Glimmers of Progress at a Failing School

Winnie Hu:

THIRD grade has always been a hard year for Rahmana Muhammad’s children, and therefore for her. All of a sudden, it seems to this mother of four, their textbooks have fewer pictures, their homework lasts for hours, and their test scores plummet.
So Ms. Muhammad, 39, was not sure what to expect last month when she arrived at the Newton Street School in Newark to pick up a report card for her youngest child, Dyshirah, 9, who is in third grade. After climbing the concrete stairs to Dyshirah’s classroom, Ms. Muhammad greeted the teacher, Kevin Kilgore, and hunkered down at a low table with the report card. Opening it, she found a C in reading, and a D in math.
Ms. Muhammad looked over at Dyshirah, a slight girl with a head full of braids, who was tracing sentences in a book with her finger. Mr. Kilgore, 22, assured Ms. Muhammad that Dyshirah had made a lot of progress, earning an average of 51 percent on her class math tests compared with 17 percent at the beginning of the marking period.
“I’m not happy but I’m optimistic,” said Ms. Muhammad, a supermarket customer service representative who graduated from Newton in 1982. “I see the changes. Before, I couldn’t pay her to read anything, and now she’ll come in and say, ‘Can I read this to you?’ ”