week. The class average is 27. Some of the best test-takers, Annette and Mariaelena, got 35 and 34 correct, respectively. Clarissa’s score is 19, the second lowest in the class. Alicia, who had been in bilingual classes before this year, scores 16. Mrs. Lynns comments that 19 is not a bad score for Clarissa.

The next week Mrs. Lynns’ class takes the city-wide standardized reading test, which is important for Clarissa because School Chancellor Crew has announced that children scoring below 25 percent on the test will be held back. At her home that evening, Clarissa tells me that the proctor brought in to administer the test and to prevent cheating looked at Clarissa while she filled out her answer sheet and suggested to her which of the first forty questions she should recheck. Clarissa believes that the proctor did the same thing with Alicia.

I ask Clarissa why she thinks the proctor gave her advice. “She wanted us to get higher grades,” Clarissa replies. But Clarissa doesn’t feel the same way about Mrs. Lynns. “She doesn’t want me to pass,” Clarissa says. “How do you think you did on the test?” I ask. “I got most of the first forty questions correct,” Clarissa answers.

Clarissa’s account of the testing session surprises me since I had been told by several people that CES 518 was unusual because it did not “cheat” to get high test scores. I don’t know whether Clarissa’s account is accurate and, if accurate, whether the practice she describes is widespread. I do know, however, that CES 518 is now on a list of schools under review because its students’ test scores have been lagging. I have been told by several people that the personnel at CES 518 believe that this is because the present principal put an end to cheating when he became principal. As evidence of this, people pointed out to me that the school’s scores dropped dramatically and immediately as soon as he became principal. Since then, as his reforms took effect, the students’ scores have been creeping back up.16

My visit to Clarissa’s home that night is one of the most comfortable sessions I have had with her family. We start out eating the chocolate cake I’ve brought from a bakery in my own community, with the three youngest children sitting around the dining room table giving me the latest family news. Theresa tells me that she always gets 100 percent on her tests. When she finishes telling me about her school successes, Clarissa gives me a tour of the new features of the apartment, beginning with her room. She shows me the double bed where she and Theresa sleep. Also in the room is a desk, bought with the research money. On Clarissa’s dresser is a glass bowl with Chinese fighting fish in it. On the door is a sign, “Konck Before Entering.” I mention to Theresa that the word “knock” is spelled wrong. She rearranges the letters.

Clarissa shows me the aquarium and fish in the living room, where there are also two parakeets. Clarissa says her mother bought them with the research money.

Mrs. Ruiz, who had been mopping the floor when I arrived, apologizes for the mess: the house isn’t as neat as it was on my first visit. The couch is piled with the children’s school bags. Flintstone cartoons are playing on the TV, but no one is watching. Mr. Vega and Jennifer have gone out to shop. When they return, Mr. Vega takes a beer out of the shopping bag and pours some for his wife.

Clarissa shows me a book Mrs. Howell has lent her—Surviving School When You are LD. She tells me that LD means “learning differently.” Clarissa has already shown the book to her mother and has started looking at the book herself. I ask her about the assessment test Mrs. Howell gave her, and she says that Mrs. Howell told her that her math was good. The hardest part of the test had to do with spatial relationships, Clarissa tells me.

When I leave that evening, Mrs. Ruiz and Clarissa accompany me downstairs, and we walk to the local convenience store together. Clarissa tells me that tomorrow is Mariaelena’s birthday and suggests that I buy her a Mickey Mouse birthday balloon at the store. After I complete my purchase, I return home.

The next day, Mrs. Howell tells me about her assessment of Clarissa. She says that she will recommend that Clarissa receive resource room services. This is the lowest level of intervention provided for someone designated learning disabled. This means that after Clarissa is officially certified as being learning disabled, she will be taken out of her regular class for one hour each day to work with a specially trained teacher in a small group setting. This is the level of help that Carlos is receiving; Clarissa has already indicated that she doesn’t want to be pulled out of the class, as Carlos is. Mrs. Howell also will recommend that Clarissa be left back for a year because she is immature and has some learning problems. She also says that Clarissa should be provided counseling at school because she is too dependent on Mrs. Howell and me. Furthermore, she suggests that I attend the Educational Planning Conference, which will be held during the first week of May.

Getting to Know Clarissa’s Family

As the Educational Planning Conference approaches, Mrs. Ruiz asks me to accompany her. Although I have some reservations, fearing that I will be seen as overstepping my boundaries as a researcher, I agree to come, since Mrs. Ruiz seems to really want my presence. As we await the Conference, I get drawn deeper into Clarissa’s family.

