editor's note: Associate editor Andy Netzel and photographer Greg Ruffing began reporting this story in May 2008. They have been periodically checking in with the subjects since then.
Two Lincoln-West High School staffers hang at the edges to keep an eye on things, calling out to those passing in the halls to get back to class and tuck in their shirts.
A student catches assistant principal Kate Sergent's eye. Ruben Rosado is hard to miss. He has long, bushy hair pulled back in a ponytail, but the black frizz doesn't cover up the collar, which is a different color than the rest of the polo. It's a violation of the strict dress code that has been implemented at all Cleveland public schools. To make matters worse, the shirt is hanging out of his pants.
Ruben Rosado keeps his mom busy. For months, the backyard was a series of hills he created to do tricks on his bike. She eventually made him level it out.
"But Mrs. Sergent, all my shirts that meet code are dirty."
Mrs. Sergent rolls her eyes. She starts writing. Ruben looks incredulous. He looks hurt.
"How many shirts have we given you?" she says, shaking her head, still writing.
A smile creeps across his face. "Like, 82."
"And they're all dirty?"
Ruben lets out half a laugh. Busted. He fishes in his pocket for his Rubik's Cube. It goes from disco-ball random to six solid-colored sides before she finishes the paperwork for in-school suspension. One minute and 40 seconds.
"Damn. My best time is 1:16."
"Ruben, you're a smart kid. If you'd just apply yourself ..."
She doesn't finish her sentence. She knows she's the only one listening. He looks down, grabs the paper and slinks away.
She's only 18, but if she told you she was 30, you'd believe her. The short nights and long days already show in the corners of her eyes. Her minimum-wage job at Taco Bell is one of a string that started when she was 14 and her family needed another paycheck. Since then, she's worked to supplement her mom's disability checks and help raise her little sister.
She runs her hand over her head, smoothing her profile. "I have gray hair, and I'm 18." Her voice sounds strongest when she speaks most vulnerably.
Seven years ago, Angelia overheard a doctor telling her mother she didn't have long to live. "You weren't supposed to hear that!" her mother scolded her. Life has been different since then, but her mom is still alive.
The 2008 school year just ended. Until recently, Angelia feared she might not earn her diploma. She still hadn't passed two sections of the Ohio Graduation Test. When Carrie Cofer, her mentor and English teacher, told her she passed, she cried.
"Sometimes I didn't have a way to get to school," Angelia says. "I didn't have enough money. We went weeks without food. It was really hard. It was only me doing things on my own."
She's received an acceptance letter to the University of Toledo, but that's just a dream. She can't leave her family behind.
Instead, she enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College, with a focus on business administration. "Someday I want to have my own business. A spa. A beauty salon," she says. "Someday."
"Tuck 'em in! Tuck 'em in!" he crows. "I'm serious! Get it in!"
As he passes, the kids pull the shirts loose again. There are no wrinkles to indicate they've spent more than a few minutes a day pressed against a waist. But the dress code says shirts must be tucked in and, as principal, Mr. Muffet has to enforce it. Of all the problems that happen daily in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, he says it could be a lot worse.
This is not like walking the halls of a suburban high school, with bubbly gossip and covert texting. No one is rushing anywhere. The bell rings, and none of the students seem to notice. They saunter toward classrooms but stop to say hello to friends.
At first glance, these kids seem disconnected from so many others in their generation. Kids this age are referred to as Millennials. They've been called the most parented generation ever. They revolt against the cynical Generation Xers with optimism. They rely on technology like no generation before them. But at Lincoln-West, many of these kids don't have a computer at home, let alone a laptop to take to class.
"Let's go! Let's go!" Mr. Muffet says, clapping his hands after the students. They head toward classrooms with the least amount of urgency they can get away with.
Everything is slow-motion, except for the eye rolls.
In Athan Sarantopoulos' classroom, students reteach what they've just learned to reinforce the lesson.
"Quiero saber!I want to know!"
