How do you pass No Child Left Behind . . . when you don’t speak English?
Cleveland Scene
April 16, 2008



Kathy Francescani sits inside a library storage closet at Joseph Gallagher School on West 65th. It's a small, rectangular space with glass walls and the feel of a bunker. Stacks of textbooks reach from floor to ceiling, bindings bright in blues, yellows, and reds, making the place feel like a fortified rainbow. This is her office.

Francescani is one of 12 literacy coaches who work at Cleveland schools that are deemed failing by the state. And Joseph Gallagher may be the worst: It hasn't met yearly progress goals for six years.

Francescani's blond hair dances across her shoulders, and she has soft blue eyes, almost like a doe. Before landing her current job, she taught primary grades for 20 years. It's apparent in the way she speaks. Her words are clear and melodic, spilling out like a sugary bedtime story.

But this is the first time she's worked in a school full of kids who barely speak English.

Their lack of language skills is evident in the stacks of test data that sit behind her desk. They're filled with statistics and scores for all 822 students in the Pre-K-8 school. And what they say isn't good: Joseph Gallagher is teetering on the edge of failure yet again.

The designation comes from the No Child Left Behind Act. It's that one-size-fits-all law passed by Congress, decreeing that every child's test scores must improve. And when they fail to as repeatedly as they have at Joseph Gallagher, the state has the right to kill the school. It's tough love to the max.

But Congress didn't seem to have Joseph Gallagher in mind when it passed the law. Inside the school's brick halls is a miniature gathering of the United Nations. Bosnian students walk in single file to gym class with Puerto Ricans and Albanians, while Ukrainians and Burundians take sips off a drinking fountain.

Many don't speak English. The ones who do don't do it well enough. It's like asking the children of Strongsville to suddenly become conversant in Farsi.

So due to a simple law, the entire staff at Joseph Gallagher may soon be fired because some 11-year-old named Nzeyimana can't use the word "prowl" in a sentence.

Joseph Gallagher rests between a row of ornate Victorian houses on Franklin and a row of beat-up colonials on Bridge. It's a three-story hunk of brick, with crisp angles and few exterior windows.

Surrounding the school is Detroit Shoreway, where multi-bedroom homes with cheap rent are ideal for immigrants and refugees. It's close to the bus lines, and up the street, there's a mosque where Turks and Somalis worship.

Among the refugees at Joseph Gallagher is Sheikhabdi Aweys, a petite 22-year-old who grew up in refugee camps in Somalia and Kenya.

When the teacher's aide was a teenager, Catholic Charities offered his family the chance to come to the United States. They boarded a plane without knowing what city it would land in. "Then we were given four months to find work, learn basic English, and find a place to live," he says. "It was frustrating."

As Aweys walks through the halls with soft steps, kids ask him questions. In one 20-second period, he talks to three different students in three different languages.

Whenever a new refugee parent comes into the school, Aweys is pulled from his classroom duties to translate. Depending on the family, the language of the day may be Maay-Maay, Swahili, or Somali. And within those languages are numerous dialects. The difficulty of such translations makes Sunday Times crossword puzzles seem like a game of Bop the Gopher.

At 10:30 in the morning, after math tutoring, he heads to the second floor and into a class for students who are newcomers to the United States. He greets the teacher, Holly Morell, and sits down to one-on-one reading lessons.

For Morell, a woman with a smile that could soothe an angry bull, every day is a fight. A gold cross hangs from her neck to provide hope.

Morell gives out her home number to every student, in case they have any questions about their schoolwork or what to do on a snow day. If there is something comforting about America, it's her.

The program she leads is designed to help the immigrant and refugee students, who pour steadily into the school each year. Morell gives them a crash course in survival English, teaching them things as simple as saying "Hello." In another lesson, she explains that "Sam" — SSAAAAMM — is a name, just like Muzamil, Congera, Npaweni, and Kapa are names.