On April 29, when I come to school, Clarissa signals me to come to her desk and tells me she wants to talk to me right away. It’s the last day for students to make their payments for the class trips to Medieval Times and the Liberty Science Center, and she needs me to cash a research check so she can go on the trips. She also needs money for new sneakers, she tells me. Getting money at once for Clarissa will be difficult for me right then; I will have to drive well out of the neighborhood to find a cash machine. I ask Clarissa if she can wait until tomorrow. Clarissa is determined not to miss going on the trips with her friends, so she asks me to call her mother to ask her if she needs the money immediately. I confer with the teacher who organized the trip to the Liberty Science Center, and with Mrs. Lynns, who organized the trip to Medieval Times, and they assure me that they will sign Clarissa up today if I can get them the money tomorrow. Then I call Mrs. Ruiz, who says it will be fine if I can give her the money for the sneakers tomorrow.

During a conversation with June Innes, a third grade teacher, she tells me that she was Clarissa’s reading teacher the previous year. She says that Clarissa is not dyslexic, but she has not learned basic phonics. Clarissa’s lack of progress probably stems from not getting help at home, June tells me, but she also thinks the school made a mistake when Clarissa was not left back in fourth grade. Staying back then would not have been so traumatic, June believes, but after fifth grade, it would be more so.

After I return to Mrs. Lynns’s classroom to tell Clarissa what arrangements I’ve made to get her mother money, she tells me that her father has lost his job. “Could you help him get a job?” Clarissa asks me. I tell her I’ll ask some people in the neighborhood if they have any ideas, but I make no promises. Weeks later, while Clarissa and I are attending a ceremony marking the unveiling of the mural done by the Arts Connection group, I introduce her to the principal, explaining that Clarissa wants to ask him for help. She asks if there is any way her father can be hired to do custodial work at the school. The principal answers Clarissa gently, telling her that there is a procedure for hiring custodial assistants; Clarissa’s father should come to the school to obtain an application, fill it out, and submit it to the school custodian.

Clarissa’s request that I help her father find a job spurs me to realize that I know little about Mr. Vega because I have never tried to cross the language barrier. I decide to ask him if I can interview him with the help of a translator. When he agrees, I bring a friend from work to visit Clarissa’s family. While I entertain Mrs. Ruiz and her younger children, my colleague, Gloria, interviews Mr. Vega in Spanish. He tells us a horrific story.

When the interview begins, Mr. Vega puts down the motor vehicle manual he is reading in Spanish. Gloria asks him why he’s reading the manual, and he explains that he wants to obtain a driver’s license. He knows how to drive, he says, and has been driving since he was ten years old when his father put two chair cushions under him and let him crane his neck to see through the steering wheel, but he’s never had a driver’s license. He even had a car, bought with the assistance of a friend, but one day it was towed away, and Mr. Vega decided that paying the parking tickets would cost more than the car was worth. Now he would like to buy another car, this time under his own name.

Gloria asks him why he’s reading the manual in Spanish, and Mr. Vega responds that it’s the only language he reads. He says that he can understand English a little bit, but can’t read it well. He doesn’t speak it well, either, because his pronunciation is wrong. He wants to pronounce words differently than they should be.

Mr. Vega shares information about his background. He was born in Puerto Rico. When his mother abandoned the family, José lived with his step-grandmother, grandfather, and father. His step-grandmother didn’t take care of him or feed him; he didn’t go to school because he looked dirty and was hungry. His father, however, “always looked after me. He would bring me food, and always make sure I had something to eat.” When he was old enough, he began to work with his father, who was employed by the state lifting garbage drums. His father paid him as an assistant. When he was young, José spent his money on alcohol and women. His father died when he was 13. On the day before his father died, he had felt something rupture inside him. He tried to get medical assistance, but the doctors told him that there was no room for him in the hospital. He died the next day.

In 1968, when he was 13 years old, Mr. Vega went to Chicago, where he lived with his uncle. He didn’t attend school and started drinking and using drugs. His uncle sent him back to Puerto Rico, but Mr. Vega had trouble with the law, so he returned to the United States, where he’s lived ever since.

In 1980, he met his wife, Annette, when he rented a room in her family’s house. Soon they fell in love. In 1981, they moved to Massachusetts for four months to start their own household, but he couldn’t find a job that paid enough to support them. They’ve lived in the Bronx ever since. (Actually, he tells me, they have never married.)

