The state of Oregon has set an ambitious goal to graduate 100 percent of high school students by the year 2025. OPB is following more than two dozen six and seven-year-olds who are in the class of 2025. For the next twelve years, OPB aims to follow these students, in school and at home. These are some of their stories from first grade.
First-grader Raiden, a seven-year-old with spiky brown hair, lives in an upstairs apartment with his mom and his brother, within earshot of the light rail tracks to Gresham. He loves playing toy trucks with his little brother, riding his bike, and being outside. He doesn’t love wearing his glasses, which often go missing.
His mom, Angela Williams, says he looks like his dad, whom she left a few years ago, taking the kids with her. Williams says she didn’t feel safe raising a family with him, but Raiden still remembers his father.
What Raiden Wants To Be When He Grows UpWhat Raiden Wants To Be When He Grows Up
Ask him what he wants to be when he grows up and he says: “I want to be a dad, just like my daddy. Because I miss my daddy.”
But the absence of his father is not Raiden’s only challenge. He struggles with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly referred to as ADHD. Students with ADHD are at higher risk of poor academic outcomes. Oregon doesn’t track graduation rates for students with the disorder but recent national studies find kids with that diagnosis are up to four times more likely to drop out.
Raiden’s on medication, but his mom is conflicted about using it. And Williams, who is in her mid-20s, has a lot on her plate. She juggles single motherhood and her job with college and clinic hours to get licensed as a medical assistant.
On top of everything else, Raiden had to switch schools this year. He spent kindergarten at Earl Boyles Elementary. His neighborhood school, Cherry Park, didn’t have room for him last year. Then, in first grade, space opened up in Cherry Park, so Raiden transferred.
Switching schools is hard for most kids. But Williams was particularly concerned for Raiden because he had an extremely difficult kindergarten year.
Moving To A New School
Williams says teachers and counselors met to plan Raiden’s transition, with an eye to his ADHD diagnosis.
Jan LeBlanc, Raiden’s first grade teacher at Cherry Park, says that when Raiden arrived in her classroom, he had the feeling that school was hard and he didn’t really like it.
“I think he had a difficult kindergarten experience, and I don’t think he felt very successful,” LeBlanc says.
Raiden had a really difficult time in kindergarten. He was written up dozens of times for his behavior. He even got suspended.
But first grade? It’s been like night and day: only two infractions the whole year — and they were both back in the fall.
Raiden’s mom says the kindergarten struggles were partly chemical. Her son cycled through multiple ADHD medications.
The family and the school tried several things to make first grade work for Raiden. He has regular meetings with the school counselor. There’s a thick green rubber band stretched between the legs of the chair he sits in class, so he can tap the band with his feet when he’s having trouble sitting still.
These days, he understands a bit more about his own behavior, neatly summing it up: “Sometimes I make noises, because I have too much energy.”
To catch up academically, Raiden gets individual attention. On a recent morning, he was solving subtraction problems by moving stones in and out of a cup.
“OK. How many are we taking away?” educational assistant Roxana Campbell asked him.
Raiden replies, “One.”
Then, Campbell asks how many are left. Raiden does the calculation. “Six,” he says, triumphantly.
Raiden’s mom, Angela Williams, says the kindergarten struggles were partly chemical. Her son cycled through multiple ADHD medications.
“We actually found the right one,” she says. “So now he’s more stable.”
Kids and medications are a controversial combination, and Williams has mixed feelings about having her son on a drug. Raiden doesn’t usually take it on weekends. But the school will call, if LeBlanc notices that Raiden is acting as if he hasn’t had his medication.
“It’s very obvious right away if he hasn’t had it,” LeBlanc says. “It’s a much harder day for him, if he hasn’t had it.”
But finding the right drug was just one step. Williams says she’s been working closely with his teacher and the school counselor to make sure what she’s doing at home supports what’s happening at school. At Cherry Park, she says it feels like she has a support team focused on her son.
A Reward System For Good Behavior
Raiden’s first grade plan was designed to make his school days easier, and also to address his behavior.
LeBlanc and the school counselor use a “behavior sheet” as a reward system. Raiden knows what he needs to do to get a reward — he can get prizes if he gets enough smiley faces and points.
Digging into his backpack back in the early winter, he pulled out his sheet for the day. “If I make the goal — if I have twenty cards, and if I have my sticker thing full, then I get a prize,” he said.
Sure enough, by December, Raiden had earned a few prizes. Some he shared with his brother, Hunter. He’s proud of a book he’s earned, even if he can’t read it himself quite yet.