The math teacher's regular refrain, a bit loud, jolts a few students to attention. He only knows 40 or so words in Spanish, he admits, but it usually takes the students a few weeks to figure that out. The accent is perfect and confident.
A group of students in the front of the room work away at the problem on the board. This class has two gears: chatty and chaos. Mr. Sarantopoulos tries to reach the students who pay attention. He occasionally begs those who won't to at least keep quiet.
The most attentive students are on the right side of the classroom. Most are recent immigrants from Africa. There are conversations in at least four different languages while Mr. Sarantopoulos tries to teach.
He only teaches in five-minute bursts. He calls out a student's name and has him reteach each concept every few minutes. When students are at the board teaching, Mr. Sarantopoulos tries even harder to get them some quiet respect, but it's never silent. He sits down in a student's seat and watches.
"This works," he says, pointing to the kid at the board. "It gives them confidence. And it helps the kids to hear it again."
He cuts his last word short. "EXCELLENT job. Now can anyone tell me the next step?"
Gerald Sanders Jr. lives at his grandmother's house in East Cleveland and travels across to the West Side to attend Lincoln-West.
Gerald lives in East Cleveland with his grandmother; he won't say why he has moved out of his parents' home near Lincoln-West. His grandmother's house is well-kept, preserved as if it were still 1962. In fact, on the living room couch (protected by a layer of plastic), there are stuffed animals her husband won her at a fair when they were still dating. They, too, are wrapped in plastic. In the daylight, the street seems nice — the homes are gritty, but the lawns are meticulous, and friendly faces talk between porches. At night, some shady characters walk by.
Gerald strokes his mustache, looking thoughtful.
"People who live in the suburbs, they work hard to be in the suburbs, and they want to make sure their kids have a good life. It's not like there's a sign on the suburbs that says you can't move there. So I can't knock them."
But are kids in the suburbs different? Do these kids have the same dreams? The same optimism?
"They do act snotty sometimes and act like we're super poor."
He stops himself and sits up straight. "Honestly, I ain't never stepped foot in the suburbs, so I don't know what it's like out there. I don't want to judge."
The next day, he saw her in the lunchroom at Lincoln-West. She just shook her head from side to side.
Evy and Ruben had been going out for two years, even though Evy's family didn't allow her to date yet. They did it on the sly. They'd climb out their bedroom windows at night and meet in Cudell Park. Sometimes, when they heard a car pass, they'd hide in the woods.
They almost always got caught. Ruben's mom, Veronica Rosado, is skilled at sensing an empty bed and too worried not to go looking for her son in their Cudell neighborhood, just east of Edgewater and west of Ohio City.
It's near the old West Tech, and most homes are occupied. Many are rentals. It seems every house needs about a $10,000 renovation to get it in good shape again.
Frankly, the neighborhood makes Mrs. Rosado anxious. She had been on the sheriff's Web site: 102 sex offenders share the same ZIP code as her West 95th Street home. She used to work at a funeral home and has seen too many teenagers buried.
But Ruben and Evy always found a way. Love has a way of doing that.
The third day, Evy went to the drug store. She double-checked the instructions. No question. It was positive. She called Ruben, and they went to the hospital. It was too busy. Come back later. So they went to Walgreens and bought another test. The result did not change.
Lincoln-West falls into the same traps that many urban schools do, he says.
"There's often a lower level of cognition that takes place in the urban setting," he says. "That's due to a lot of different situations. Teachers have low expectations for students, so they dumb down the curriculum. They also fear keeping control of the situation."
Lincoln-West has some amazing teachers. But it's hard to keep good ones.
"We definitely need our best teachers in our urban schools, not in the suburbs," he says. "But you can understand why they want to go to the suburbs."
Evy is three weeks from her September 2008 due date. She says she's ready to have her baby girl, and get back to Lincoln-West to finish her studies.
She stormed up to her son's room.
"Ruben, is Evy pregnant?"
"No!" he lied.
She stormed away, then back. Ruben is crying.