At this point, I tell Mr. Vega, in English, that Clarissa asked the principal if he could help her father get a job as a school janitor. In Spanish, Mr. Vega responds that he can’t apply for such a job because he’s participated in a substance abuse program for the past three years. If he applies for any job that requires that he give a urine sample, he has to withdraw because the sample will reveal that he’s taking methadone as a way to avoid using heroin. Mr. Vega hopes to find a job that doesn’t require a drug test, preferably in Manhattan, where wages are higher than in the Bronx. He used to have a regular job at the Westchester Country Club as a groundskeeper, he recounts, but after six years, he lost the job because of lack of transportation. Since then, he’s been doing odd jobs, painting and fixing things. “Whenever my friends call me for any little paint jobs, I just go,” Mr. Vega relates.

Gloria and I leave, reeling, after completing the interview. I press Gloria to recount every detail she can remember. I’m stunned that Mr. Vega has been so open and marvel what a difference bringing someone who speaks his language has made. By now, I’m feeling extremely close to Clarissa’s family.

I anticipate the Education Planning Conference with great interest. For several years, my wife has been describing these conferences to me, but I’ve always heard about them from the professionals’ point of view. Now I’ll be participating as a friend of the family.

Attending The Educational Planning Conference

When the Conference finally occurs, May 11, it’s almost anticlimactic. Mrs. Ruiz is very nervous and says little, but there’s no liquor on her breath and she listens carefully to what the social worker, psychologist, and educational evaluator all have to say. From a parent’s point of view, Education Planning Conferences are odd. The evaluators read long reports, which are written using highly technical terms, with few pauses for explanations or questions. Most of the details are impossible to absorb, but the highlights are clear enough. Clarissa fits the definition of learning disabled and will be classified as such so she can receive additional assistance. Her math and social skills are both okay; her reading and language skills are her major problem. She needs resource room help; however, her learning problems are not so severe that she needs to be placed in a separate class for the learning disabled.

Mrs. Ruiz listens carefully to the reports, which last almost forty-five minutes. At the end, she accepts the diagnosis of learning disability and agrees that Clarissa can be provided with resource room help. She asks whether Clarissa will be allowed to graduate from fifth grade in June and is told that this is a decision that her teacher, the assistant principal, and the principal will all make, not the evaluation team.

When we leave, Mrs. Ruiz hungrily lights up a cigarette. I can imagine what an intimidating experience this has been.

During the last four weeks of school, the school-based team, Mrs. Ruiz, Clarissa, Loretta, and the principal discuss whether Clarissa should be allowed to move on to sixth grade. Clarissa makes it very clear that she thinks she should graduate; it is painful for her to contemplate being separated from her classmates and friends who will be going on to middle school. Indeed, it’s the very thing Clarissa has been avoiding for the past three years. The school personnel are of mixed minds; they just are not sure that Clarissa will be able to handle sixth grade work, even with the assistance of a resource room teacher. The results of the city-wide reading test are not encouraging. Clarissa’s reading has not improved relative to the nationwide population taking the test; she’s still down in the fourth percentile. Although her math score is better, it’s still substantially below average. According to the chancellor’s guidelines, Clarissa should be left behind in the fifth grade.

While these matters are being discussed, Mrs. Lynns’ students are eagerly preparing themselves for graduation. There is a prom scheduled. Dresses must be ordered, dates must be arranged, appointments with beauticians must be booked. Then there’s the graduation ceremony itself, which requires an elegant dress, formal shoes, and complicated logistical planning.

Mrs. Ruiz tries to put off purchasing Clarissa’s clothing as late as possible to be sure that before the money is spent, she knows that Clarissa will be allowed to graduate. Finally, she has to decide; if she doesn’t buy Clarissa’s dress, it will be too late.

Ultimately, Mrs. Lynns and Loretta recommend to the principal, with considerable misgiving, that Clarissa be allowed to graduate, and he accepts their decision. Clarissa attends the prom and is thrilled. The entire family attends her graduation ceremony, and Clarissa ends the school year happy. I promise to keep in touch; she writes “I Love You” in my yearbook.

My Reflections

Clarissa’s story does not have an unhappy ending. In the fall after her year in Mrs. Lynns’ class, Clarissa’s mother ends up reenrolling Clarissa in CES 518, to repeat fifth grade, because there is no space for Clarissa in the middle school that Mrs. Ruiz prefers. Although Clarissa and her mother are angry at first (Mrs. Ruiz certainly resents having bought Clarissa a graduation dress only to have her repeat the grade), Clarissa likes her new teacher and is pleased with her academic progress. She receives resource room help, which she doesn’t like very much, but she also gets intensive and effective reading instruction from her reading teacher. Clarissa completes fifth grade successfully and begins middle school the following fall. She reports that her grades are better than before and that her reading is good.

