It All Adds Up | Our Town | Chicago Reader

It All Adds Up 

Can one math teacher make a difference at an inner-city school? Greg Treadwell believes he has the answer to that one.

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Fifth-grader Antonio Reed stands at a blackboard at the Marcy Center, a settlement house in North Lawndale. Wearing a University of Michigan jersey and a do-rag, he puzzles over a math problem: "11/14 x 7/22 x 3 = ."

"Remember to reduce," says Greg Treadwell, a tall man in jeans and a plaid shirt. "Make it easy on yourself by following the rules. There are reasons for rules."

Antonio writes "3/4" as the answer.

"Everybody agree with that?" Treadwell asks the 40 or more kids assembled before him. They sit at long tables, the space brightly colored yet harshly lit under fluorescent bulbs. After pondering Treadwell's question they deliver a collective "yeah." Treadwell nods, dismisses Antonio, and summons a girl to the board to tackle the next problem.

Two afternoons a week Treadwell runs a tutoring program at the Marcy Center for third- through eighth-graders, most of them boys from nearby Penn School. It's a volunteer effort for the 49-year-old Lawndale native, a paralegal for the U.S. Customs Service. "You get some people who grew up around here and come back to help," says Karl Bass, evening coordinator for the center. "But they don't have much time to volunteer. Greg does, 'cause he lives here and understands the struggle to stay straight and do well in this neighborhood."

As a boy Treadwell attended Penn, a massive brick facility at the corner of 16th and Springfield that dates back to 1916. "I played bugle in the band," he recalls. After graduating from Farragut High School he moved to the south side and then to Rogers Park to attend Loyola, where he earned a bachelor's degree in legal administration. In 1985 he returned to Lawndale to be near his mother, and at a Marcy Center function he met Loretta Webber. A year later she moved in with him, and together they raised five children from earlier relationships, as well as Tyron, a son they had together. At that point all their school-age children were attending Penn, and in 1989, after the state legislature passed the school reform bill that created local school councils, Treadwell was elected to a seat on the Penn council. Webber, then president of the PTA, joined the council after one of the other parents resigned.

Principals came and went, and by 1996 the Board of Education had placed Penn on probation. Only 13 percent of its students were scoring at or above the national norm in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills; for math the figure was 15 percent. "I would look at the scores, and I couldn't believe them," says Treadwell. "These kids could learn. They could learn the words to rap songs, word for word." After his family moved into another house, all the children except for Tyron transferred to Dvorak School down the street, and while its demographics were identical, Dvorak had better scores. "That told me that something was being done differently there."

Treadwell decided to tutor elementary-age students in math over the dinner hour, from 5:30 to 7:30 PM. "That seemed to be trouble time, with gangs, shootings, and the rest. In this community, kids don't go in at night. Even when it's cold, you'll see kids walking the street." He pitched the idea to Bass, who arranged for space at the Marcy Center, and then he incorporated the Justus Tutorial Program.

Sometimes William Nelson, a math teacher at Farragut, lends a hand. "We have some older kids who are pretty sharp, and Mr. Nelson will take them way over level, to algebra," says Treadwell. "But he coaches the basketball team at Farragut, so his availability is limited." Loretta Webber and her brother Tyrone, a substitute teacher, also pitch in from time to time, but for the most part Treadwell runs the program. He buys math instruction books at a teachers' store, reproduces pages on a home copy machine, and hands them out as quizzes. The grades he issues don't count for anything, but at each session he and his students will review the quiz from the last session, take a new one, and then go over it. At seven Treadwell cuts them loose to run around and play basketball in the Marcy Center's gymnasium.

Today's quiz contains ten items on fractions, three of them story problems. Theo Hunter has difficulty multiplying $2.50 by one-half. "Theo, you got that wrong," says Treadwell. "Melvin, can you help Theo out?" No sooner has Melvin Davis Jr. furnished the correct answer than Treadwell, noticing how loud the room has gotten, takes a whistle from his back pocket and blows it hard, silencing the students.

