The morning of Oct. 4, the 20th day of school, Adam arrives with his parents at Swift Elementary in Edgewater, some 15 miles away from where he began the school year. He is assigned to Kara Staggs’ 1st-grade classroom, and Staggs assigns him a buddy—a Swift “veteran”—who will show him the ropes, like how to line up to go to the bathroom, how to get lunch and how not to “flip your card.” Under the disciplinary system set up by Staggs and her team teacher, Donna Wojcik, a flipped card means trouble.
But five weeks later, Adam (not his real name) still doesn’t know what’s going on. Indeed, it will take a whole semester before he begins to show progress, and only then because of a special program.
In the meantime, Staggs and Wojcik will have three other youngsters added to their original class of 32. None will leave.
Nov. 9 is a typical day for Adam. On this brisk morning, the class is studying opposites. Staggs says a word and asks the class to name its opposite. She writes the word pairs on a large sheet of paper and posts the paper as a reference for the next activity.
“Okay, now I want you to make up a book of opposites on your own,” says Staggs, handing each child a little handmade book to write in.
As the youngsters scatter to their desks, Staggs asks Adam if he understands what he’s supposed to do. He nods “yes.” Even so, when he gets back to his desk, he asks a classmate for help. But the classmate is immersed in his own work and gives Adam only a quick response. Adam is left staring at his blank booklet.
While the children work on opposites, Staggs and Wojcik call students one by one to a small table to test their beginning reading strategies, such as differentiating between a letter and a word and using the pictures to help them read.
The children clustered around Adam are writing intently and comparing notes. Adam picks up his pencil and starts to write. A classmate glances at his book. Adam quickly shields it with his arm and puts his head on top of it. When the classmate returns to her own work, Adam removes his arm and fidgets with his paper.
Ten minutes have gone by when Staggs calls Adam to her table to check on his progress; his book is filled with scribbles. “We need to start over,” Staggs says patiently, writing Adam’s name on a new book. She asks him to pull up a chair in front of her table while she continues to test the other children.
“OK, I want you to write, This is fat. This is skinny,” she says. The words fat and skinny are on the reference sheet, but Adam still appears quizzical. Finally, Staggs writes, This is. “Now write fat,” she says. Staggs returns to her testing, calling to a child who has been standing nearby.
Adam writes and erases and finally puts down his pencil to watch the children around him. After five minutes, Staggs stops her testing to help Adam write both sentences a word at a time.
By now, it’s 10:30 and time for homework to be collected. Students jump from their chairs to retrieve homework from their bookbags. Adam rummages through his bookbag but doesn’t produce any homework.
“Where is your homework?” asks Staggs.
“I didn’t get one of those homework pages,” mutters Adam.
“Yes, you did,” says Staggs. “Everyone got one.”
Adam goes back to his bookbag and unearths the homework sheet, undone.
“Did you show this to your mom?” asks Staggs.
Adam nods “yes.”
“Here, I want you to finish your book at home, and if you don’t finish it, I’m calling your mom.” Staggs writes on the cover, “Please help Adam with this.”
During a break, Staggs says the veterans in her class welcome newcomers and that many hope to become buddies. But she says they pay a price because newcomers typically take a disproportionate share of her time.
Before the end of her break, Staggs calls Adam’s mother to tell her he’s not handing in homework. The mom’s response: “Adam says he doesn’t have homework.” Staggs informs her otherwise.
“I haven’t gotten any homework from him since he started here,” she says later, with a hint of exasperation in her voice. “But he brings his signed field trip slips back.”
The first week of December, Staggs and Wojcik get two more new students, “Diane” and “Jenny,” who also transferred from other Chicago public schools.
Diane adjusts quickly, but Jenny “came in with an attitude day one,” Staggs reports. Jenny can write only her name and has trouble sounding out words.
December also marks the return of a student who arrived a week after Adam but had been ill for five weeks.
Another child also returns after an absence of several weeks. “This child got into trouble, and we had to call his mother,” Staggs relates. “The next day he came to school with welt marks all over his face. We called DCFS (the Department of Children and Family Services), and his mother pulled him out of school. Now he’s back.”