This year, her students are a mix from Somalia and Burundi. They wear their poverty on their shirts, which were once white, but now tinged yellow. Like every student in the school, they're on the free lunch program. Many are forced to communicate like mutes, tapping and pointing to express something as minor as needing a pencil.

Along with language, Morell teaches simple customs. This year, she finds herself trying to break the students' habit of holding each other's hands. It's something she feels uncertain about, but knows that if they continue, they'll open themselves up to ridicule in the neighborhoods.

Fourteen-year-old Abdikadir is her unofficial aide-de-camp. He's about to finish the program and move into the English-as-a-second-language classroom. He's a round kid who wears a Shawn Marion jersey beneath his white shirt and airbrushed images of Tupac stenciled on his shoes.

Abdikadir functions as the school's interpreter when Aweys is away. He's the only kid who can speak Swahili, Maay-Maay, and Somali, and translate them to English. It's a ridiculous feat for a 14-year-old, but he'll get no acknowledgment from the state. The Ohio Achievement Test, on which the school's fate rests, does not give points to pint-size boys who've mastered multiple languages. The only language that matters is English.

He acts as the classroom interpreter. This afternoon, he has to explain to Morell that one student hit another student with a bag of potato chips. He relays the information quickly, annoyed at being forced to do their tattling. Then he gets back to the word-find puzzle sitting in front of him. All he needs is the word "puddles," and he'll be finished with his assignment. It's the one word that separates him from computer time.


Time is something Gallagher Principal Jennifer Rhone lacks. She spends her day jumping from academic maelstroms to administrative maelstroms, without much hope of getting free. Pinned to her door is her daily schedule, right down to the minute.

A Canadian flag hangs behind her desk. She came to Ohio from Ottawa, but Rhone looks as Canadian as Barack Obama looks like a typical kid from Kansas. Her hair is dyed auburn, and she can pull off large hoop earrings.

This is her first full year at Joseph Gallagher. And today is like any other. A Kenyan family sits outside her office. They came this morning to enroll their kids, which will push Gallagher's numbers to capacity. But she can't help them until she finds an interpreter. Few of these new families speak English.

Before she can do that, an aide shows up at her door with two students caught roughhousing during gym class. Then the phone rings; a teacher needs her in another part of the building. Meanwhile, staticky voices chirp from her walkie-talkie, her computer beeps out e-mail notifications, and a secretary pops in to relay a meeting reminder.

"My days are pretty full," she says.

Every day, Rhone parks her Pontiac Sunfire in the staff lot at around 6:30 a.m. If there are no meetings outside of the school to attend, it stays there until 5:45. She used to spend the first hour planning her day and catching up on unaccomplished tasks. Now she spends it ushering kids through the newly installed metal detector. She has to convince herself that it is what's best for the school, even though it was the district's idea.

It was also a district plan to convert Joseph Gallagher from a middle school to a Pre-K-8 school back in 2005. As a result, it's become one of the largest primary schools in Cleveland, leaving teachers like Francescani working out of storage closets. The school has simply run out of space.

Joseph Gallagher is full of students who are considered "subgroups." Fifty-five percent speak English as their second, third, or fourth language. Another 30 percent are special ed. This means that just 15 percent are normal in the eyes of the state.

Still, all but two students last year made enough progress to fend off No Child Left Behind, according to Vice Principal Sandra Velazquez. But that was two students short. "Two students," she says. "Two. That's how specific No Child Left Behind gets."

Back in 2000, No Child was designed to stop the "soft bigotry" of public education. President Bush wanted to raise the expectation level for minority students. So he ordered testing to make sure they were improving. And if test scores of every kid in the school didn't go up, it was the fault of the school. It matters not if the previous year, the kids were living in rural Romania or the tribal lands of Africa.

No Child gives students the opportunity to transfer out of schools decreed to be failing. And if such schools don't make adequate yearly progress, the state has the right to shut them down.

In Ohio, April is the make-or-break month. Principal Rhone knows that Gallagher needs to pass this year. Failing again could lead to the belching out of a thunderclap of pink slips.

