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At Newark School Striving for Turnaround, a 12-Year-Old’s Fragile Success

Grateful for Grandma, longing for Mom, a boy pours his heart into studying

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the entire Promise to Renew series about Quitman Street Renew School.

Credit: Amanda Brown
D’Andre is an academic success story at Quitman Street Renew School, where he has been a student since pre-kindergarten and is now in seventh grade.

On his 12th birthday, the first Friday in June, D’Andre took the day off from school. It was out of character for the boy, an honor roll student at Newark’s Quitman Street Renew School who was the sixth grade’s student council ambassador. D’Andre was elected duke of Quitman’s winter dance last January for his exemplary citizenship and in the spring won second place in Newark’s “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow” digital poster contest.

But the day off promised something even more appealing to D’Andre than a brighter future: time with his mother.

She was just shy of her 19th birthday when he was born, already her second child. Mother and son wanted only to be with each other when D’Andre was a baby. But she was descending into depression and drug addiction, and they could not stay together.

On April 23, 2006, a series of hardships brought the 3-year-old boy to the doorstep of his paternal grandmother, Doris Jean, who looked into his sad eyes and vowed to raise him. It was not what she and her husband had planned, and she had to quit her job managing a dry cleaner’s, but D’Andre quickly became their world.

From the nights Grandma Jean dried his tears as a little boy missing his mom to her constant presence at school events, D’Andre has seen the extent of her devotion time and again, and he couldn’t bear to let her down. At the same time, he has never stopped longing for his mother, and he’s held out hope that if he is successful enough, she will want a bigger role in his life.

And so he studies. He reads, and he goes to the library. Over the summer, he created his own home science projects with quarters and matches and researched such curiosities as whether Washington, D.C., is a city, a state, or none of the above. He has grown into a pride of Quitman, where he has been a student since pre-kindergarten and where he was showered in awards at a year-end assembly in June, a few weeks after his birthday.

Schools everywhere, and particularly in high-poverty urban areas, grapple with how to help students who have experienced traumas such as separation from a parent or having a parent who is an addict. Research shows that these so-called adverse childhood experiences are highly predictive of academic failure, as well as health problems later in life. D’Andre’s situation illustrates that, scholastically at least, layers of support at home and at school can help steer children in another direction, providing the safe base they need to thrive. D’Andre has that from his grandparents, from his father and from Quitman, where he’s seen the culture improve dramatically in his years there.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Jean, 68, walks her grandson, D’Andre, up the hill to school every day.

His grandmother, who goes by her middle name, has become a model for parent involvement, trudging up the hill each morning from their two-bedroom brick townhouse to walk D’Andre to school, getting to know his teachers and helping with homework. She routinely came to eat with him in the cafeteria until this fall, when he decided that, as a seventh grader, he’s finally too old for Grandma to visit, even if she brings a steak and cheese sandwich far superior to lunch line fare.

She and her husband have nurtured D’Andre -- Dre, they call him (last names in the family are being withheld for the children’s protection) -- into an uncommonly kind, polite, and studious preadolescent. Her son, D’Andre’s father, has also been a stable, caring presence in his life, as has his maternal grandmother.

As Quitman strives to reverse years of low academic performance and produce more students like D’Andre, he is a testament to the power of a highly involved caregiver, even with minimal financial resources. Jean, 68, is more protective of her grandson than she was raising her own three boys: No violent games on his Xbox, no Facebook whatsoever, and when he plays outside, she’s watching from the living room window, with lace curtains inside and protective bars outside. He’s an inch taller than she is now, looking like a high schooler at a stocky 5-foot-6 with a size 11.5 shoe, and she knows he would be approached about unseemly activities if she weren't around. More often, D’Andre stays indoors, watching “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel or building an elaborate dragon or tank out of Legos.

His success is fragile, though, and has yet to hold up in unfamiliar surroundings.

Foundation Shaken

Quitman Principal Erskine Glover estimates that the majority of his 669 students, who are prominently African-American and nearly all poor, are being raised by young mothers or grandmothers. Their involvement tends to start out strong in pre-kindergarten and wane somewhat as children age. Nearly all students have someone who’s there when called, Glover said, but the school would catapult to a different level if all families had Jean’s vigilance. The principal, frequently looked to as a father figure in a culture where dads are most often the ones absent, sees kids who love their parents unconditionally, regardless of any shortcomings. “You can stop doing certain things, and your son will always love you,” Glover said. “That’s just the human DNA.”