"No, Mom, no!"
Evy had been pregnant for three months and they had not told anyone yet. Mrs. Rosado called Ruben all day long on his cell phone. Finally he said, "We'll talk when I get home."
That night, his dad, his mom and his sisters all sat down. He told them.
Mrs. Rosado picked up the phone and dialed Evy's number.
Evy didn't know what to say. She started crying into the receiver. Mrs. Rosado started crying, too.
This wasn't how Evy wanted this news to be shared.
"I was so mad she found out on her own. I wanted to sit her down."
But Evy did get to tell her the due date: Sept. 18, 2008.
They cried some more.
But her mom has always been there for her. Angelia can't walk away. She's not like her dad.
"I don't have a father," Angelia corrects. "I have a sperm donor. Last time I saw him, I was 6. He called me on my 16th birthday and told me I was a mistake."
His side of the family doesn't talk to Angelia anymore. She says ever since her twin brother died when they were 2 years old, it seems like their love for her died, too.
Angelia does everything for her mother. She doesn't want to go into details, but her eyes get big when she says everything.
"My mom understands she's dying. She has a tumor. She has a tracheotomy. She has congenital heart failure. She has one lung that's working. She has diabetes. She has carpal tunnel. And she won't tell me everything that's wrong with her, either."
"I'm 18 and living in hell," she says. "The only other bad thing that could happen is my mom dying. I can't think of anything worse than losing my mother."
Edward Muffet has watched these kids grow up. He worked at one of the junior high schools that feeds into Lincoln-West before becoming principal.
While he walks in the hall, he's talking. He's not particularly tall, though he looks it next to a freshman. His hair is retreating, his high-prescription lenses distort his eyes when you look at him directly, and he looks like he should have a mustache, even though his upper lip is smooth-shaven. He wanted to work in a factory when he was growing up, but his dad forbade it. He has a factory man's hands, though, big and coarse.
He points to a Plain Dealer article on the wall he's framed about the multiculturalism of his school. Flags from the 30-plus countries represented at the school are in a display case. That's the Lincoln-West he prefers to talk about.
Still, there is another side.
"We deal with a lot of issues," Mr. Muffet says. "We have to teach these kids it's not OK for a boyfriend to hit you. Kids get raped. They get beat at home. Kids get kicked out of their home. Moms use their kid as a babysitter because she doesn't want to watch her own kids.
"I won't let kids stay home to do that."
In the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, four out of every 10 students drop out before graduation.
Gerald, a tall, slender kid with close-cropped, curly hair and bleach-white teeth, has visited all these schools and grabbed as much literature as possible.
"I don't want to pay a lot of money and feel stuck somewhere. I want to find a place I feel comfortable," he says. "Right now, Toledo is first, Central is second."
His cousin Brittany is at the University of Toledo now, and another cousin, Marshay, is supposed to start there in the fall.
No immediate family member has even a high school diploma.
He has three sisters: One dropped out of school and is married with three kids. One is married with a kid. Another is married with no kids. "I didn't go to any of their weddings," Gerald says. "I didn't even know about it."
He has four brothers: Two are older — one is in the Army, the other he's lost track of. The younger ones are still in school and idolize Gerald.
Across the room at his grandma's house, his cousin is playing Sonic the Hedgehog on a 1990s Sega Genesis game console.
"I got a Sega Genesis, Dreamcast, GameCube. I got so many systems. They all still work," Gerald says. "The neighborhood is too bad, so that's what I do. I play games. And I like to bowl."
He looks around the living room, lined with trophies of little men holding little bowling balls. It's filled. And it's the second-most trophy-laden room in the house.
"These aren't mine. My grandma wins all the trophies."
Lottery tickets. Mega Millions.
"Ruben, you're buying lottery tickets? That's illegal for them to sell it to you. You're a minor!"
It's not just Mega Millions. He plays Pick 3, too.
"Every day, I buy like three tickets," he explains. "Three dollars isn't a lot. If I hit? I'll be straight. I'll invest it so good."
