Here’s a story I wrote in 2013 as part of a journalism class in graduate school, in which I was focusing on chronic truancy in public schools. My friend Darla Frye, now Darla Deakin, allowed me to interview her. I think the piece turned out pretty well, and parts of it showcase the literary journalism style I would later focus on toward the end of my studies.
Originally published on CU-CitizenAccess.
Mother and daughter enter the brightly lit Biggby Coffee shop on Mattis Avenue in Champaign. It’s a brisk October evening, 7 p.m., dark outside.
Forty-year-old Darla Frye is a sixth-grade teacher at Urbana Middle School who’s taught in the same place for 15 years and has seen her share of discouraging trends in the school system: fewer counselors to assist students in need; shrinking budgets and cut programs; and parents who are indifferent to their kids missing too much school.
Darla has a master’s degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, her laptop in a bag and, at the moment, a strained look on her tan face. Her sandy hair is pulled back tight. On this Monday, she and daughter, Lauren, a third-grader at Robeson Elementary School in Champaign, haven’t been home yet.
The veteran teacher is used to the many working hours packed in to every teacher’s life.
“Monday seems so long,” Darla said. “Picking my daughter up and then getting dinner and then meeting you. It’s just a really long day.”
At first, the most eager person to chat is Lauren, who has plenty to keep her occupied while Mom is being interviewed: a book – Lauren loves to read – a video game device and sheets of paper to write on. At one point, Lauren scrawls on a sheet, “I would be good to talk to.”
Lauren is engaged and engaging, but her mother has seen numerous students over the years that are neither. Children who miss too much school, for instance, are the opposite of engaged.
“They’re usually very, very quiet,” Darla said. “Sometimes I think maybe they do have more health problems.”
Currently at the middle school, one out of 16 of students are chronically absent, an increase of 5% over the past three years.
Popping open her laptop, Darla pulls up a program specifically for Urbana teachers called Skyward, which shows students’ rates of absenteeism. Forty-five days into the quarter, one to three excused absences isn’t that big of a deal. But one student has missed a third of classes so far, and that is a concern. This child is one of five in her classes who have missed a significant amount of school early on.
To her surprise, Darla said, the chronically absent students this year are getting caught up with their work and passing their classes. But it doesn’t always work out so well. When children who are absent too often show behavior problems and get “straight zeros,” Darla and other staff members have meetings to determine what to do.
“If they’re special ed, they’ll get the extra help they need,” said Darla. “If they’re not, then those might be the ones who are more likely to fall behind grade-wise.”
Student absenteeism is “a gender-neutral” issue, Darla said, and 2011-12 statistics from the Illinois State Board of Education support that view. The number of males and females in Champaign schools who were chronically truant in 2011-12 was nearly even at 197 and 201. Students are considered chronically truant in Illinois when they miss nine or more days of school without valid reasons during the last 180 school days.
Darla works in what she calls a “gorgeous building,” and technology is increasing at the school. More students are getting access to iPads, and computer labs are available. Still, she laments school-funding issues. During her tenure, Darla has seen various programs and positions go away. She’s especially vexed about the lack of social workers.
“They’re spread so thin it’s not even funny,” Darla said. “That is the one thing that I think I would say I was passionate about. When we have all these kids with all these problems and never, never are they getting someone to sit down one on one.”
Tracy Welch is an instructional coach who also runs the language arts department, a subject Darla teaches. She said the two often discuss the students’ struggles that can stem from a rough home life or poverty.
“We’re always trying to figure out, especially Darla’s always trying to figure out, how she can get the kids even the basics of what they need,” Welch said.
Between classes, Welch said Darla stays out in the hallway – something not all of the teachers do – to manage behavior, help with locker issues or simply greet kids as they arrive to her classroom.
Darla said she and her fellow teachers have endless meetings, new rules and procedures to follow each year, sometimes new classes to teach, mounds of paperwork and mind-numbing red tape to get through. Darla spends her mornings supervising a drop-in study program called Jumpstart and is a “team facilitator” who makes sure administrative tasks get done.
“Her strongest suit is that she’s very well organized and detail-oriented,” said Darla’s former supervisor, Dionne Webster, who is now the principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Urbana.
Webster said Darla delivers the perfect mix of strict and nurturing to the students.
“You’re not going to see her in the hallway hugging people or that kind of thing, but she’ll have conversations with them and they know they can talk to her. She has a different style that’s all her own, but it works very well,” said Webster.
As busy as school life is, Darla said it is the little niceties of the job that keep her grateful: an appreciation dinner from the Parent Teacher Student Association; a touching email from a parent or a letter from a student; parent-teacher conferences that go well. Such things don’t happen on a daily basis, but when they do occur, “they keep us going,” Darla said.
Life outside the classroom does exist.
Darcy Frye, Darla’s 38-year-old sister, exercises and shops with Darla. Sometimes they go out to dinner, occasionally have a night out on the town, or take vacations, most recently to Florida.
Darcy calls her sister Darla “a great mother.”
“Lauren always comes first, and if there’s parties or projects or things that Lauren has planned and was looking forward to, Darla always goes through on that,” said Darcy. “She hardly ever has to disappoint Lauren, which I really like.”
Darla said she sometimes feels like a mother to 82 students at school.
“I’ve been doing it so long that I now see my students as adults. I see them in the community, and I really like that. I like seeing them grow up and be successful,” she said.
Back in the coffee shop, mother and one of her “students” stand by the front door looking at cards on a rack, preparing to head out into the chilly night and finally go home.
Photo by Elements5 Digital on Unsplash