Amid classmates coping with various losses, D’Andre stands out for his response to adversity. He is the mini-adult who is consistently on task in class, tuning out preadolescent chit-chat. He was the one in sixth-grade English to finish his final project, an autobiography, in time to type it rather than turn in a handwritten draft. He requests makeup work from his teachers when he misses a day of school, which typically only happens when he is sick or has an asthma attack. His asthma, which seems to be triggered by extreme stress, is better now than it used to be, but it still caused him to miss more than a week last school year.

He holds doors open, removes his cap when he enters a room and cooks pancakes for his relatives. He has never had a spanking from Jean, who says his wise old soul must have been through this life before.

But he is still only 12 years old, and his fate is far from certain. In recent months, circumstances have pushed him outside the home he’s established at Quitman and shaken the foundation his grandmother has so lovingly laid. The influences competing for his attention come not only from the surrounding world but also from within his own family as his greatest dream appears to be coming true:

His mother is back in his daily life.

Sister Moves, Brother Stays

“I wish to accomplish three things in my life. For starters, I wish to get good grades throughout my school years, because I would like to be chosen to go to one of the most well educated schools and colleges in the nation. Second, I would like to completely accomplish school and college because I would like to get a great job in life. Lastly, I would like to play in the National Football League (NFL) after I finish college, because when I was smaller I used to enjoy playing and watching football with my father, and I still do. I expect to accomplish those goals with my head up and with a smile on my face.”-- D’Andre’s sixth-grade autobiography, Chapter 1: “Who Am I?”

Credit: Amanda Brown
D’Andre’s sister, Jaida (left), has attended four Newark schools in the years he has been at Quitman. Their mother, Taneka (right), has both their names tattooed on her left arm.

When D’Andre began pre-kindergarten at Quitman in the fall of 2006, he had a companion: His half-sister, Jaida, who is one year older, was briefly in a class down the hall. But Jaida was still in an unstable living situation with their mother then, according to family members. Within a year, she left to go live with their maternal grandmother, Eleanor, who was recovering from breast cancer. Eleanor took legal custody of Jaida and D’Andre and has raised Jaida ever since. (She remains D’Andre’s legal guardian, a situation Jean has never challenged for fear of hurting or losing him.)

The children’s mother said that, in giving them up, she hoped they would have a better life than she was capable of providing.

Through the years, as D’Andre stayed put, Jaida has attended four different schools within Newark, switching most recently this fall after her school was closed. Jaida, Eleanor, and extended relatives also moved earlier this year after Jaida’s friend and neighbor Zainee Hailey, 13, was killed by a stray bullet last Christmas while taking out the garbage with her 7-year-old brother.

Beautiful and boisterous, Jaida struggles with learning difficulties and tries to get D’Andre to do to her homework when he visits. One afternoon in October, she came home thrilled to tell Eleanor that she got a C on a math test. For Halloween she dressed up as a nerd.

At Quitman, meanwhile, D’Andre has found comfort and academic growth that is consistent, if sometimes modest. At the end of fifth grade, he fell just shy of proficiency on the state reading exam, but his score of 196 on a scale where 200 is passing was still one of the highest in his class. After participating in after-school tutoring throughout sixth grade, he ended the year reading on grade level and doing math a year ahead.

This year, a controversial new school choice plan in Newark resulted in an enrollment increase at Quitman, enabling Glover to break the top 16 seventh graders into an honors class that travels together from subject to subject. Despite the fact that assignments are supposed to be on an eighth-grade level, D’Andre says he would like a bigger challenge in math, where he has a first-year teacher, and in his favorite subject, science, where he’s had a substitute since the beginning of the year as Glover scrambles to fill the vacancy. His English teacher is a 20-year veteran of the school who is widely viewed as exceptional and has a record of producing major growth in her students.

At Quitman’s back-to-school night, D’Andre shows his mother, Taneka, a mood ring he got on a trip to Great Adventure.

Socially, D’Andre tends to get along with everyone but isn’t a part of any particular clique. His closest friend is a fifth grader named Arshad, who is similarly studious and looks up to him as a role model. Arshad’s parents recently took the two boys to Great Adventure, where D’Andre got to experience a roller coaster with a 132-foot drop and bought a mood ring that for weeks after he tried to keep blue (calm) and not green (nervous).

He also has developed a friendship with Cynthia Warren, a longtime Quitman security guard who took him to see “Godzilla” the weekend of his 12th birthday. He would like to be involved in more extracurricular activities, but Quitman only has a basketball team, not football, and an archery club he’d hoped to join last year was only offered to younger grades. He’s thinking about signing up for a new math club.

