Special Report


By Linda Jacobson — April 23, 2003 13 min read
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After spending my freshman year in Chicago, my family moved to suburban Atlanta in the summer of 1979, and I entered Avondale High School with a mixture of indifference and bitterness.

I had been forced to be the “new kid” several times during my school years. But this had to be the worst.

Walking up the concrete steps recently, back into Avondale’s doors for the first time in 21 years, I feel a little shaky and nervous—probably not too different from how I felt when I arrived as a 15- year-old.

Set between a six-lane boulevard and a neighborhood of ranch houses and Tudor-style buildings, this one-story, red-brick DeKalb County high school is configured into three long corridors, connected by outside covered walkways, just as it was in my day.

Shiny blue lockers have been added in recent years. And those that aren’t assigned are kept closed with a long metal rod so students can’t hide contraband when the district’s drug- and bomb- sniffing dogs do their random checks.

Security cameras are also mounted throughout the school, and the images are monitored on screens in the main office. When I was here, our only security system was John Carswell, a large but kindly man who kept close watch over the school parking lot and ordered students back to class if they were trying to skip.

My first reaction to seeing the building again is one of sadness. The shopping mall just in front of the school where students would sometimes hang out after dismissal has closed down, giving the area an abandoned feeling.

Other differences are less obvious. More than 80 percent of the 1,000 students here qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a figure that experts say is often underestimated at the high school level because students—or their parents—don’t want to apply for the assistance.

“The kids in this high school need to worry about food, clothing, and shelter. They have no high school experience,” says Nancy Elrod, my former English teacher here who has come back to see me.

Avondale was an integrated, middle-class high school when I attended. About half my graduating class was made up of African-American students; the other half was white.

Linda Jacobson's senior year at Avondale High School in suburban Atlanta was short on challenging activities. Now a struggling Title I school, Avondale High is a far less leisurely place today.

But even though the neighborhood surrounding the school has remained predominantly white, those residents now typically send their children to private schools or pay tuition so they can attend high school in the nearby Decatur district. Today, more than 90 percent of the students at Avondale High are black.

Students dressed in blue and white no longer parade down Clarendon Avenue, the street in front of the school, during homecoming week. And those who work on the school newspaper say they have a hard time finding any local vendors willing to pay for advertising space.

“If only the community would support us,” wishes Lisa Garrett, whom I graduated with in 1982. She has two daughters now attending Avondale and volunteers as the treasurer for the band.

But Michael W. Worthington, the school’s new, 52- year-old principal, is more optimistic than I’d expected.

“The perception of Avondale and the reality of Avondale are two different things,” he says.

It’s true that a large percentage of students enter the school reading and doing mathematics well below grade level. But a recent infusion of federal aid is helping to address the situation.

After two years of trying, Worthington, who had been an assistant principal here, finally got Avondale classified as a Title I high school—the only one in the district and one of only a few such high schools in Georgia.

Traditionally directed toward poor elementary schools, the federal money has been used here to hire a math specialist, a reading specialist, and a reading paraprofessional.

Any 9th grader who reads below the 40th percentile on state tests now has to take an extra reading class as an elective. And if freshmen can’t pass an entering math exam, they must take an extra class in the subject as an elective. So instead of getting pulled out for remedial courses, they receive the extra instruction along with their general reading and math classes.

What’s more, now that 8th graders—who were condescendingly called “subbies,” or subfreshmen, in my day—have moved over to the new middle school, Worthington says they’re coming in better prepared as freshmen.

When I entered as a sophomore, I suppose I was glad the subbies were here, because it meant there was a segment of the Avondale High population that earned even less respect than transfers from Chicago.

In the fall of my sophomore year, it wasn’t long before I acquired a somewhat superior attitude toward my new school. We were studying Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—two works I had already covered at my previous high school. I think I even touched up an old paper to turn in again as a book- report assignment (just to be efficient, of course).

Despite my initial smugness, I quickly grew to like Elrod, my English teacher, who, with a pleasant disposition and an enthusiasm for her craft, encouraged and rewarded my interest in writing.

When I had her again in 12th grade, and she handed out a list of books we could choose from, I’m sure I tried to impress her by picking the most difficult one for a report, Milton’s Paradise Lost. I think she even raised her eyebrows and asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to make another selection from the book list.