Meanwhile, Adam still can’t do his work alone. “I have to sit with him at least three times a week,” says Staggs.
On Dec. 13, students are learning about different jobs. Their first assignment is to “write” another book—that is, cut out pictures of a policeman, a mailwoman and a fireman and write a sentence identifying each occupation.
With the class arrayed on the floor in front of her, Staggs explains the assignment. Then she asks seven students, including Adam, Jenny and the boys who were out for several weeks, to remain with her. This group gets a second explanation.
Staggs puts Jenny and Adam at her table. Jenny rolls her eyes and makes a face at a student whose only offense appears to have been that she looked in Jenny’s direction. Staggs tells Adam and Jenny to cut out the pictures of the fireman, glue them into their books and write, He is a fireman.
A few minutes pass while Adam and Jenny look around the classroom and fidget with their books. Finally, Jenny cuts out the picture. Adam still has not gotten started. He picks up his scissors and starts to cut, then picks up his pencil and finally goes back to the scissors.
“Adam, you don’t need to spend a lot of time cutting this out,” says Staggs.
In the meantime, Jenny has only cut out one picture and has been falling in and out of her chair. Turning to Jenny, Staggs tells the girl to stand up and complete her assignment while standing up.
Again working with Jenny, Staggs asks: “How does the ‘F’ in fire sound? What is that letter?”
Jenny looks up at the ceiling, slips a shoe off one foot and does not respond.
Staggs then points to the alphabet cards that stretch across the top of the blackboard. After a lot of probing from Staggs, Jenny finally makes the ‘F’ sound.
Next, Staggs makes the “m” sound. “What is this letter?”
“P,” says Jenny.
Adam is still cutting out his first picture. Exasperated, Staggs grabs the scissors away from him, cuts out the rest, slaps all the pictures into his book and tells him to start writing his sentences.
Meanwhile, other students vie for her attention, and the class gets noisy. “All right, if you don’t quiet down, you’re going to have to flip your cards. After three flips, a note gets sent home to mom and dad.”
“Write an ‘H,’ Adam. …” says Staggs. “That’s not an ‘H.’ Try again. … That’s still not an ‘H.'”
It appears that Adam is really having a hard time comprehending, but he finally writes, He is a fireman. The next challenge is, He puts out fires. Staggs is getting frazzled and at one point lets out a loud sigh.
To a large extent, Staggs is flying blind with her new charges because none of their school records have arrived; records typically trail a child by several months, she explains. With records, she notes, a new teacher might learn “if the child has special needs or something important going on that would be helpful for a teacher to know.”
Even so, Staggs reports that records often come up wanting because principals have removed material that they think might bias the new teacher.
Staggs did talk to Jenny’s previous teacher, but that wasn’t much help—the teacher had said Jenny was on grade level, which she isn’t. Eventually, Staggs learns from Jenny’s grandmother that the child has been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder.
During a lunch break, Staggs, Wojcik and other primary teachers talk about why they think mobility is so harmful.
“This is the age that you either learn to love or hate school,” says Wojcik. “If you are starting behind and you don’t get it, you’ve got a problem that sticks with you.”
Adds Miriam Rosenbush, another 1st-grade teacher: “When children first start school, they form an important bond with their teacher and often substitute their teachers for their mothers, even accidentally calling them mother up until they are nine or 10 years old. When children move around, it is difficult for an emotional bond to form.”
And this bond is critical for younger children because much of their learning is mediated through adults, says Barbara Bowman, head of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development.
By February, the transfer pains have eased. Staggs is communicating more with Jenny’s grandmother. When Jenny is especially hyper, Staggs reminds her to give Jenny her medication.
Also, Adam has been placed in Reading Recovery, which gives him intensive, one-on-one help for a half-hour each day. He is making significant improvements academically, is growing more independent and is eager to show he can complete his assignments.
The transfer student who arrives Feb. 6 is not so fortunate. He is absent the rest of the week and then is transferred again.
“Some of my children have gone to four different schools by first grade,” notes Staggs. “We are usually the second or third school for our children.”
“Believe it or not,” she adds, “our transition is down this year. Last year, I had 40 students in and out. I was on the second page of my attendance book by this time. It was a revolving door.”