They call it reconstitution — a rather polite term for dealing with schools that chronically suffer from low test scores, discipline problems, or poor attendance. By firing the entire staff and replacing it with new blood, the theory goes, a school can magically solve all the problems. So schools from San Francisco to New York have issued mass dismissals.

It's been known to work. But it's a hard argument to make in Cleveland, where the district has been wedded to deterioration for decades. The assumption is that new teachers will somehow be able to outperform the old. But since the replacements are usually young and inexperienced, it's akin to stocking a baseball team with rookies and then expecting it to make the playoffs.

In Cleveland, Paul Revere Elementary School was the last to be reconstituted, back in 1997. Outgoing Cleveland Teachers Union President Joanne Demarco says it did little if anything to change the place. Since then, there have been many threats, but no school has faced complete reconstitution.

There have been plenty of "semi-reconstituted" schools. Joseph Gallagher is one of them. It happened when the district combined its middle and elementary schools, which led to a massive overhaul of staff. In 2005, according to one teacher, about three quarters of Gallagher's staff changed. The almighty test scores say it hasn't made a difference.

Across the hall from Morell's room is a regular sixth- and seventh-grade class. This is where Tracy Radich teaches math.

Her voice booms into the hallways, even when her door is closed. It's intense and energetic, similar to the voice of a high-school basketball coach. She's the newly elected sergeant at arms for the Cleveland Teachers Union and loves politics. If Anderson Cooper had a 12-hour election special, she'd watch all 12, then stay tuned for extra helpings of Wolf Blitzer.

Radich is up front about Joseph Gallagher's deathwatch. "It's a constant threat hanging over your head," she says. "It's very difficult."

In her mind, testing creates students who are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. If her class has trouble grasping a concept like mean, median, and mode, she doesn't have the extra time to spend. The test forces her to push on to the next unit. She has to make sure that her students have at least seen the material.

Based upon their scores from the previous year, students are broken down into five groups: limited, basic, proficient, advanced, and accelerated. If they move up one level, the school is okay. If they don't, teachers can consider themselves screwed.

"The tests are still given one week out of the year, and that determines everything," says Radich. "It's like if someone came to your work and watched you for one to two hours, and judged you and everything you do at work based upon those two hours. That's essentially what it comes down to — success or failure in two hours."

But those are the rules they play under. So teachers like Radich are forced to concentrate on the borderline students. They're the most important kids in the classroom, since the school's fate hinges upon their improvement. Everyone else takes a back seat. Think of it as the NBA determining its post-season seedings by how well teams can get players like Dwayne Jones to perform.

One subgroup that plays a critical role is the special-education kids. At Gallagher, 250 students have some sort of disability, ranging from mild autism to severe mental retardation. Fifty take an alternative test to measure their progress, which doesn't affect the school's rating. Another hundred or so aren't yet in the third grade, the year when their scores begin to count. This leaves around 75 who must take the state test.

Teacher Keri Waring speaks like the daughter of a college president, because, well, she's the daughter of a college president. Her biggest complaint is that the test is geared for the kind of children congressmen know — those raised with money whose parents read to them at night and enforce lights-out at a reasonable hour. It's not geared for refugees on 65th Street in America's poorest city.

What frustrates her is how others see Gallagher as the typical Cleveland school — rough, overcrowded, and failing. She cringes every time a new initiative comes down from on high. No plan can fix the endemic problems of poverty, parenting, and kids who don't understand the language you speak.

"But all of this is political talk," she admits. "We still have to pass the test in April."

At 2:30, students swell out of class and make their way home. Francescani returns to her storage closet to plan the next day. Aweys sits in the faculty lounge and dreams about affording classes at Tri-C. Radich sprints off to the union office. Morell switches around her seating chart, experimenting to find the perfect fit.

Outside the building, buses and cars swing in and out of the parking lot. Rhone waves goodbye and politely reminds students that it's not okay to bomb each other with snowballs.

Time before the test is short. But Joseph Gallagher has made it through another day.