Math teacher Michael Mitchell speaks to his homeroom class at McCaskey East. McCaskey East has a new homeroom program that involves students to inspire to do better in school and persue college and careers.
During a recent class period at McCaskey East High School, T'onna Johnson's class discussed a film, learned about a college-visit trip, talked about designing a class T-shirt and was encouraged to sign up for a seminar on the importance of a good education.
This all happened during homeroom — that fleeting period when teachers take attendance, principals make announcements and students, usually, don't do much of anything.
Not at McCaskey East.
Every junior at the school has been paired with an adult homeroom mentor who tries to squeeze as much information and activities as possible into six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month.
The intent of the program, implemented in mid-December, is simple, principal Bill Jimanez said: "Let's make these guys think for six minutes about their future."
Every junior — the class that will take PSSA tests this year — was matched with a teacher who already had a relationship with that pupil.
But in the case of T'onna's class, there are other ties that bind the homeroom.
Every pupil is a black female. And their mentors are both female African-Americans. Across the hall, two homerooms of black male students are led by black men.
The all-black homerooms are part of an experiment to determine if grouping students homogeneously for a brief period each day will help them socially and academically.
"At first I was kind of like iffy because why would we be in homeroom together?" T'onna recalled. "But we work together and we do problems together, so I like it.
"Here we learn about how we can basically make a difference and how we don't have to settle for less."
The idea originated with Angela Tilghman, a McCaskey East instructional coach who was alarmed at the poor academic performance of the school's black students.
Only about a third of McCaskey's African-Americans scored proficient or advanced in reading on last year's PSSAs, compared with 60 percent of white students and 42 percent of all students.
Math scores were even worse, with just 27 percent of black pupils scoring proficient or advanced.
Research has shown, Tilghman said, that grouping black students by gender with a strong role model can help boost their academic achievement and self-esteem.
She and fellow instructional coach Rhauni Gregory volunteered to mentor the African-American girls, and Michael Mitchell and Willie Thedford each took a homeroom of black males.
No other students were divided by race, Jimanez said, although pupils enrolled in the school's English language learners program were paired with ELL teachers.
Initially, some McCaskey East students and staff objected to separating out black students. Some juniors asked to go back to their old homerooms. Others complained that the experiment ran counter to the culture of McCaskey, long a melting pot of students and staff from many diverse backgrounds.
But Jimanez said the academic data dictated the school take a different approach with its black students.
"One of the things we said when we did this was, 'Let's look at the data, let's not run from it,' " he said. "Let's confront it and see what we can do about it."
In all homerooms, teachers are tracking their students' grades, test scores and attendance and encouraging them to engage in discussions around "goal setting and self-actualization," Jimanez said.
In Thedford's class, for instance, students weren't assigned seats but were asked to sit at desks at which he had placed such name tags as "doctor," "friend," "lawyer" and "father."
When his pupils arrived, Thedford asked them to sit at the name tag that applied to them, and the class spent several days talking about what it takes to be those people.
"Once they said it, they were put to the task to aspire to be that person on the card," Thedford said. "Believe it or not, those kids got a sense of ownership.
"If you can get a bunch of kids, no matter what nationality or ethnicity, to buy into something that nobody ever said they could do, that's a good thing."
Tilghman and Gregory's homeroom, dubbed the Black Diamonds, has discussed books and movies that emphasize strong relationships between black women. Last week, the students hosted a group of female black professionals who talked about the importance of getting a good education.
"This isn't something we're just trying to preach to you about," Tilghman told the class. "This is the reality. Black women today need education."
The mentors also have talked about common stereotypes about black girls — that they're aggressive, combative, "cackling and confrontational" and more interested in pursuing relationships than academics, Tilghman said.
According to research, black students tend to feel disengaged and alienated in school and "act out behaviorally because they don't perform," she said.
"Our first theme was sisterhood so we can get them to see that we're here for each other and they have people they can rely on," Tilghman said.
The mentors also shared with students a detailed analysis of their test scores and grades.
The feedback "has had a very good impact on me because it shows where we have our weaknesses and strengths," junior Hilarie Gbote said. "It makes me want to go to college and be one of those people who become successful in life."
Mitchell, a math teacher, incorporates algebra problems into many of his homerooms, focusing on the skills students have struggled with on the 4Sight, a test that predicts a pupil's performance on the PSSA.
He often cites to his students a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King: "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
Mitchell recently used the quote when he reviewed his students' progress reports and noticed a couple of them were failing gym class.
"They're all young. They're all strong. They're all athletic. But they're failing because they chose not to participate," he said.
"That's an example of conscientious stupidity. You can do but you choose not to do. These are the things we need to get away from."
Mitchell, who graduated from McCaskey in 1983 and "bounced around" the city's 7th Ward while growing up, said he has a lot in common with many of his students.
"There are things I can say to these young men specifically to get them to do things that maybe some of our other fine educators can't reach or touch," he said.
Mitchell doesn't agree with those who criticize grouping black students together.
"I would have a problem if every class period was like that, but it's six minutes most days and 20 minutes other days," he said.
"In that amount of time, I don't think there's anti-anything going on in that classroom that's negative and takes away from any other group or that makes students feel like they're not part of the school."
But, at the same time, he said, it's important for adults to address the issues that are unique to blacks.
He has discussed with his students how the city's unemployment rate is higher for African-Americans than for other ethnic groups, and Tilghman has talked about how statistics indicate that black males are three times as likely to spend time in jail as to earn a college degree.
All of the discussions point to the need for a good education.
"Part of my job is to hammer home the importance of taking seriously anything that's put in front of you," Mitchell said.
"I see all too often when students give up far too easily these days, and parents will allow this to perpetuate itself, and then students think they don't have to complete anything."
In the few weeks the homerooms have been meeting together, the mentors said, they've seen a change in their students.
"You notice the level of interaction is different, the way they talk is different," Thedford said.
"One of the simplest things you notice right away is, before, the pants were hanging down; now, they are up. The shirt is tucked in, where before, it was hanging out. That's tangible."
It remains to be seen whether the homogeneous groupings boost students' test scores. Pupils will take PSSA tests in March.
But junior Mikeos Ango said his new homeroom has already made a difference.
"It definitely makes you think about stuff more," he said. "We have great role models as our teachers right now. They've been in our shoes before, and so we learn something from them every day."
His classmate, Dominique Miller, said the homeroom has helped combat the common stereotypes about black males — "the same old kids who don't do any work, think school is a waste of time and just come here to see their friends."
"Now I'm happy that other people can see my brothers, the people I'm associated with in this homeroom, are hoping to better themselves, and the teachers are hoping to better themselves," he said.
"It's about empowering who you really are.
"It kind of makes me think that, instead of just being successful, I'm being a successful black male."