A few years ago, two charter schools tried to recruit D’Andre away from Quitman, but he declined their offers. “I decided to stay here because sometimes when I go to new places, I’m nervous about meeting new people,” he said. “No one that I knew was there. It would just be myself. I’ve bonded with a lot of people here, and I am comfortable with the principal and teachers.”

Jean supported the decision given how well D’Andre has done at Quitman. No need to mess with success, she figured.

‘A Very Strong Household’

In the living room, amid stacks of D’Andre’s books, Jean displays his many medals, including five for honor roll, two for Student of the Month, one for Scholar of the Year 2012-2013.

D’Andre was disappointed that the school didn’t disseminate honor roll medals each marking period last year, as in the past, but at the year-end assembly in June, he won math, English, science and honor roll awards. “Oh my God,” Jean said as his name was called again and again. “We’re gonna have to get a whole room for your stuff.” Families had not been invited to the event, held during the school day, but a secretary called to give Jean a heads up that morning because D’Andre would be so extensively recognized. She ironed a blouse and a pair of khakis and dashed out the door.

Two representatives from the school district’s Office of College and Career Readiness were at the assembly to present D’Andre with a trophy and $25 Barnes & Noble gift certificate for his second-place win in the city’s “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow” digital poster contest. His poster, made on Quitman computers, showed an ascending stairway, with the bottom step labeled pre-kindergarten and college at the top.

“This young man right here is a well-rounded individual, a great representative of our school,” Glover said as he called D’Andre up before all his classmates and teachers. “He comes from a very strong household. His grandmother is to be commended for the work that she has done. On behalf of Quitman, I just want to say thank you. Thank you, D’Andre. Good job putting us on the map.”

The principal told the audience about another reason he was proud: D’Andre had been selected to participate in a science and engineering summer camp at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), a nearby college. For two weeks in July, he would live in a dorm from Sunday to Friday while attending classes on campus and taking field trips with 51 other high-achievers from around the state, chosen from among hundreds of applicants.

In the days prior to D’Andre’s July 6 departure, Jean did not allow him to visit Eleanor and Jaida because she didn’t want to risk him having an allergic reaction to their dog, a pit bull-boxer hybrid, right before such an important opportunity.

Jean also called off a trip to attend a family reunion in her native North Carolina in July, saying she wanted to be available to make sure D’Andre had a successful experience at camp.

In retrospect, she says, it was mother’s intuition, knowing she would be needed at home.

Needing To Go Home

“Before I was who I am, there was my grandmother. She has helped me get through some sad and difficult times. She was always there when I would get sick. Fall and hurt myself or maybe the kids around my community were mean to me. So I can always count on her to be there. [When I was younger] I was very emotional because of my mother’s absences. Sometimes I would just cry all the time, but my grandmother would always cheer me up… I realized that I could go to her for anything. I really love her for that with all my heart. She is really the one who paved, and is paving the way for me.” -- D’Andre’s autobiography, Chapter 2: “Before I Was, There Were”

When Jean dropped D’Andre off at NJIT, both were distraught to learn that he would not be allowed to contact home while there. D’Andre had seen a phone in the dorm during an earlier tour and thought he would be permitted to use it.

Two days after the program began, Jean got a call. A camp administrator hoped she could calm a homesick D’Andre, who had been teased and bullied by his roommate and two boys in the adjoining room of a suite.

D’Andre later said they didn’t like him because he wasn’t loud and rowdy like they were. He was teased by other kids at Quitman when he was younger, but Grandma was always there to intervene, and he said the boys at NJIT were more mean-spirited.

Jean brought her grandson home that night, and the next morning, they both went to meet the camp director, Linda Hirsch. Hirsch changed D’Andre’s room assignment, putting him with a roommate he chose and in a suite with a counselor rather than other children. She said she checked in with him daily, and each time he politely told her he was fine. He attended classes, worked with a group to design a gravity-defying toy appropriate for use in outer space, and went on a field trip to a research lab run by ExxonMobil, a sponsor of the camp.

But when Jean picked him up as scheduled that Friday, he broke down and told her he couldn’t return for the second week. A weekend at home didn’t change his mind, and only she would go back for his laundry. Later, upon reflection, D’Andre felt guilty for giving up and decided he would like to take Hirsch up on an offer to reapply next year, now that he knows what to expect. “It taught me how to handle problems and kids picking on me better,” he said.