One day at the corner store, the three commas separating zeros caught his eye. "I saw the money. It's so much," he says. "I could get a ticket for a dollar? Done."
He's told Evy about his dreams for a while. If he hits, there will be no more school. He'll never work.
He'll hand a bunch of cash to his mom and dad. He'll share with everyone he knows. "I wouldn't blow it if I won it," he says.
"That's a lie," laughs Evy.
He was planning on telling his folks. After all, he's only 17. He can't cash in a winner. His dad will cash it. Of course, he's never had to worry about that. He hasn't won anything yet.
"Learning starts taking place as infants," he says. "There are certain things that aren't taught in the home."
Parents don't give their kids the tools that will help them be effective in school, he says. They don't add vocabulary as the children get older — they don't have those verbal skills themselves, which means they pass on their deficit.
These kids don't have high expectations for school, he says. "It doesn't matter what you say to kids, it's what you do and what they see. If they don't see adults in their community who are doctors and lawyers and put on suits and ties to go to work, they're not going to have that concept in their mind that it's possible."
If he doesn't hit it big, he always figures he can fall back on pharmacy. That's what he plans to study at Toledo. It pays well, and it seems easier than a lot of the other majors, he says.
"I got this calendar, and it tells you what you should do as a senior to get into college. Toledo gave this to me."
He opens the calendar. It tells him when to take the SAT, when to submit an application and when to apply for financial aid.
And if he can't get into Toledo, he figures he can always get a commercial driver's license and drive a truck.
"A lot of people have been telling me that I'm going to make it," he says. "I could be successful. I don't know why, but they see something."
Gerald doesn't realize what people see when they meet him. He's charismatic — charming, even. He's put together. He does not miss an opportunity. If he thinks you can help him, he will ask you for constructive criticism. He will offer whatever he thinks you could use in return. He makes you root for him.
"Go ahead," Ruben says. "You're going to need them."
Ruben recently saw the movie21 — the one about the MIT students who went to Las Vegas and cleaned up after learning how to count cards in blackjack. Then he searched the Internet.
"It's kind of hard," Ruben says. "You have to have a good memory."
Hand by hand, he watches everything that's going on. He gets Mark talking, but he's not really listening. He's focusing on the cards. He's remembering what's been played.
He takes all Mark's pennies.
Evy sighs. "He has an eye for things that interest him. But that's it. No other way."
Ruben's smile is part michevious and part like you're in on a joke. You can tell he might try to talk you out of a few bucks, but you probably wouldn't care.
"With that Rubik's Cube, nobody believed he could do it," Evy says. "He'd bet people $2 he could do it. We was in McDonald's and everybody owed him $2."
It's good he's bringing in some money, though, right?
Evy laughs. "We'll have so many pennies ..."
Ruben skips school today. His uncle is visiting from Chicago, and he wants to spend the day with him.
Robert Duesing, Ruben's sophomore earth science teacher, isn't surprised. He's frustrated.
He looks at the class and taps his head. "These kids just don't think," Mr. Duesing says. "Some of you kids don't have much in here, do you?"
He hands out an assignment.
"In the suburbs, they'd call this homework. Here, it keeps them quiet while they're supposed to be learning. It doesn't teach them anything."
"I think about it every day," she says. "You have to buy books and everything else. I don't have finances. But I don't want to wait, because then I might not go. I'll get lazy."
She pauses. Angelia has a confidence that rarely fades. But she breaks character, sniffling, showing a little bit of weakness.
"I have no easy way to do anything, and that sucks," she says. "I just try my best.
"My momma always tells me if you work hard it will pay off. Sometimes I just want to scream, WHEN?!'"
"I have 30 different countries represented and 50 different languages spoken in my school any given day," he says. "You want to see diversity, come here and take in the flavors at Lincoln-West. You don't force different cultures to sit together. ... You let it happen, and it just does."
