In Black Book

A child at an intersection of ADHD disability and educational achievement gap

1. TyQuawn, in black book

Oct. 17, 2014. Clock stroke half past two in the afternoon. Shakia Turner received an unpalatable email from Shawnte Braxton, Creativity Center teacher at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison while sitting at South Madison McDonald's and browsing internet on her phone via their complimentary wifi. She complained TyQuawn, her 13-year-old child, was disrespectful to Ms. Schmidle in his math class. He allegedly indeed asked her “to shut up talking to him.”  TyQuawn’s outrageous behavior had already led him to be in the black book of Ms. Braxton as she underlined he was also disrespectful to her later that day and he didn’t even turn in his book review on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. 

TyQuawn, a sixth grade student at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, is one of Ms. Turner’s four kids whom she is single parenting. TyQuawn, a 5-feet-tall guy with average torso, is fairly laconic - sometimes even monosyllabic and tight-lipped - and not comfortable with talking to someone whom he doesn’t know. In a ten-minutes interaction that I had with him he didn’t give any one-sentence response except some yes and nos. Despite having been informed that I was a good person and I wanted to help him out, he seemed to have some scribbled thoughts wrestling with each other in his brain: “Who is this guy?” “Why is he asking me these questions?” “Is he good?” “Should I talk to him as I do with my friends?” He didn't get to decide if he should talk to me. He only mentioned, “even I had tried to explain my teacher that it was not my fault, I would have been punished too.”  

TyQuawn was detained three times in his eight weeks of classes because he went to bathroom without any school attendant. According to school's rule, students of his age aren't allowed to go to bathrooms alone. Whenever he wanted to go to bathroom none of the attendant was available and he was asked to wait for someone to attend him. However, in every occasion urinary pressure trumped disciplinary pressure for TyQuawn. He went to bathroom ignoring his teachers' instruction and welcomed the pressure of unavoidable detention at the cost of releasing another pressure.  

Multiple detentions could have one hell of an affect on TyQuawn's scholastic affair, said Ms. Turner. She worried about the fact that a lot of detentions could restrain TyQuawn from attending high school as happened to Ms. Turner herself. 

Ms. Turner took five years - from 1989 to 1994 - to graduate from Cherokee Middle School at the age of 18. Later she didn't have opportunity to go to high school. She didn't want TyQuawn to follow that path. She said with agony, "I don't want him to be me. He has definitely has some disability, but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't be able to read or write well. He needs some extra attention or different style of teaching approach. In MMSD everything is good on paper, but not in practice. I don't think the teachers are bad, but they need proper training how to teach in a multiracial and multicultural environment."     

2. TyQuawn, a student with disability

TyQuawn's behavioral problems presumably found their root in his disability of attention deficit hyperactivity. After having diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), he was enrolled in Individualized Education Program (IEP) on April 25, 2014 and he was qualified for special education in the area of Other Health Impairment and Specific Learning Disability.  

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the prevalent childhood disorders in the US that can linger on through adolescence and adulthood. While nine percent of American children between the age of 13 and 18 has succumbed to this disorder, boys are four times as much as vulnerable than girls in this regard. Though studies have said that the number of children with this disorder is mounting up, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has admitted that the reason is still unfathomable.

One of the predominant symptoms of ADHD affected children is they sit quietly and often times their teachers and parents don’t recognize that they are not paying attention to what they are doing. As a result, they may be overlooked by them or, sometimes misunderstood when they see that they are not doing anything but siting silently. Another problem that these children face is having difficulties in getting along with other kids.

The same symptoms were reflected in TyQuawn’s group work activities as well. It has been annotated in his IEP report that he can work well in group only when he is paired with someone whom he knows well. He can be adamant when assigned with a partner whom he does not consider a “friend.”

Frequent urination - for which TyQuawn has been detained - is another problem that ADHD affected children can encounter with. In an article entitled “ADHD Treatment: Medications and Alternatives,” published on National Center for Health Research (NCHR) website, Guisou Zarbalian has opined that children exhibit signs of frequent urination if they receive less fatty acid from their diet. Less concentration of omege-3, one of the two essential fatty acids, in the bodies of children with ADHD causes them behavioral problems. So in order to cure partially the problems of ADHD, the children need to be feed the food that contains two essential fatty acids (EFA) – omega-6 and omega-3. 