Suburban Opportunities

The summer brought other trials. On June 27, there was a fire in the basement of the Belleville, NJ, house where D’Andre’s father, Adrian, lived with his girlfriend and extended relatives, leaving it uninhabitable. (Arson is suspected, and in August, their landlord was arrested and charged with insurance fraud in connection with falsified vandalism at his properties.) Living out of a hotel for more than three months was a major financial hardship for Adrian, a warehouse associate for a trucking company who gives his mom and stepdad whatever he can toward expenses for D’Andre. So his hardship became theirs, too. Besides Adrian’s contributions, Jean and her husband, Ronald, live off their Social Security income.

In October, unable to keep up with expenses, Adrian and his girlfriend moved onto an air mattress in Jean and Ronald’s living room while looking for a new apartment. They considered relocating to Strasburg, PA, near her family. Adrian wants to stick with his job for now, but he is interested in moving in the near future -- and bringing D’Andre with him.

He is thrilled with how well his son has done at Quitman and thinks he would have even more opportunities living in the suburbs, particularly for extracurricular activities. He also wants to lift responsibility off his mom and stepdad as they age, though Jean would insist that they move anywhere D’Andre goes.

“I definitely want to see him in a better place than I’m in,” said Adrian, 41, who goes by “Big Dre” while D’Andre is “Little Dre.” Of his son’s academic motivation, he said, “It’s overwhelming sometimes. He does so much willingly. You don’t see that in many kids his age in the present area.”

D’Andre is torn. He has loved Pennsylvania when he’s visited, but he is also happy where he is. And now more than ever, he has reason to stay in Newark.

From Mother To Son

“Kind, smart, compassionate, thoughtful, caring, friendly. Love science, football, math. I like pizza. I like bacon. Universe, video games, reading, roller coasters.”-- Words D’Andre used to describe himself and his interests on a self-portrait, seventh-grade art class

Family members say D’Andre inherits his intelligence from his mom, Taneka. When she was his age, she also did well in school, especially math and science. Too well, according to her mother. She was teased for being too smart and too nice.

As a teenager, feeling left out among her peers, Taneka began to date older guys, Eleanor said. That filled a void created by the absence of her father, who left when she was an infant living in Okinawa, Japan. Eleanor was stationed there in the Navy, and he was a Marine. Later, as a single mother of three back in New Jersey, Eleanor said she was working too much to supervise her daughter adequately. By 17, Taneka was pregnant with Jaida.

“She’s really not a bad mother,” Eleanor said of her daughter. “She’s just a lost person. She never found herself before she started having children.”

Taneka and Adrian, a decade her senior, did not know each other well when she got pregnant with D’Andre. Adrian was not present for D’Andre’s birth by cesarian section on June 6, 2002, and Taneka gave their son her own last name, as she had given Jaida. Someday, D’Andre says, he would like to add his dad’s surname after a hyphen.

Taneka suffered from severe postpartum depression after D’Andre was born, but she was able to remain with her children as long as they lived with Eleanor. When D’Andre was 3 and Jaida 4, Eleanor was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the family began to split up as she underwent surgery and began chemotherapy. She said a doctor warned that her immune system couldn’t handle the germ exposure that comes with being around young children. Taneka brought the kids to stay at a friend’s place on the same block as Jean and Ronald. It was wild there, and that’s how little D’Andre soon wandered outside by himself and showed up on his grandparents’ doorstep. Although he has lived with Jean and Ronald ever since, Eleanor was the one who, within a year, became his legal guardian.

For a long time after that, D’Andre saw his mother only once every few months, and she didn’t always show up to scheduled visits. She lived a few miles west of Newark in Irvington with a boyfriend Jean and Adrian believe is a negative influence, and they feared for D’Andre’s safety visiting there. Instead, the boy would go to Eleanor’s house hoping Taneka would stop by.

The night before mother and son were to spend his 12th birthday together, Ronald was sleepless worrying that Taneka wouldn’t show and D’Andre would be crushed. In the morning, D’Andre dressed in a metallic vest and fedora and waited -- and waited -- anxiously in the living room as the day passed. Four hours late, Taneka arrived with Eleanor and brought D’Andre to New York City as promised, going to Dave and Busters, a sports bar and arcade in Times Square.

“The best part of his day is where he’s at now, with his mom,” a relieved Jean said that afternoon as she baked a red velvet birthday cake and Ronald bought a $19 ham, both eaten as leftovers that weekend since D’Andre was too late getting home to enjoy his birthday dinner. “We’re here for whatever he needs, but if he gets the opportunity to spend some time with his mom, that’s all he asks for. It’s like he won the lottery. Even though she’s not been that active in his life, he loves her to death.”