And he's right. Looking out over a lunch room, the popular kids have their table, as do the geeks. But no one seems to be clustered by skin color. The kids come from hard-working families. Rarely are parents unemployed, just underemployed, working jobs that aren't enough to support families.
A young girl comes to the office. Muffet hands her a bus pass.
She works at Steelyard Commons and used to walk home at night. That's why she was tardy sometimes. She couldn't wake up. She was too tired from working late at Chipotle. As long as she's on time, he helps her with a bus pass here and there.
It's easy to dismiss these kids, especially since a lot of Cleveland kids don't go on to college, he says. He sees the hope that is supposed to define their generation. You just might not recognize what they're striving for as hopeful, unless you know their situation.
"These kids still have their dreams. Not doctor or lawyer dreams. Most of them just want to have a job and take care of their families," he says. "Suburban kids are worried about taking care of themselves, getting $100,000- and $200,000-a-year jobs. Success to these kids is owning a home, having a family, a full-time job."
He runs his hand across his lip.
"Don't look at Cleveland kids and say, Well, they're from Cleveland. They won't make it.' Walk these hallways," he says. "See how they get along every day. See how special needs students are treated with respect here. We can't be judged by our test scores. These are my kids. They're good kids."
He met Veronica young, and they had Ruben young.
He straightened up his act and got a good job, eventually finding a position as a truck driver. He moved away from where he got in trouble, finding a new home in Cleveland.
He worked hard, and so did Veronica. Between the two of them, they were able to afford their own home.
And that's why this whole situation is so frustrating. As hard as they worked, their son is falling in the same trap of too-young-to-be-a-parent fatherhood.
His daughter faced a minor illness, and it happened before he was a Teamster with insurance. It nearly sunk the family.
"She makes $14 an hour. I make $17 an hour," Mr. Rosado says of his and his wife's pay. "It might sound like a lot in the ghetto, becausewe are in the hood. But when you look at what we have to pay just to maintain a normal life, you don't have money left over to pay hospital bills."
He has health insurance now. Good insurance. Medical Mutual. But it seems like there is always something unexpected happening that costs more than it should.
They told their kids that they want the best for them, but they'll never be able to give them everything they want.
Sometimes the family has struggled with even having enough food to eat, but they don't qualify for public assistance. Mr. Rosado says it's frustrating to see folks in Cadillacs getting help as he drives away empty-handed in his beater. He starts to get upset then takes a breath. "It's hard to be honest."
He and his wife are encouraging Ruben to be a diesel mechanic. It's something he's shown interest in, and it's doable — even with their limited resources.
"The only thing I want for my son is to graduate and at least take a trade," Mrs. Rosado says. "I'm not in denial. We cannot afford college."
"If you go to a Solon, the kids are motivated to learn because that's all they've ever known," he says. "They know they're going to college. You could throw a textbook in the middle of the room and they'd educate themselves."
He met a guy who has the equipment, but he does the mixing himself. Right now, he needs a picture for his CD cover. Maybe one that shows him sitting on the porch of one of the foreclosed houses that pepper every street he walks down.
He hates seeing those boarded-up homes.
"I heard someone say that people own these abandoned homes in this neighborhood, and it's people from out in the suburbs who own it. They want to get top dollar for it. That's greedy."
He crosses his arms and thinks about how he'd pose.
A manilla folder holds pictures of him from a few months before. He flips through. "I like these," he says. "Yeah. This is going to be a great album cover."
Mrs. Rosado called the school asking for help, but she didn't get any answers.
Because Ruben was born early, only 27 weeks into her pregnancy, she thought that might have had something to do with it. "His brain was not developed properly like a full-term baby."
She lobbied the school to do something. It was obvious he was struggling.
"It took me two years to get an evaluation," she says. "He got into special ed, and he did well."
Ruben says things became easier, and the teachers did a lot to help him understand his materials. Thomas Jefferson Middle School no longer seemed ominous.
But when he went to Lincoln-West, he was reintegrated with the general population. He says a