Age 14 | Stuart-Hobson Middle School
8th grade student
Mikel Robinson has a dream for the future, and he’s also got a backup plan.
He’d love to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, and become a pro basketball player, but Mikel knows that only a few manage that. So he’s set his sights on a high school that has both a good engineering program and a good basketball team.
“I want to be something in life,” he says, “a basketball player. Or I’ve got a backup plan as a engineer.”
Coaches from several high schools came to watch him play and pressed Mikel to join their teams. But he applied to only one of those schools: Roosevelt High, a traditional comprehensive high school in the District of Columbia, and got in. District 8th graders who opt not to attend their feeder high schools—Eastern High, in Mikel’s case—can choose from a range of high schools with lottery- or application-based enrollments.
His mother, a hospital aide who graduated from Eastern, wanted something better for her son; he says she insisted he try for one of the lottery or application schools. Mikel was accepted, also, to the school district’s Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High, which offers strong career-technical education alongside its academics.
In Dowan McNair-Lee’s class at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Mikel tends to be quiet. He takes notes and fills in his worksheets, sometimes doodling if his concentration wanes. Only rarely does he raise his hand to chime in to class discussions.
Mikel has his share of academic struggles; last year, as a 7th grader, his reading level was low enough that he participated in the Read 180 program, which his school uses for students who are two to five grade levels behind. He spent double periods daily in that program and was also pulled out of his electives periodically for reading support.
By the end of 7th grade, Mikel’s reading had improved enough that he left Read 180. But as an 8th grader, though he says English is “easy,” Mikel has earned D’s every quarter so far in that class. His scores on interim assessments have improved dramatically during the year, but he is still answering only about half the questions correctly. He fails to turn in more than a few classroom assignments.
Mikel doesn’t mind annotating text passages; he kind of likes underlining key details and ideas, and he says it helps him remember the important things he reads. But he hates writing assignments, especially the portions of tests that ask him to write paragraphs instead of choose from several supplied answers.
“Yeah, those are the hardest,” he says.
Ms. McNair-Lee is all too aware of what his aversion to writing has done to his grades; she notices that many of the assignments he doesn’t turn in are writing assignments. And she senses that his academics don’t get much support at home.
Even as he walks a delicate line academically, Mikel shines in the hallways and outside Stuart-Hobson’s doors. He jostles and jokes with friends at passing periods and has good records for attendance and behavior at school.
In the spring sunshine, he comes alive on the baseball field, where as the team’s catcher, he isn’t afraid to show off his athletic gifts. His quick mind, winning personality, and athleticism also show during football season, when he’s a running back, and during his favorite time of year—basketball season—when he leads his team as point guard.
Mikel is happy to own the connotations those positions carry: “It means I’m smart, and I make good decisions,” he says.
As he hovers on the brink of high school, Mikel often draws inspiration from Kevin Durant. “He grew up in D.C., too, and he came up through a rough neighborhood,” Mikel says. “His mom pushed him the way my mom pushes me, to do what’s right on and off the court.”
The second-best moment of his life so far, Mikel says, is when he got to meet the player at a recent basketball camp. What was the best moment? “That was being born,” he says.
Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Mikel Robinson