Recycling old papers wouldn’t get a student very far at Avondale now.

Teaching styles are shifting away from lecturing and more toward integrated projects that require students to take a more active role in their studies. A few teachers here are using the Pacesetter English program. Devised by the College Board, it is based on the idea that students should learn to read and respond to a variety of texts, both classical and modern.

It’s a program that Nancy Elrod helped bring to the school before retiring in 2000, and one that she says helped reinvigorate her own teaching at a time when she was running out of ways to help struggling students.

And now in Room 106, her old classroom, English teacher Elise Crisp watches as small groups of 11th graders—some in face paint, pajamas, or wings made out of construction paper—act out stanzas from “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. One girl, covered in a white sheet and lying on the teacher’s desk, gets so immersed in her character that she almost leans back onto the lit candles used to set the nighttime scene.

Down the hall, Aliyah Aziz, who teaches advanced and British literature using Pacesetter techniques, shows me handmade books and dioramas students have created to adapt the story of Cinderella into other cultures, including those of India, Mexico, and even the American inner city.

“I want them to love literature, to love to read, to believe that they can do anything,” Aziz says.

Some of my more lasting memories from my senior year were classes in which challenging activity fell short. Because I had already earned my required 20 units to graduate, the only course in which I needed to work hard during my last quarter of high school was English.

At some point, I had earned enough good grades to qualify for the district’s Impact program for gifted students. I can still remember the wide-open classroom, with a few tables and a couch where we sat around listening to records—namely, Don McLean and a classical “greatest hits” album. Our task was to publish a newsletter for other Impact classes in the county, which we did maybe two or three times that year.

My other classes included working on the yearbook, and something called “tutorial,” for which I worked as a student aide in the counseling office.

Mike Gluck, the head counselor I worked for, is in his 23rd year at Avondale.

“This was the conference room,” he says as he shows me a room off what we referred to as First Hall that has been turned into the counseling reception area. “This is where you would sit when you didn’t have anything to do.”

Although I came back for the graduation ceremony in June of ‘82, I had withdrawn in March, after the second quarter, because nothing was left for me to take.

These days, teachers and members of the office staff say, it’s hard to find student aides because no one has a free period.

For students with at least a B average, coasting toward commencement is no longer an option. They are required to take either advanced or Advanced Placement courses. They are not allowed to drop out or leave early, they must take the SAT, and they have to apply for college, Worthington says.

“I run their lives,” the principal adds.

At least seven more courses are required for graduation than when I was in school, including two more years of math and two more years of science. Students must also prepare for Georgia’s state high school graduation exam, which is first offered in 11th grade.

“Mega-lo-maniac,” pronounces English teacher Marcus T. Searcy, as he stretches out the word in his booming voice, asking the students to repeat one of the vocabulary words that might appear on the state exam in three weeks.

If they work hard this week, he bargains, they can watch a movie on Friday.

‘The kids in this high school need to worry about food, clothing, and shelter. They have no high school experience.’

Vocabulary words and their meanings are also posted on the walls throughout the school. And several more AP classes have been added to the one or two that were offered when I attended.

“We really push [AP] to help their freshman year” of college, says DeAnn Peterson, a former engineer who began her education career a few years ago and now teaches physics.

“I’m having a blast,” she tells me after finishing a lesson on electrostatics for a predominantly female class. “I think I can bring a lot to these kids. My job is to make baby engineers.”

Her job, she says, is also to be as entertaining as television. And she shows that she’s willing to do that by making her closely cropped hair stand on end with an electrically charged balloon. Then, from a closet in the back of the classroom, she pulls out a small, clear box called an electroscope, in which thin strips of foil are used to detect static electricity.

But when she tries to demonstrate how it works, the foil pieces keep falling off. A young woman in the class points at me and says, “I bet that was here when she was here.”

Peterson laughs, noting that to complement her instruction, she has to buy a lot of her own supplies.

The major physical change to the building is the addition of the Kyle Theater, which was constructed at the end of Third Hall. The facility was built when Avondale housed the DeKalb County district’s performing-arts magnet school. But the program left three years ago—a change Worthington sees as a turning point for the school.

“Everyone thought Avondale would collapse when [the program] left, and it has done the opposite,” says the principal.

