Years of Academic Failure Reversed for Troubled High School Student

The Reading Challenge: A troubled teen had fallen through the cracks in learning to read.

Darcell’s Story: When six-foot-four, 220-pound Darcell first entered the doors of the Carpe Diem Northwest Innovative School in Indianapolis, IN, he brought along with him an impressive record of arrests for battery, robbery, break ins, and gang activities — not unusual for this high-poverty, inner-city area where gangs, drugs, stabbings, shootings and other violent crimes are part of everyday life.
In addition to a rap sheet, Darcell also brought along with him “a deep feeling of failure,” says Reading and RtI Specialist, Carri O’Donnell. She recognized that the young man, who was not battling the dyslexia some of her other students were, had simply been passed on from grade to grade “because nobody wanted to deal with him.”

Though 18 years old, Darcell had accrued just 11 high school credits by September of 2015, due in part to missing school but also to his inability to read much past the forth-grade level.

O’Donnell’s daily literacy intervention class—which she furnished with couches, rocking chairs and tables, rather than desks— quickly became a haven for Darcell. Putting him on MindPlay 40-minutes a day, four days a week, O’Donnell says his deep engagement with the program soon meant she had to keep tapping him on the shoulder to tell him time was up. When she did, he’d say, “I don’t want to stop. I’m reading.”

Darcell immediately began making progress and just before winter break, O’Donnell had him recognized for “Most Improved Reader” in front of the school at an awards program, but the young man would not go up to the stage. “You’ve never won an award before, have you?” asked O’Donnell and he confirmed it was true.

Darcell was the poster boy for the at-risk student: raised in poverty, single-parent home with no father in the picture and a familiar face in the local juvenile justice system. Research showed O’Donnell his trajectory was clear. He would drop out of school, rack up more encounters with the justice system, hold only low-paying jobs, have poorer health and a lower quality of life than his high school-graduate peers, and likely pass on the legacy to his own children.

Instead, Darcell learned to read.

The Impact: In the nine months since he began school this year, Darcell has moved through the required curriculum of freshman, sophomore and junior English. His vocabulary and demeanor have changed. Dressed in the school’s required coat and tie rather than gang colors, and now wearing glasses, he has a new dignity about him. “And he’s always asking me for books,” says O’Donnell. She obliged, digging into her own pockets to purchase these books, just for Darcell.

A chronic discipline problem at his previous schools, Darcell has not been “one ounce of a behavioral problem at Carpe Diem Northwest,” says O’Donnell. He has also excelled in his other classes because of MindPlay, earning A’s and B’s in much needed classes to get him to graduation. “He is now an honor student—and he even watches out for the younger kids,” says O’Donnell.

Darcell is still a work in progress. His life remains a tough one, he has another year-and-a-half of school before he graduates and O’Donnell leverages MindPlay as a motivator to ensure he and her other students don’t skip classes. But Darcell’s new reading skills have allowed him to break the cycle of failure that had been the sum total of his school experience for the first 18 years of life. Learning to read has opened up a whole new world of confidence and accomplishment for Darcell, and O’Donnell says he’s also even holding down a regular job at MacDonalds.