Like many Northlake Elementary students, Joe is an apartment kid.
Lots of moving around. Little stability.
And not too long ago, Joe wasn’t exactly an honors student.
By the sixth-grade, he had been in trouble with the law. He had been suspended from school. Academics, needless to say, weren’t a priority.
Joe was on the road to becoming a neighborhood’s worst nightmare – a troubled child without a moral compass on a collision path with even bigger trouble.
Enter the Northlake Math Club, a group of concerned neighborhood volunteers who carve out enough of their free time to tutor children such as Joe who need help.
At a time when the number of apartment kids attending Northlake is approaching an all-time high – 81 percent of the student body, according to RISD figures – these neighborhood volunteers are working to provide a stable learning environment.
And they are making a difference.
After repeatedly failing math, Joe began earning grades in the 80th and 90th percentiles. He became more cooperative with teachers.
He became a better all-around student. He became a better all-around person.
He found a group of people who believed he could succeed, a group of neighbors committed to looking beyond prejudice in an effort to make a difference.
Starting Off Right
At 7:15 a.m. every school day, the Math Club volunteers set up shop in Northlake’s cafeteria and wait for students who need help.
And every day, more than 25 Northlake students show up for the Math Club’s sessions. Last year, Kevin Fagan and Steve Swayze, founders of the club, attracted up to 50 children on their busiest mornings.
For their efforts, the group received the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award for Education and was a finalist for the JC Penney Golden Rule Award in Education.
Fagan and Swayze are providing the kind of activity needed to reduce mobility within RISD, area superintendent Ted Moulton says. When children enjoy extracurricular activities provided within a community, and working parents have a safe place to send their children before and after school, families are less likely to move out of a neighborhood, Moulton says.
When families stay put, school officials have a better chance at helping children learn.
“If more homeowners were involved in this type of program, they would gain an appreciation for the fact that these kids are no different from their own,” says volunteer Chris Kelly, a homeowner with a fifth-grade daughter at Northlake.
“They are bright. They have their own hopes and dreams. They want to succeed.”
When singles-only apartment complexes were outlawed in 1986, parents and children from different economic, educational and racial backgrounds began moving into what traditionally had been our predominantly white, middle-class, professional community.
Change brought growing pains – pains most apparent in our schools.
Northlake, located at Church and Audelia, is within walking distance of several mammoth apartment complexes – Brookshire, Highland Crest and Kingsley Park North.
But it also is situated just a few blocks from a single-family residential community that is the heart of Lake Highlands.
“Northlake was getting a bad rap from homeowners because it has a large population of apartment kids,” says Fagan, a neighborhood resident. “A lot of individual homeowners were pulling their kids out of the school. There was a lot of hard racial feelings down at the school. I heard all kinds of stories of problems, but part of education is socializing with other children.
“This is such a sensitive issue, but the bottom line is everyone wants the same thing.”
“If you have a strong neighborhood school, then you will have a strong neighborhood. You can’t have a magic wand and expect things to happen. You’ve got to do it. If I hear someone tearing down Northlake, I ask them what they have done.”
Fagan says he feels obligated to keep alive the strong sense of community that characterizes his neighborhood. All children in Lake Highlands should feel welcome, he says.
“There has to be a better way of handling a situation rather than everybody getting angry with each other,” Fagan says. “Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else when what we need is to take care of immediate needs. We need someone to go down to the school and read to a child.
“These kids are highly mobile, and because they do not stay in one place long enough, sometimes they fall between the cracks.”
An Unexpected Beginning
The Math Club began two years ago when Fagan, who sent four children of his own through Northlake, decided to help the school by tutoring a few suspended sixth-grade boys.
As students and parents heard about the tutoring sessions, more and more students started attending.
As the number of children increased, Fagan began recruiting volunteers. The first was Swayze, whose three children also attended Northlake,
Eventually, younger and younger students sneaked in for tutoring, until Fagan and Swayze were greeted every school-day morning with about 25 first- through sixth-graders.
“If a kid wants to learn something, the more the merrier,” says Swayze, a lawyer who majored in math as a college undergraduate.