Ms. Turner didn't know about this scientific explanation. She put him on medication for eleven months from May, 2013 to April, 2014 thinking that it will cure him. However, she noticed that the medication didn't make any difference with respect to TyQuawn's behavior and educational achievement level. So, she decided not to continue with the medication and came to a conclusion that teachers didn't have proper training how to treat with kids who are enrolled in IEP program. 

ADHD was a disability that TyQuawn had to cope up with and the teachers had to know how to deal with it  and how to incorporate IEP in school curriculum because ADHD and enrollment in IEP led to one thing: Prevented him from achieving the educational level corresponding to his age and grade. Ms. Turner's primary concern was if school wouldn't take extra initiative to tackle this situation, TyQuawn would not find a place in high school and end up being just a middle school graduate like her mom, Ms. Turner.  

According to IEP report, TyQuawn struggles with basic literacy skills. TyQuawn's current reading goal is to achieve a text level 25 demonstrating decoding skills and comprehension. To be able to achieve this goal he attended Extended Year Summer School 2013. He also received Extended School Year (ESY) services. However, he did not make his reading goal of 25 by the end of the 2013 ESY session, though during the 2012 ESY session TyQuawn was able to maintain goal progress (no summer loss of skills). 

The 2013 ESY teacher commented, "TyQuawn demonstrated some fluency when reading but more often reads at a slow pace with little expression. If he does not know a word,he will sometimes try to sound it out, substitute a word that starts with the same letter or stop and look at the adult reading with him. At times, he acknowledges that the word doesn't make sense, other times he just keeps reading."

Currently TyQuawn is reading within the first grade level range. The goal is for TyQuawn to increase his reading skills at an acellerated rate given reading intervention and specialized instruction. 

As far as the writing level is concerned TyQuawn is able to independently write a paragraph during the free write warm up at the start of language arts class.TyQuawn has difficulty with spelling and mechanics. He can express his ideas in writing.

According to his teacher, "his writing is often dependent on motivation and interest level. When he gets to choose the topic from a general suggestion for example "What was your favorite day last summer?" he generates many idea and can create an interesting essay using adult support for organization and editing. If he is given a minimum amount of sentences to write, he will always stop at the minimum. If there is no specific length assigned, he can be encouraged to write more and add details. He often confuses 'b' and 'd'."

TyQuawn's IEP report manifests that despite being suffered from ADHD and having low educational achievement level there are some positive factors in TyQuawn's educational endeavor. He can perform better in writing when he gets to choose the topic. He can bring into a lot of ideas when the topic interests him. Putting aside the negative factors, it seems that he is more productive in writing when he gets to work on independently chosen topic. However, whether the teachers manipulated his strength and let TyQuawn write on topics that he liked so that his writing skill would improve is a classified information because teachers in MMSD are not allowed to say publicly how a student performs in the class which in turn allows the teachers not to disclose how they teach students with specific needs. 

3. TyQuawn, a good boy

Though according to Ms. Braxton and Ms. Schmidle TyQuawn was disrespectful to them as reported in the email of Oct. 17, 2014, his behavior inside classroom and across school premises were good as per his IEP report. It was said, “He doesn’t linger in the hallways and doesn’t get into trouble or disrupting the class. At times, he doesn’t focus and/or get started on his work but this doesn’t affect the classroom and is easily fixed with a redirection from staff.”

TyQuawn's disrespectful-to-teachers behavior was not reflected on other teachers' comment either. In IEP report TyQuawn's teachers admitted that he was a very polite student. He wanted to do well and he participated in the class. He liked positive people. His basketball coaches identified him as a good team player. "He takes suggestions positively and doesn’t argue with them," told his basketball coach.

In response to that email of Oct. 17, 2014 Ms. Turner requested the teachers to advise her what to do in this regard. She also requested them to consider that he was in IEP. She wrote, “We need to ask the right questions and see what is making him uneasy. What leads up to the behavior…I don't have a lack of respect of what staff does. He says things out loud and that should be in the IEP.  Please take the time out of all busy schedule…I need the yolk to be broken.  This cycle will make my son fill confined and convicted.”

In spite of his teachers’ complain against his potential lack of interest in studies, In the email of Oct. 13, 2014, Ms. Braxton mentioned that TyQuawn was interested in MYCAP, an after-school study program for minority students, and he had asked her permission to stay after school. That testified that TyQuawn was eager to learn, improve his performance and do well in school. 

To make each and every communication transparent the email that Ms. Turner sent at 4:40 PM on Oct. 17, 2014 in response to Ms. Braxton’s email of 2:30 PM was sent to Anna Moffit, Dane County Parent Peer Specialist and to all TyQuawn’s teachers at the James C. Wright Middle School.