While writing this story about Clarissa’s experiences in fifth grade, I have been filled with worry. Have I betrayed the trust of Clarissa and her family, of Mrs. Lynns, of my sister-in-law? Have I been unfair? Have I portrayed my subjects and the school in an overly negative light? Have I committed the ethnographer’s archetypical sin, assuming myself to be normal and everyone else to be in need of explanation?

Certainly, I did not begin this study being judgmental. It was not, and is not, my objective to apportion blame for Clarissa’s slow progress. I started out hoping to learn what facilitated and what obstructed cultural interchange between Clarissa and her family, on the one hand, and the school community on the other. What made it possible for the Vega-Ruiz family to learn from and understand the school’s culture so the family could support Clarissa’s learning and Clarissa could learn the things she needed to learn to succeed in school? What made it possible for members of the school community to learn from the Vega-Ruiz family culture so the school could support Clarissa’s learning? Conversely, what made it difficult?

I decided to write about Clarissa’s experience in a first-person narrative, including myself as a participant in the story and as a subjective observer of what took place. My decision was based on my realization that there is no way to disentangle my data from my own perception of events. I can make every effort to find out how the other participants perceived things, and I did; I can present their own interpretation of events as well as my own, and I have tried to do so; I can obtain and present their reactions to my narrative and integrate that into my analysis, and that is something I am planning to do. Nevertheless, in the end, this ethnography is, and must be, my interpretation of events, and so I have tried to present it as such, not as “the truth,” not as the objective record of an omniscient observer, but as the record of one particular human being, someone as open to the reader, as available for questioning and critique, as all of the other subjects of my story.

When I went home with Clarissa the first time, in early January, I realized her reading problems were not being fully addressed by the school; I then asked teachers and administrators why they thought this had happened. Their answer was that Clarissa was a child who did not call attention to herself, who got along with others, who tried to conceal the problems she was having. Such children can be overlooked, I was repeatedly told, because CES 518 has so many other children with pressing problems, children who are fighting, disrupting classes, or failing to learn English. This is certainly true; I experienced firsthand how overwhelmingly needy the students of Mrs. Lynns’ class were collectively, how close anger and even violence were to the surface. Whenever I had to cope with the thirty-one students on my own, when Mrs. Lynns went to the vice-principal’s office, for example, I experienced how much it required just to keep the students focused—on anything. Certainly, there were other children in the class whose needs were more apparent: Carlos often did not connect with the class emotionally or academically; Shakur and Velvet frequently erupted angrily; Nicole, Luther, and Justine often showed sadness or signs of depression. With all of these compelling needs being expressed, it was easy to pass over Clarissa, who always made an effort, always related to her peers, rarely admitted to not knowing something.

School personnel told me that “hard-to-see children,” like Clarissa, needed to have parents aggressively advocating for them. When the students failed to progress, their parents needed to ask their teachers what was wrong, how the family could help. If they got no satisfaction, they needed to bring the issue to the attention of the vice-principal and principal.

School personnel did not simply try to pass the burden of responsibility onto the parents. The school spent some of its scarce resources on parent education programs that tried to help mothers and fathers understand what their children were being taught, how they could work with their children at home, and where they could go for help. Mrs. Martinez, the school’s parent coordinator, aggressively recruited parents; she supported and nourished the Parents’ Association, and she reached out to individual children and parents. Furthermore, CES 518 provided professional development programs for teachers, some of which explicitly addressed how teachers could work with parents effectively. The case study of Luther and his family shows how effective such programs can be (see Chapter 3).

CES 518 went well beyond “business-as-usual” in providing opportunities for parents and school personnel to learn to work together to support student learning. The Elementary Teachers’ Network program that helped Luther was funded by a grant proposal that the principal wrote and endorsed; the crisis-intervention counselors who supported Nicole and her sister were hired on Federal grants for which the principal applied; and the parent education programs and the Parents’ Association received grant funding for which the school had aggressively reached out.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts, Clarissa’s reading problems were not addressed aggressively until I intervened, and even after I began alerting school personnel to the critical nature of her problems, it took an additional five months before Clarissa was properly evaluated and certified as being eligible for additional resources.

