As a first grader, Ava liked to sing, dance and write stories. She wrote books, like this one she dedicated to her mom and read out loud a few years ago:
“I love you more than cupcakes — and sheep," she said.
“Sheep is her favorite animal,” Ava’s mom, April Shattuck, interjected from across the room.
“But I love you the most,” Ava continued.
Ava has always attended Earl Boyles Elementary School, an ethnically diverse, primarily low-income school in Southeast Portland. Munira has been her classmate since kindergarten.
Munira’s family is Somali, and before coming to Portland, they lived in a refugee camp in Kenya. Even in first grade, Munira was chatty and popular.
“My name is Munira and I am 7 years old,” she told OPB as a proud first grader. “I’m the only one who speaks Somali in my class.”
That was Munira and Ava more than four years ago.
At the start of this summer, they finished elementary school. They'll start middle school this month a big moment for the kids in OPB's Class of 2025 project and the state's effort to ensure that every child graduates on time.
Oregon leaders have passed legislation and structured education supports around a simple but challenging goal: that every student will finish high school, starting with Ava, Munira and their peers in the Class of 2025.
OPB has been following 27 students since they started kindergarten in 2012 to see how they do and how the state responds to the challenges facing children and their parents. Just within the group OPB has followed the students face a wide array of challenges that could make it hard for them to graduate on time, including learning disabilities, language barriers and poverty that leads to frequent moves and disruption.
Ava’s challenge has been getting to school on time — or at all.
One spring day in first grade, Ava showed up late, rushing down the hall to get to her classroom.
“We overslept,” she explained.
Ava’s mom works nights at a 24-hour diner in downtown Portland. At Ava’s first-grade teacher conference, she took responsibility for her daughter’s attendance struggles.
“It’s all on me, I mean, I work graveyard and sometimes I get home at 5 in the morning, and I’m like ‘I’ve got to stay up, I’ve got to stay up,’' Shattuck said. "And then I don’t, and I drift off and then they’re late."
Students who miss a lot of school, including days they lose classroom time because they arrive late, tend to graduate in lower numbers. Researchers have found that students who have attendance problems early on tend to continue to be absent a lot, and that heightens the chances they eventually drop out.
Munira’s home life provides a different kind of challenge. She’s a first-generation American. Her family speaks mostly Somali, rather than English at home.
According to recent data, Oregon’s Somali students have just a 58 percent graduation rate — significantly lower than the state average, which isn’t great to begin with. Language and cultural differences help explain why.
Munira’s English is good. She’s often the only girl in class wearing a headscarf. She’s Muslim and at holiday time, she’s the only one asking questions about drawing pictures of reindeer.
“If you don't celebrate Christmas, do you have to do it?” Munira asked her third-grade teacher.
Her teacher allowed her to draw a lion or another animal of her choosing.
Over her years in school, Munira has learned to speak up for herself and for others. In fifth grade, as students walked out of schools across the country to protest gun violence, Munira helped lead a small walkout at Earl Boyles.
“I’m out here to represent the people who have died in the Valentine’s Day shooting,” Munira said, referring to the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “Seventeen minutes to represent the 17 people who died during the shooting.”
Munira brought her social views into the classroom, too. She turned her fifth-grade biography presentation on Pocahontas into a pointed critique of the Disney movie.
“Pocahontas was 10 or 11 and John Smith was in his 20s or 30s when they came to America — that means there was no love interest between the two, but they were really good friends,” she told her class. “Disney also left out the part where Pocahontas was captured by the white men and ordered to get food.”
Ava also has learned to turn challenges in her life into strengths. With her mother working nights, Ava has learned to be more independent. Getting to school on time is up to Ava, and she recognizes it’s a challenge that she’ll continue to face in middle school.
“Getting on the right time might be a struggle for me,” Ava said.
“This year I’ve really improved being late every day. I think I’ve only been late eight times this year.”
Eight tardies is an improvement.
Ava likes school. Her fifth-grade teacher noticed that she’s bothered by coming in late, and often on those days, she let Ava pet the class guinea pig to calm down.
As Ava looked back on her time in elementary school, she expected to miss Earl Boyles.
“It’s actually been a big impact in my life, in a great way,” Ava said. “I’ve had a lot of great memories here, and I’m really sad that I’m leaving.”
Fifth graders at Earl Boyles didn’t have a graduation ceremony, but they got a number of awards at the final assembly. Munira was a Student of the Year and both she and Ava won academic prizes.
But now everything changes. Ava recalled getting an assignment in fifth grade to write a graphic novel. She wrote about a girl who was headed to middle school.
“She was dealing with some bullies and maybe making new friends — which I’m not really so nervous about bullies, as I was last year, thinking about it,” Ava said.
Munira said she was excited about middle school because she’ll be able to play music more and choose more of her own classes. But in fifth grade, she sometimes had a hard time finishing all her work.
"I’m pretty sure I need to work on that because I’m a pretty slow writer and a sloppy one, too," she said.
“Focusing? Are you focusing on that, and is that why you’re taking long?” asked her mother, Fatuma Moalim.
Munira said math is one of her strongest subjects, but she acknowledged that it can be hard to figure out what word problems are asking.
“Mostly on the math problems, understanding word problems, putting it in my brain, and finding out if it’s multiplication, subtraction, addition or division,” Munira said.
Munira said she’s really interested in science. But she’s also a natural activist and leader. She has said she’s interested in doing student council. She and her mother laugh about how her leadership shows up in her friendships.
“She was saying ‘I’ll correct everything. I can finish it and can correct it by myself,'” Munira’s mother said, with her daughter beside her.
“If you talk to my friends, I’ll correct them a lot of the time,” Munira said.
“That’s good,” her mother responded.
Since before she was writing books in first grade, Ava has talked about becoming a writer. But she’s had other ideas, too, such as being a teacher or a performer.
Her growing confidence as one of the oldest students at Earl Boyles Elementary helped her move a little further in the performance direction.
At a school assembly near the end of the year, she sang in front of 500 or so other students.
“I was really nervous because I was hiding my singing voice ever since I was in the third grade and I finally let it out," she said.
Ava and her teacher agree that her classmates were shocked.
On the last day of school, as fifth graders ate popcorn and cleared out their desks, Ava’s teacher asked her to sing one more time. She sang the school song.
Munira is planning to be a scientist, maybe a marine biologist. She knows that will take many more years in school, including college after she graduates in 2025.
“Lots and lots and lots [of college],” she said with a laugh. But as she looked ahead to sixth grade, she wasn’t concerning herself with that part of her future.
“That’s something I can worry about in high school, not now."
Munira’s right. It’s still a long way until 2025.
She, Ava and the rest of their classmates have to get through middle school first. That starts next week.