Ms. Moffit pointed out an important factor about his behavior. She reminded all teachers at Wright School of the fact that TyQuawn didn’t have a lot of behavioral problems when he was in Midvale-Lincoln Elementary School.

“At Lincoln, TyQuawn did not have many behavioral incidents, so it may also be helpful to connect with their staff to see what they were doing with him that reduced inappropriate behavior,” Ms. Moffit wrote

Whatever the reasons might be, TyQuawn's behaviour inside the classroom didn't seem to be conventional like that of other kids - sitting and studying queitly in the class, neither be outrageous as also highlighted before, but different. He didn't want to get assisstance from peers, but adults. In the page 7 of his IEP report it is mentioned, "He tends to wait for an adult to ask him if he needs help. If an adult is in close proximity,TyQuawn is more likely to ask for help.It seems like TyQuawn is willing to ask the special education staff because they have developed a trusting relationship over the past 5 years and they are available more often for 1:1 assistance than a classroom teacher can be." 

What mattered to TyQuawn was the person whom he was talking to needed to be trustworthy for him. He wanted to make sure he could trust that person whom he was sharing something with. It reminded me of when I attempted to have a conversation with him. Since I was new to him, he was sceptical about my intervention in his territory, thereby, he didn't speak out in my presence.   

Did his teachers, Ms. Braxton and Ms. Schmidle, were able to build a trustworthy relationship with him? Probably not, otherwise he wouldn't have said, "even I had tried to explain my teacher that it was not my fault, I would have been punished too." 

Teachers - at least in kindergarten and middle school - need to be friends to their students at first, and then someone who could give them punishment. Student like TyQuawn who was hesitant about someone's presence needed a teacher who understood his values, his method of performing any activity like reading or writing, be compassionate, be a good listener to his problem and be friendly always.  

However, that didn't happen to TyQuawn. Teachers were more busy in penalizing him for not waiting for someone who could accompany him to the bathroom than allowing him to go to bathroom and let him return to the class and sit comfortably. Everyone knows how urinary pressure can make someone distracted, tensed and vulnerable. And detaining TyQuawn for this reason that he broke the law to release his pressure was unjust, unethical and inhumane. Detention didn't yield any positive result as he did commit that mistake again two times . It prevented him from listening to the class lecture and taking help from special education teachers which would help him improve his writing and reading skill.

If punishment fails to bring any awareness it becomes pale and inactive.  

Due to all these ineffective practices in school, Ms. Turner took him out of the school system on Nov. 17, 2014 thinking that she would send him to a private school. 

4. TyQuawn, a Black-American kid

Ms. Turner didn't want TyQuawn to have the same experience of racial disparity in the school like she had. Thereby, she admitted him in James C. Wright Middle School which was thronged with minority students. Whereas the population of Hispanic students in middle schools in Wisconsin is 10%, Wright Middle School accommodates 50.2 percent of Hispanic students followed by 22.7 percent of Black-American students and 11 percent of White students. The number of students participating in free lunch program at Wright Middle School is more than double the amount statewide. Wisconsin has 41 percent of students enrolled in free lunch program compared to Wright Middle School’s 88 percent.

Back in 1989 when Ms. Turner went to Cherokee Middle School the scenario was entirely opposite to Wright Middle School with respect to student demographic. Enrolment ratio between black and white students during 1989-1994 was 1:4 in Cherokee Middle School. Not surprisingly Ms. Turner felt like an "invisible child" who struggled to find out an identity among white students. During that period the population of white students was 63.8 percent at Cherokee compared to 11 percent at Wright Middle School in 2013. It exhibits that Wright Middle School is a place where black american parents like to send their children so that racial disparity can't afflict their spirit of attending school. Certainly TyQuawn didn't have to be lost among his white peers like his mother. He was fortunate to be in an enviroment where he could feel comfortable socially, not marginalized, and segregated from rest of the students.

However, it was a day-dream for him and Ms. Turner. He was marginalized and neglected, according to Ms. Turner, in spite of being enrolled in a school whose second largest population was Black American, whose principal, some teachers - especially who complained against TyQuawn's behaviarial problem, and receptionist too were Black Americans.