School personnel told me that Clarissa’s experience distressed them, but they said that similar things will keep happening to children whose parents are not aggressive advocates for them.

What can I contribute by drawing on what I came to know about Mr. Vega and Mrs. Ruiz from getting to know them with the assistance of $1,000 of Federal research funding? After talking with Clarissa’s parents, I know now how terrible their own school experiences had been. It’s not difficult for me to imagine how uncomfortable dealing with Clarissa’s teachers must be for Mr. Vega, who doesn’t speak much English, and for Mrs. Ruiz, who was retained in ninth grade four times.

It seemed that Mrs. Ruiz would only press for Clarissa to be given additional help if she had me with her to smooth the way with school personnel, to write letters and fill out forms, and to provide support and explanations. Perhaps this is unfair; Mrs. Ruiz did obtain appropriate help for Theresa, her youngest daughter, with the assistance of my sister-in-law and others. But I did not see Mrs. Ruiz act on Theresa’s behalf. Since my only experience was with Clarissa’s case, I sensed that Mrs. Ruiz was reluctant to move unless I was there with her.

My recollection of one encounter with authorities makes it easier for me to understand Mrs. Ruiz’s reluctance. On the day that we visited the headquarters of the Committee on Special Education to deliver the letter requesting that Clarissa be evaluated, all of the signs were discouraging. We were met at the door by an armed guard who challenged us before agreeing we could enter. We were told to wait without being given any explanation of what was taking place or what the office procedures would be. We were made to wait for thirty minutes, although all we were doing was dropping off a letter. The entire message of this experience was that parents seeking help were neither welcome nor respected.

As I write this, I remember that the official directing the Committee on Special Education is someone I know and respect, someone whose good intentions, professionalism, and expertise I can attest to. Nevertheless, for Mrs. Ruiz, who doesn’t have a car, who doesn’t have money to spare to spend on a taxi, and who had her own bad experiences in school, going to the Committee on Special Education to ask for Clarissa to receive additional services is certainly discouraging.

Keep in mind that it was not easy for Mrs. Ruiz to even have a letter to submit. She did not feel capable of drafting such a letter, and school personnel felt that it would be inappropriate for them to do so. Because of my research and my selection of Clarissa’s family as a study subject, I was available, but had I not been there, who would have written the letter? (If Mrs. Ruiz could not write the letter, Clarissa’s chances for special resources would have depended on her teacher requesting the evaluation; none of Clarissa’s teachers in third, fourth, or fifth grade had ever done so.)

Furthermore, the Educational Planning Conference was similarly off-putting. While the professionals on the school-based support team followed proper procedures, they didn’t specifically address Mrs. Ruiz. They communicate in the language of professionals, establishing their authority and expertise, but the effect is not to assure the mother that her child is in good hands; rather, the effect is to intimidate her.

Despite CES 518 making major strides in establishing partnerships with parents, to Mrs. Ruiz and to other parents like her, the school repeatedly sends out signals that it does not respect her, nor does it welcome her participation. For instance, when Clarissa is required to write all of her homework in cursive script, how is Mrs. Ruiz supposed to monitor Clarissa, much less help her? When Clarissa’s report card consists of a long series of ratings, without narrative or description, how can Mrs. Ruiz conclude that the school values her support in teaching Clarissa? How can parents believe that the school really wants them to be a partner when the parent-teacher conference is a fifteen-minute affair; when parents must bring their children with no child care provided; when parents must wait in line because there are no scheduled appointments?

In some ways, things are even more difficult for Clarissa. She enters Mrs. Lynns’ class in September, unfamiliar with her teacher’s style or expectations, while more than half the class know Mrs. Lynns from the previous year. Mrs. Lynns writes on the blackboard in cursive script and demands that Clarissa begin writing in cursive script as well. As a result, Clarissa cannot read what is written on the board during class, cannot read her homework assignments, and cannot even read her own handwriting.

Furthermore, school for Clarissa is a constant effort to keep up with a curriculum that marches relentlessly forward, even though Clarissa has not mastered necessary skills in previous years. Clarissa is not bad at math, but how can she keep up when she cannot read the math problems? The prescribed curriculum has little flexibility to meet Clarissa’s needs. Her teachers have so many other things to worry about that it is difficult to recognize when one student gets lost at sea.

16Not everyone agrees with this story. One teacher I spoke with said that students’ scores used to be higher because the students in the area came from stronger, more stable families. When I reported this opinion to Loretta, she disagreed vehemently. return to text

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