“Well, I heard that it was about chicken pox, I think that’s what it says, because someone said it’s about chicken pox,” he says.
The prizes have made a lasting impression. Raiden can remember all the prizes he’s received in order, since the start of first grade.
Laura Lee McIntyre, an expert on ADHD and special education at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, says the reward strategy can help give kids the nudge they need.
McIntyre says that initially, teachers start out with a tangible reward, but over time, educators are supposed to pair that reward with praise and support for the student. The hope is that gradually, kids and teachers alike will be less reliant on the physical rewards.
“No one wants to create kids who are hooked on stuff,” McIntyre says.
School Is Hard
One day in March, Raiden handed his mom his point sheet, as he does every day after school.
Williams didn’t like what she saw — there were a lot of half smiley faces, indicating mediocre behavior — and asked her son to explain himself.
“Because I don’t like school,” Raiden said. “Why not?” asks his mother.
“Because it’s too hard, I don’t want to go to second grade,” Raiden says, slumping down to the kitchen floor. “Because she makes me do, like, letters, and she makes me sit down for a long time, and she tells us to color, and she tells us to do everything. It’s too much at once.”
Williams isn’t going to let her son off the hook about his teacher’s expectations. “I don’t think she’s giving you all that stuff at one time to do,” she says.
But Raiden comes right back. “Well, we don’t have that much time to like eat, play — they only give us a little bit of time to play,” he says.
His mom explains that school isn’t about playing. “School’s about learning and being smart,” she says.
“I like to play,” Raiden insists.
But Williams insists, too. “Don’t you want to go to college like Mommy?” He needs to finish first grade, and second grade, Williams adds, and fourth grade — all the way to college.
It’s a tough conversation for both of them, and eventually Raiden changes the subject, in exasperation. “I’m hungry,” he says.
McIntyre, the University of Oregon researcher points out that academic expectations for kids — even young kids — are going up noticeably.
What Common Core Might Mean For Kids With ADHDWhat Common Core Might Mean For Kids With ADHD
“In the classroom, with Common Core and the increasing expectations for rigorous academic performance, all students feel it, not just students with ADHD,” McIntyre says.
Teachers say they’re expecting kids to learn more at home. McIntyre says that could spell trouble.
“For students with ADHD who might struggle to understand the material to begin with, sending kids home with lots of homework can create a power struggle between parent and child,” McIntyre says.
Learn More About The Common Core
The Common Core is a series of tough new learning standards that are being implemented in 45 states, including Oregon.
Changes At Home
In recent months, Raiden and his family have seen lots of changes at home. His grandfather — Williams’ dad — moved out, and her brother moved in, along with his girlfriend. They brought two kids – one is a baby. Raiden especially likes having her in the household.
At parent-teacher conference time in the spring, the other members of the household come to the school for Raiden’s conference.
School counselor Laurie Robertson kicks off the meeting by asking about Raiden’s glasses. He hasn’t been wearing them.
“Are they broken, or lost?” Robertson asks. “They’re just gone?”
Williams admits she’s worried about what new glasses will cost and hopes it won’t be more than $60. That’s a lot of money for her, so she needs to find glasses that her son will wear without protest.
“I wouldn’t wear mine, if I didn’t like ‘em. I can’t blame him. But I don’t have great insurance,” Williams adds.
When Raiden and Williams meet with LeBlanc, she says that Raiden is still behind academically. In the core areas of reading, writing, language, and math, he isn’t meeting standards. But she reassures Williams that Raiden is catching up. The teacher says sometimes kids focus better at school than at home.
Williams knows that’s the truth, from experience . “If you’re not watching him, he does a lot better. But if you’re sitting right there, ‘I’m listening’ — then he’s like ‘no!’ ” she says.
But Raiden likes reading to one person at home.
“I’ll always catch him reading books to the baby and I’ll be peeking in, he’s actually reading, not just making up stories,” Williams says.
It’s a reminder that family is important to Raiden, the boy who wrote the word “dad” on a worksheet that asked what he wants to be when he grows up.
The meeting runs long, but Williams is relieved to hear that her son is catching up. “I actually want to cry because I’m so excited,” she says. Despite the challenge of transferring schools, he’s doing far better in first grade than he did in kindergarten.
“It’s good news, isn’t it?” says LeBlanc.
“Yes. He made it,” she says. Williams grabs her keys, turns, and heads out to catch up with her two boys.
Raiden is already halfway down the hall, holding the baby tightly in his arms, with his little brother trailing behind.
This project is part of American Graduate — Let’s Make It Happen! — a public broadcasting initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.