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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Changing Troublemakers' Behavior

This week on WUWM we're reporting on barriers to achievement in the Milwaukee Public Schools system. Thousands of students have been performing poorly on tests, and hundreds of teens drop out every year. As we’ve been highlighting in our series, children can have trouble learning for a number of reasons. One is that they may be surrounded by disruptive students. Troublemakers can cause distractions, at best. But in this installment of Project Milwaukee, Ann-Elise Henzl reports on one program helping restore order in classrooms.The Violence-Free Zone program in MPS hires young adults who've come from tough backgrounds, to serve as mentors for students who may not have positive role models. The advisors spend time with the young people before and after school and check in with them throughout the day, sometimes joining them for lunch.

Andre Robinson is director of the program at four schools on the city's south side. I met him at South Division High School. He told me a success story he had when working with a Latina who was highly disruptive, despite her 4'9" stature.

Andre Robinson: "She was very influential within the school and most people thought she was a gang leader for females, but she wasn't. But she knew a whole lot of people, she was very well connected on the streets. She was in a classroom and all of her friends in the classroom, they went as she went, the class went as she went, so every day she'd go in there and she'd cause trouble. The teacher was unable to teach and the teacher had serious issues with this one student and it started to get personal. So when the teacher heard about Violence-Free Zones she called us and said I have this one girl in my classroom and I don't think that she's teachable but I heard what you guys do and if you can talk to her I'd be grateful."

Robinson says he introduced himself to the student and offered to talk with her, if she had personal or academic problems to work out. It took weeks to gain her trust. Finally, Robinson convinced the girl to go with him to talk with her teacher.

Robinson: "And she was reluctant at first because she did not like the teacher based on their past history. But once we sat down and I asked the teacher to tell the student what she considered the problem to be, and she did that -- and then the student of course tried to butt in the whole time and interrupt and I said respect her like your respect me and let her talk first then you'll have your chance -- after the teacher got done talking, the student started to talk and the first thing that she said to the teacher was I don't believe that you see me. The student told the teacher that she thought that the teacher only saw her behavior -- she didn't see her as a person, she didn't see her as a student. And pow -- that opened up a doorway for them to start talking and to communicate."

Robinson says once the dialogue started, he just sat back and let the two work out their differences.

Robinson: "And from that day forward for that entire school year that classroom was calm and quiet for that hour. The teacher was able to instruct her students, and for all of the negative that her peers were looking at her and looking up to her for, now they started to look up to her for something positive, and that was the beginning. That student that year went from a 0.2 GPA to a 3.3 -- in one year -- and it was all because a teacher decided to just listen. And sometimes that's all it takes -- and trust me I understand the frustration that these teachers are going through, I mean this is a different type of youth from when we were growing up as students. I mean, we respected everyone because that's what we were taught to do. Now a lot of these students have absentee parents, or they have parents who are addicted to some sort of alcohol or drug, and they're just not there, so they aren't getting the same lessons that many of us got."

Robinson says such students believe teachers -- and other adults -- have to earn their respect. He says that can be tough for adults to swallow, but if they try and try again to reach a troubled young person there's a good chance the efforts will pay off.