Fagan and Swayze are assisted by a few dedicated regulars, including neighborhood residents Chris Kelly, Lynn Austin, Bill Wright, Bill Craig, Jim Wiederhold and newcomer Ralph Hunt. Each of these volunteers comes one to three mornings a week, Swayze says. They help students with their classroom homework and with computer-generated Math Club worksheets.
“It has amazed me how these kids will sit down for an hour and a half and do math,” Fagan says.
“I tell the kids that we will find out what they do not know and teach it to them.”
Some of the children aren’t behind in their studies; they simply want to learn faster than their grade-level requires.
Fourth-grader Julie Moore is an example. She sped through the math for her grade level, Swayze says, and now is determined to understand decimals, an area of math first broached in the sixth-grade. Julie says she has attended Math Club every morning for the past year.
Michael Castillejos and Andy Knudson, sixth-graders who also attend the Math Club on a regular basis, say they are ahead of the other students in their classes because they are being taught algebra, a subject they would not usually learn until junior high school.
“These kids are smart,” Fagan says. “They can grasp a lot of subjects if we can feed them into them.”
“These young people are our future. Somebody needs to work with them. Since I can make the time, I come and do it.”
The Men Behind the Math
With a big “Hello!” Fagan welcomes students into Math Club. He asks students how they are doing, and then, why they have come.
“To learn math,” most answer. Or, “to get an education,” a few others say.
“You have come because you are going to go to college,” he tells them.
High expectations are the name of the Math Club’s game.
“We want to get these kids up-to-speed,” Swayze says. “We want to first bring these kids up to grade level, teach them to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and then push them higher up.
“A lot of the discipline problems are very bright kids who are frustrated. We have had above-average children with below-average experiences.
“We live in a white, middle-class neighborhood where kids are started out in the first grade to go to Harvard and MIT.
“Then there are other kids who have come into the school who have never thought that far ahead before. So one of the first things Kevin tells them is that they are going to college,” Swayze says.
Swayze and the other volunteers are mostly professional men with a history of neighborhood involvement. Swayze and Fagan are leaders in the Boy Scouts, and Austin and Wright belong to the Exchange Club of Lake Highlands, a community service organization.
The volunteers say they hope to provide positive male role models for children who for the most part have been raised by single mothers and who do not have many opportunities to interact with successful male figures.
When Fagan started the Math Club, he says he sensed distrust from some of the parents in apartment communities.
Northlake’s James Brown, the executive assistant to the principal, has been instrumental in bridging the gap between the volunteers and the parents, Fagan says.
Some parents are strapped for time trying to make ends meet, but Brown has gotten many parents to support the Math Club. If they can not volunteer, Brown says, they help out by motivating their children to attend.
“It was easier for me to relate to the parents and understand their fears,” says Brown, who grew up in apartment buildings in a single-parent family.
“The parents didn’t feel comfortable in the community. When they saw me and the other men in the community working well together, I think they thought: If Mr. Brown, an African-American, is working well with these men and having success with our children, then why can’t we get involved? The parents want what is best for their kids.
“What we have seen as a result of the Math Club are kids who feel good about themselves. It makes them feel important.
“Here you see white males working with black kids. At first, the homeowners were worried about working with the kids, and the kids were worried about working with the men. Now the kids know these people care about them, and the volunteers know they can make a difference.”
Such interaction will make parents want to keep their children at Northlake because it gives them a stake in the school, says Tim James, chairman of the stability committee of RISD’s Youth Services Council, which works to create a sense of community in the schools.
Programs such as the Math Club are needed throughout RISD to reduce student mobility, says James, whose son attends Northlake.
“These two guys really don’t have to be doing this,” James says. “They do it because they want to. The kids begin to realize that they are living in a community that cares about them, and they begin to think: ‘Maybe I should care about this community and not do things that hurt this community.’
“These two guys are very mile, very normal heroes. The kids see that they can be heroes too. They don’t have to rush 400 yards or pass 400 yards. They can be heroes like these two men.”
The way Fagan and Swayze see it, they are taking small steps each morning to improve their neighborhood.
“I would like to change the universe,” Swayze says, “but you have to start with those closest to you.”