"Everybody's just jacking off, running at the mouth," he says. "I meant to bring a treat today--I had a box of suckers, but I left it at home. But you don't deserve a treat anyway. And there'll be no playtime today, because you all want to play now."

The atmosphere becomes more respectful, though Treadwell soon notices that one of his sixth-graders is being disruptive again. "Are you with us here?" Treadwell asks. The boy bows his head and says yes. "Do I need to talk to your father again? He assured me you wouldn't be no more trouble."

Larry Dinsmore is called to the board to struggle with one of the story problems. Treadwell does the problem himself, producing a different answer from Dinsmore's, and asks Brittieny McKinley to give the problem a try to settle the matter. When she's done, Treadway declares, "Brittieny's right." He believes that students reviewing each other's work facilitates learning.

"OK, it's seven o'clock," says Treadwell. "Clean up. Fold your chairs up and put them on the tables. Then go to the gym for playtime." Treadwell often threatens to cancel playtime but rarely follows through. "We never believe him," says eighth-grader Bryant Webber, a nephew of Webber's.

The regulars at Justus Tutorial have learned how to read Treadwell's moods. "When he's serious, he's serious," says Quittman Hunter, an eighth-grader. "But he usually gets to joking." The students say they participate to improve their skills, but also because they like Treadwell. "I'm having trouble with math, so I come here to get practice," says Darius Billups, another eighth-grader. "Most people around here don't let us come in for a program like this, but Mr. Treadwell lets us in. He's cool."

At first Treadwell ran the program on about $300 a year, most of it donated by the Holy City Masonic Lodge in Lawndale. "When I'd run out," he says, "I'd spend out of my own pocket." But last year the city began awarding him an annual grant of $4,000, which allows him to organize summer field trips to a Boy Scout camp in Yorkville and to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. After tutoring sessions he chauffeurs a half-dozen kids home in his van, and on Friday nights he sponsors basketball practices. "Tutoring isn't a prerequisite for kids to come on Friday," he says. "But if it so happens, I will hold it out to them that they haven't been showing up on Tuesday and Thursday."

Last April, Treadwell and Webber were married, and when Tyron graduated from Penn two months later they resigned from the LSC. This year the school has been plagued by gun violence: on September 29, a gang-related shoot-out left one young man dead and another wounded outside the school, and Elbert Mahone, a reputed drug dealer with the Conservative Vice Lords, was kidnapped two blocks away and executed. Three months later someone celebrated the New Year by shooting out all the windows on one side of the school.

Despite such incidents, Penn has made dramatic advances in recent years. Patricia Kent was named principal in 1996; a direct, talkative woman, she's brought in a majority of new teachers, focused on instruction, nailed down relationships with area universities, and established Saturday classes. Penn now has a Harry Potter club. Any child needing glasses gets a pair from the University of Illinois eye clinic, not from a drawer of castoffs in the main office. "Just because people are shooting outside Penn doesn't mean it's one of the worst schools in Chicago," says Kent. "In fact, we're one of the best." Test scores are still low--in reading, 23 percent of Penn's students score at grade level; in math, 40 percent--but compared to five years ago, they represent a significant improvement. Kent acknowledges that Treadwell has contributed to the gain in math. "He's giving back something positive and is always a part of the school."

"I do take some credit here," says Treadwell. "I'm reinforcing material that is going to be on the Iowas. Months ago we started a module on geometry, and I want to come back to the subject before the new tests come in the spring." Treadwell also takes pleasure in his students' real-world successes. "The Sun-Times published some percentages on one thing or another. Well, the paper got the percentages wrong, and some of my kids got on that fact--the paper had rounded up instead of down." Treadwell wrote a letter to the paper notifying them of the error and forwarded it to Kent to send off.

"You don't see a lot of positives for kids in Lawndale," says Treadwell. "One of my dreams was to show that there's more to life than standing on the corner selling drugs. I'd say my kids have drive, and I feed off that. I'm going to keep on doing the tutoring no matter what."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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