The achievement gap - the social ailment clouded over Wisconsin - is often times attributed to racial disparity, but we find a different picture in TyQuawn's case. His lack of achievement in education - being a sixth grade student having first grade level reading proficiency - had partially to do with his ADHD, his family background, and most importantly how his teachers treated him, but definitely not with the racial disparity in school. Once Dr. Floyd Rose, the President of Consortium for the Educational Development of Economically Disadvantaged Students (CEDEDS), had said in an interview before the first annual conference of CEDEDS in Oct. 2014, “The educational achievement gap is more of a result of economic disparity, rather than racial one…[because] It incorporates poor black children, poor brown children, poor white children, all poor children.” Dr. Rose's statement prefigured TyQuawn's condition. 

It seemed to be true and coherent too after an interview with Dr. Crawford, the principal of James C. Wright Middle School.     

She said, "I don’t consider it an achievement gap but an experiential gap because the students who are having problem to achieve specific educational level don't possess enough educational exprience that could put them in driving seat when they start attending school. Therefore, they are struggling to match up with other kids who are benefited with pre-school knowledge and stay much behind in the line of achievement level."

When this interaction with Dr. Crawford took place, Ms. Turner already took out TyQuawn out of the school following a conversation with Dr. Cheatham, the Superintendent of MMSD. Though Dr. Cheatham suggested Ms. Turner not to withdraw TyQuawn, Ms. Turner did it with an expectation that she would be able to enroll him in a private school. 

As TyQuawn was taken out of school and Ms. Turner was vocal about her kids right to education, my uninformed arrival to James C. Wright Middle School for an interview on TyQuawn created a moment of suspense for the receptionist of the school. 

I first met Ms. Turner in the CEDEDS (Consortium for the Educational Development of Economically Disadvantaged Students) conference on Oct. 7, 2014. In one of the sessions when Prof. Janean E Dilworth-Bart was giving a presentation on the experience on Black American kids in schools, Ms. Turner, breaking everyone's attention to Prof. Dilworth-Bart's lecture, spoke out: "I am a single mom, my kids everyday are suffering in the school. Could you tell me what should I do. I am seeking training so that I can also help my kids with home-work, but noone is responding to me." Everyone frowned. Someone in appreciation for her courage that she raised that question and pointed out the bitter reality and someone in disgust thinking "what the hell she is talking about."

She was courageous by nature and attire both. She was always wearing colorful dresses, putting on bright make-up and tied a mask on top her head everytime I met her. Asked her the reason, she said, "Everyone is wearing an invisible mask concealing his true persona. But I wear it on top my head to showcase that I don't like to hide my true identity behind a mask which everyone fails to recognize. I could have put it on my face. But I don't because it will decieve other people to recognize who I am. I let the people know who I am behind the mask."      

Because of Ms. Turner's valiant nature, when I uttered the name of TyQuawn after I arrived to Wright Middle School, it seemed to me that the receptionist became a bit conscious.  

He greeted me, "How u doing?"

- Great.

How may I help you?

 - I am coming from UW Madison J-School. I am a Graduate Student. I am doing a story on one of your students named TyQuawn. So, I would like to talk to the principal and his teachers.

The receptionist called up the principal and started talking in a voice that was hardly audible for me. He told her, "there is a gentleman who would like to talk to you about TyQuawn."

- Sir, where are you coming from?

- I am a Graduate Student at the UW-Madison J-School. 

After pronouncing two sentences, he just looked at me with his curious eyes that was trying to gauge me if I was paying attention to him, and then he moved a feet back in his chair, leaned behind, bent down his head, pulled the telephone cord a little bit near to him and started talking so that I couldn’t hear him. And I couldn’t hear him. After a minute, again his voice went up to a decibel level that was audible level for me.

- Sir, what's your name? 

- I reitereted G-O-K-U-L.

Again the voice went down. After a while he said, "she is going to come to talk to you."

Principal, Dr. Crawford, came out carrying a piece of yellow post-it in her hand, mentioning the name of Rachel Starch-Nelson, Director of Media and Government Relations at Madison Metropolitan School District and her phone number. 

She was 5’10” tall with brown-white hair. She stared at me with a wry face as if what the hell I was doing. 

- Hi, I am Gokul. 

- So, are you doing a story on TyQuawn?

- Yes.

- Okay. So here is our communication director’s name and number. You can contact her.  So what exactly are you doing?

- I am doing stories on educational achievement gap. 

- Okay. But, I think it’s not even a gap. It’s lack of experience that the students have even before they come to school...." 

-  I am trying to see how his ADHD problems are affecting his achievement level. 

- Okay, talk to Rachel and if she allows me to talk to you, I will be talking to you. 

