The Education of Assada

Down the street on Wisconsin Avenue, Assata Alternative High School is a common sight for many Marquette students. But little is known of the struggles, triumphs and lives of those inside…

*Names and likenesses have been changed to protect identities

 

“This be some Kindergarden shit, Ms. Felton.” Demarco yells from the back of the room. The contention flies and, yet, receives no response.

But things like this are expected out of DeMarco, the student who yelled. He is honest to a fault and a constant critic of the methodical repetition of the school day.

Today, DeMarco and his classmates are identifying different parts of a newspaper, such as bylines, datelines and headlines, and cutting them out to paste on a piece of construction paper.

The students were getting familiar with the newspaper lingo. DeMarco wasn’t.

So he folded his hands on the table in front of him and put his head down on top. His chin sat on top of his forearms the way a dog lays after a walk that went too far. Today was too much for DeMarco. He didn’t want to do his work. He didn’t know any other way to handle it.

Felton never came over to him once to have him lift his head up. In one hour she only had enough hands to help the students who wanted to do their work.

The entire hour is full of decisions on whom to help. Every student at least once will ask for one-on-one attention and most of the time, it’s so Felton can answer a question that the student already knows the answer to. Sometimes all they need is for her to tell them that.

The help they seek is as diverse as their personalities. Some students want to verify every answer they write down, some just need occasional clarification and some ask every day what time class gets out.

The barrage of questions and undisciplined method of presenting them makes the classroom a free-for-all at times, with one student yelling over another, while most questions are drowned out by side conversations. At no point during the day is the classroom ever silent. Not when the students first walk in, not when the teacher is talking, not even during the silent reading period. There is always yelling, always laughing.

Mondays are the most difficult
for Felton. Mondays always have the best attendance. The more students she has in class, the more difficult her job is. It works like a perfect science.

Felton works at Assata Alternative High School. It sits less than a block off of Marquette’s campus. For most, it remains unnoticed.

The school, started in 1992, was founded to help struggling Milwaukee Public School students graduate high school or receive their GEDs. The school started with one classroom and a handful of students. Today more than 100 students grades 9-12 attend Assata. The school is for students who have been labeled as “At Risk” of dropping out of public schools, have truancy problems, behavior problems, are teen parents, are adjudicated youth or whose skills are two or more years behind their grade level.

The school was started by a former Milwaukee Public School teacher. She, with a list of the kids who had dropped out of public school, went door-to-door looking for students who were willing to give high school a second shot.

These were her first students. Most eventually graduated.

Even today, the school’s interior is reminiscent of its humble beginnings. There are no desks in Felton’s first hour class. Instead, three rows of tables stretch the length of the classroom. Each spot marked by a metal folding chair. Each row could use one less table to save space in the classroom already marred by clutter.

The classroom has five computers, four of them taking up space on the wood counter on the classrooms far wall. The fifth sits on the teacher’s desk in front. Two of the computers on the counter and the one on the teacher’s desk haven’t turned on in a year. Felton says they were broken in classroom fights.

Crates of textbooks line the back and side counters. Each crate is filled to the top, only holding about seven books each.

The only natural light that comes into the square classroom is that which peaks through the tiny windows that line the top of the room, just before the wall meets the ceiling. The windows are small squares with an opaque finish.

Felton’s classroom is the only one in the basement. Only a hallway connects it to the lunchroom. The longer her class rolls on, the louder the lunchroom chatter gets. School rules don’t allow students who come late to go join their first hour classes. Instead, they wait in the lunchroom for their second hour class to start. For first hour, they have to take the absence.

The more students show up late, the more Felton battles the noise of the lunchroom which howls through the walls and the cracks under the door.

Halfway through class, one of Felton’s first hour students, Marcus, swings open the door. Whenever the door opens, it ruins what little classroom atmosphere was present. In the case of Marcus’s entrance, the classroom is completely taken off course, mainly the row of boys in the back.

Felton tells Marcus to return to the lunchroom, but by that time, he has already taken a spot in the back row.

“Marcus,” Felton repeats. But once again, she is ignored. Finally she gets in front of him but even then doesn’t appear to have his full attention.

“Marcus, aren’t you supposed to be in the lunchroom?”

“No, I’m supposed to be here,” Marcus says. The back row explodes in laughter. Even Marcus struggles to hold himself back.

“No,” Felton says, “I think you are supposed to be in the lunchroom.”

Marcus’ expression shifts. What’s left of the laughter is only coming out in small pockets of the back row. His crooked smile turns into a more serious glare.

“They told me to come in here,” Marcus says with a cold, fixed stare. In the seconds it took for him to respond, his expression had taken a complete turn. He says it with emphasis. He says it with purpose.

Felton just looks back, with no sign of challenging him.

“OK,” she says with a soft grin.

Marcus slouches back down in his chair and folds his arms. He keeps his eyes fixed on Felton as she returns back to the student she had been helping.

By 9:05, the classroom is abandoned. The tables are covered in books and scrap paper. Pens and glue sticks lay on the ground. Some students even leave behind sweatshirts and bags.

At 9:20 they come back to the classroom for silent reading. Felton had asked the students to pick up their areas before they left. Almost nobody listened.

DeMarco was the last one out of the classroom for breakfast. As he dragged his feet through the doorway, Felton asked him if he had finished the day’s work.

“No,” he responded, never lifting his head up.

“Why is that?” asked Felton.

He never answered. Just walked out the door.