In August, Taneka’s boyfriend moved to Texas, trying to straighten out his life, and Taneka moved back with Eleanor in the hopes of bettering hers. Suddenly, D’Andre could see his mother whenever he wanted.

One Moment In Time

On September 11, D’Andre called and asked his mom to come to Quitman’s back-to-school night to meet the reporter who had been following him. She arrived with Jaida, who wore royal blue skinny jeans and red lipstick. Taneka, now 31, was in baggy jeans and a T-shirt with “#Skitdaddle” imprinted on the front that revealed tattoos of Jaida and D’Andre’s names on her left arm and her boyfriend’s nickname on her right.

Credit: Amanda Brown
D’Andre with mother Taneka (left), sister Jaida and paternal grandmother Jean, playing Rochambeau, a version of rock-paper-scissors, at Quitman’s back-to-school night.

They joined D’Andre and Jean in the half-full cafeteria as Principal Glover asked parents to support their children’s education by reading together and talking about the school day each night, and by enforcing appropriate bedtimes and wake-up times. They linked arms in a circle during a schoolwide game of Rochambeau, a version of rock-paper-scissors.

And they followed D’Andre to each of his classrooms and met all of his teachers except the science substitute, who wasn’t there. Taneka and Jean each took a form from the English teacher for parental contact information, and they sat at opposite-facing desks to fill it out. D’Andre’s mood ring was green as he went back and forth between Mom and Grandma, but he said he was more excited than nervous. In the hall, Jean fell behind as mother and children walked playfully together like siblings.

Back in the cafeteria, Taneka spoke candidly about her struggles, but she believes she has been present for the big events in D’Andre’s life. A mother-son dance at Quitman when D’Andre was in fourth grade stands out in both their minds.

In terms of her own recovery, she said, she’s getting there. She’s waking up earlier and looking into getting a job or returning to school. With a GED, she has been unable to find engaging work in the past. “It’s hard to get hired if you want to not be at McDonald’s, if you want a nice little desk job,” she said. She started studying to be a dental assistant but lost interest. She dreams of doing something in the medical field, an ultrasound technician, maybe. Something to make her children proud.

She said D’Andre is always in her heart, and he can call anytime he needs her. (Eleanor pays her cellphone bill for that purpose.) But on a daily basis, she feels she needs to be more attentive to Jaida since she is the one having trouble in school. “He can handle himself, no problem,” she said. Both D’Andre’s grandmothers see how hard he has worked for his mother’s attention and tell him he needs to be successful for himself.

“I cry sometimes when I look at him,” Taneka said. “Oh man, he’s only 12 years old, and to hear how he talks.”

In the next few years, D’Andre’s life could go in any number of directions. As his father is hoping to move him to Pennsylvania, Taneka would like to go to Texas -- whether to visit or to live is unsure -- and bring her kids along. More immediately, there has been talk within the family of moving D’Andre back under Eleanor’s roof now that Taneka is there, but to Jean’s relief, Eleanor agrees with her that he should stay put.

Credit: Amanda Brown
D’Andre’s paternal grandmother, Jean, and his mother, Taneka, sit with him as his social studies teacher gives an overview of the year ahead at back-to-school night. D’Andre has lived with Jean since he was 3, and Taneka has recently become more active in his life.

This fall, yet another potential path emerged. The seventh-grade honors students at Quitman learned about a program run by Newark’s Wight Foundation that prepares top students in the city to apply to elite boarding schools throughout the Northeast for high school. With Jean’s encouragement, D’Andre submitted a preliminary application; Eleanor has said she will back any decision that helps him get to college. If selected in the spring after a rigorous process, he would spend a year attending local classes to build his academic, social, and emotional capacity and then receive ongoing support once away.

However brief the current moment in time, D’Andre says, it feels good to have all the people he loves in the same place.

In the Quitman cafeteria that Thursday night in September, he asked Jean for permission to spend the weekend at Eleanor’s with his mom. Jean said she missed him; he had been there the prior three weekends. D’Andre pointed out that he’s with her all five days during the week.

“I love you, Grandma,” he said, hugging her tightly and pulling Taneka and Jaida into the embrace with them.

That weekend, he went to his mother, and he has gone again every weekend since except one: after his English teacher sent him home on a Friday, sick with a cold. Then he stayed with Grandma Jean, and she took care of him.

Sara Neufeld, a contributing editor for The Hechinger Report, has been writing about public education since 2000. She has been following Quitman since the beginning of Newark’s renew school initiative for the award-winning “A Promise to Renew” series with NJ Spotlight.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the entire Promise to Renew series about Quitman Street Renew School.

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