Having the performing-arts program on campus “only did more damage to my nonperforming- arts kids’ psyche,” he explains. “They didn’t know they were capable, because they were second-class students in their own school.”

After the program moved into its own building, interest in the arts dropped off dramatically. Slowly, membership in the band has climbed back to around 150. And school pride also increased as the boys’ basketball team made it to the state playoffs this year.

“There is this resurgence of spirit,” Worthington says.

My only expression of school spirit here at the home of the Blue Devils was a stint as a “B team” baton twirler in 10th grade. Because I had a close friend in Chicago who twirled, I had picked up a few moves that I must have thought I could use to help me fit in. Being second-string twirlers, though, meant we didn’t get to wear the same professionally made uniforms as the varsity majorettes. Instead, our mothers made our costumes— navy-blue polyester leotards with strips of stitched-on sequins.

But my twirling career was brief. I guess I decided that high school can be filled with plenty of humiliation. Why invite more?

Today, Avondale High no longer has majorettes. The cheerleaders and the dance team deliver the entertainment at games. The regimented routines performed by the all-girls drill team when I was in school are now provided by the school’s Air Force Junior ROTC program, which was established in 1995. Boys and girls, of all shapes and sizes, march in formation while a smaller corps twirls 14-pound “demilitarized” rifles, Col. John Lauer, who runs the program, tells me.

With 225 students—almost a quarter of the enrollment—involved in the program, JROTC has quickly become a popular course and activity at the school, partly because of the field trips and free sweatsuits, but also because of the sense of belonging and responsibility it provides, Lauer says.

“When you don’t have parents at home, your instructors become your parents,” says 17-year-old LaTasha Webb, a senior in JROTC who hopes to attend Howard University in Washington. “Everyone calls me the colonel’s daughter.”

Knowing even before high school that I wanted to be a journalist, I worked during my junior year on the Blue Star, Avondale’s newspaper. It helped that Elrod was the paper’s faculty adviser.

At the end of 11th grade, I was even selected as the paper’s next editor. But when I came back on the first day of senior year, Elrod told me there wouldn’t be a paper. I remember feeling let down, and of course was unaware back then of how vulnerable funding for such activities can be.

Publication of the Blue Star has resumed. We used typewriters to write stories; Aliyah Aziz’s newspaper students design the layout using the Adobe PageMaker software program and write their stories on computers as well. The tabloid format used when I was here has been replaced by 8-by-11 sheets of copier paper stapled together.

But the content of the paper is what has changed the most. Our staff wrote about school plays, award-winning students, and athletic victories. Today’s Blue Star includes a letter from a pregnant student to an advice columnist named Bonqueisha, articles mourning the loss of an Avondale graduate shot and killed by an undercover police officer, and a debate about DeKalb Superintendent Johnny E. Brown’s plan to require school uniforms.

Students on the school paper also admit that reporting isn’t necessarily anything they aspire to as adults. Aziz has been known to beg students to take the class.

“No one else wanted to do it, so I had to step in,” says LaTerece Clark, one of the paper’s editors.

‘‘The more they say, ‘You can't,’ the more we say, ‘You watch us.’ ’’

The students are also frustrated by technological mishaps that prevent them from publishing the paper. Printers and copiers sometimes go down, and Internet access can be slow—infrastructure problems that Worthington blames on “old-building-itis.”

“Mr. Brown’s so worried about our clothes. He needs to be worried about these,” says Ian Baker, a junior on the Blue Star staff, as he taps the side of the computers around him.

Despite the obstacles, the paper is a good representation of the tough issues today’s Avondale students face.

“We’ve changed demographics,” says Mike Gluck, sitting in his counseling office in front of a wall full of senior pictures of Avondale graduates. “Are the kids needier than kids in the ‘80s? Yes.”

Faculty members sometimes outnumber parents at PTA meetings, but Gluck and Principal Worthington acknowledge that many parents can’t participate in school events because they work two jobs or evening hours.

“We hardly see a parent,” adds Lauer, the JROTC head.

Yet among both new teachers and veterans who have been here for close to 30 years, I see those who are determined to help students succeed, and to overcome the image that others in the county might have of Avondale High.

“The more they say, ‘You can’t,’ ” says Aziz, “the more we say, ‘You watch us.’ ”


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