I left with a thought murmuring in my mind: "How school authority shun the problem of educational achievement gap by passing the ball on to the parents’ court? Students come to school to learn, not to fine-tune what they have already learned."

Dr. Crawford underlined that the school was not responsible for teaching what a student should have learned from parents. It depicted it was not a racial disparity that marginalized TyQuawn, but truly an experential disparity which he was not even responsible for as it pertained to his parent's experience and educational level. It manifested that TyQuawn's position was even worse than his mom because people from his own race were neglecting him just because his mom was not enough educated to provide him required parental guidance to match up with the experience that other kids with parents being in economically and educationally advantaged position had.  

Courtesy of Shakia Turner

5. TyQuawn's fate

Ms. Turner two years ago in 2012 took one of her other kids out of the Madison school district and got him enrolled in a private school with financial help from MMSD. However, after nine months she had to change her decision as MMSD stopped paying off the tuition fee. Ms. Turner expected TyQuawn would also be placed in a private school with the help of MMSD. But, they didn't agree to pay for TyQuawn this time.

Though Dr. Crawford, the principal of Wright Middle School, discarded the notion of achievement gap by calling it experiential gap and didn't provide any possible solution to this social quandary which Madison and Wisconsin had plunged into, there were some recommendations on part of other social actors such as journalists, researchers, etc.     

In 1996 the editorial board of the Wisconsin State Journal (WSJ) published an op-ed suggesting that underachieved students be provided mentorship and care. They recommended “find them mentors.” “Adults who'll call them up or stop over at least once a week. Families who'll include them in an outing or invite them over for dinner at least once a month. You don't have to be black; all you have to do is care."  “It could turn some lives around – if enough of us care,” they added. 

It mentioned, “A study of African-American youngsters from all over the nation who succeeded…showed one common factor: Each child had at least one adult in their lives who cared.”

An editorial from the Wisconsin State Journal on Sept. 28, 2014 studied a report entitled "Promoting excellence for all", conducted by a task force led by Tony Evers, Wisconsin Superintendent of Schools.

Evers pointed out that more black teachers should be recruited for being role models for these students so that they get encouragement.

He agreed that Black American students need a specific kind of special treatment, rooted in cultural awareness, in order to make them be successful in schools.

He underscored that the teachers from different culture might face challenge to understand the culture of Black Americans and teach them accordingly.

“Instruction may fail to consider different cultures, and parents may need extra help and encouragement to get involved in schools — or to help get their kids to school on a regular basis,” said Evers to the WSJ in an interview.

Along the same line of Evers, Prof. Aydin Bal, Assistant Professor at the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposed a change inside out. He said, "the schools need to take support from various cultural organizations so that the teachers can have opportunity to learn about different cultures such as hispanic, african, asian, etc. which would facilitate their teaching assisgnment in a multicultural environment." 

Talking about the proposal that WSJ had about fostering culture of mentorship and care, in an interview with Chief of Schools for Secondary at MMSD, Alex Failin, admited that there is no explicit mentorship and caring program developed in school improvement planning of MMSD. However, he said, “Schools are implementing this initiative through their culture and climate." He opined it is important how the teachers, councilors, principals and assistant principles build relationships with students and their families to ensure that they have clear expectation, clarity around what it takes to graduate, understanding about all the supports and interventions there are in place and how schools develop those systems for monitoring. 

After Ms. Turner took TyQuawn out of the school, Wright Middle School seemed to have thought about how to incorporate the culture of building relationship with students and families more efficiently and how to build a culture of mentorship and care so that the problem of educational achievement gap could be alleviated slowly and steadily. 

When Ms. Turner got to know that MMSD would not pay off the tuition fees for TyQuawn in private school as they did for one of her other kids, she decided to have a talk with the principal and the teachers at Wright Middle School. During the first two weeks in December after TyQuawn stopped attending classes, Ms. Turner had discussion with the principal, Dr. Crawford, and other teachers and they came to an agreement that the teachers would not detain TyQuawn for his frequent urination. The school authority realized that asking-to-go-to-bathroom frequently was not a mischievous act practiced in the classroom to disturb the teacher and the class, but it was a side effect of TyQuawn's ADHD problem. As a result, Ms. Turner decided to send him back to the school on Dec. 1, 2014 after a break of two weeks. It definitely was a sign of showing compassion and care on part of the school that was hugely welcomed by Ms. Turner.  However, she didn't know if the school would be taking any different initiative so that he could close the gap of his educational achievement level. 

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