Powell sat down in the seat next to Didi, who turned to him and said: "Coach Powell, are you going to follow me around to every class?"
Yes, was the answer. Matthew Hohner, the English teacher who was fed up with Didi's lack of focus, saw the hangdog look on Didi's face and thought, chuckling to himself, how miserable he must be and yet how good this was for him.
Didi thought it was the longest school day of his life. "He made me so embarrassed in front of everyone."
But Didi also knew Powell was showing how much he cared. Shouldice had hoped that the new, intense mentoring his teachers were providing on the playing field would reel in students who felt unconnected to school and make them more willing to work hard in their classes. Coaches were showing up at kids' homes and taking them out to dinner.
"It changed my behavior. It changed my attitude toward teachers," Didi said later.
In the fall of 2009, Shain Palmer was starting his third attempt at 10th grade, having nearly flunked or dropped out of several county high schools. Administrators had let him back into Dundalk halfway through the previous year, but his attendance was so poor that he never earned any credits.
Just about everyone had lost patience, including his mother. She was a high school dropout herself, and he remembers her telling him he might as well go out and get a job; he would never cross the stage in a cap and gown. When people gave up on him, Shain got angry and decided to prove them wrong. He returned to Dundalk for another try and found it had changed over the summer. The school was identifying and mentoring students who might drop out; and it was trying to get students to see graduation as a necessity no matter what.
Shain found one teacher he particularly liked. The feeling wasn't mutual, at least not at first.
Before he met Shain, Steve Teter had nearly written him off after reading the string of failing grades on his report cards. But then he realized this class troublemaker was bright and well read. What Shain needed was "positive reinforcement and feedback from the adults around him," Teter said.
When Shain did well on his first test, Teter saw a light go on. It was just enough of a catalyst to push him to work hard.
"Once he knew that I cared about him and thought he was smart and capable, he began to do exceptionally well. You could see that sense of pride building," Teter said. Shain made the honor roll every semester that year.
In Shain's mind, his moment of triumph came when Teter told the entire class that he had expected nothing but a "punk," but had found his best student. And there was another benefit. That troublemaker was now leading by example and turning others in his class around.
A sense of purpose
As 120 10th-graders sat down in front of computers in the library to take the state English test in May, Hohner was acutely aware of a new tension and seriousness of purpose in the room.
"You could have heard a pin drop for three and a half hours," he said. The students attacked the High School Assessment, a test they needed to pass to graduate. He was so proud. "I knew that I had kids on the right path for the first time."
Just two years before, Hohner had taught 10th-graders at Towson High School, where he believed nearly every student could have passed the test on the first day of class with little trouble.
But he had wanted to be more than just "a speed bump on someone's way to take over the world at … (fill in the blank with a great college)." At Dundalk, he thought, he might become a lifeline for students. After eight years at one of the county's best high schools, he jumped ship and went to one of the county's worst.
Some Towson teachers thought he was crazy, he said, and asked, "Don't you know how good it is here?"
He found he liked the straight-talking, in-your-face approach of the Dundalk students. A teacher with a love for the dramatic, Hohner identified with them. "Many of my kids are going through things I don't think most adults could deal with. They show me a strength and resilience just to get up here every day," he said.
Hohner had grown as a teacher, he thought. He was offering support to other colleagues because "you never know when you are going to be called to the next room because there is a fight or someone is having a meltdown." And as a gray-haired guy, he was learning from these energetic new teachers and beginning to see a change in the students who came to him.
They were better prepared, asking more questions about college and behaving better. "I am seeing a strong interest in academics," he said. Students who had gotten D's and E's were now getting C's, he said.
He saw so much untapped potential in students, in general, and wished the school had better strategies to get parents more involved in supporting good homework and study habits.