Friday, June 7, 1996
In year of cuts, levies, classes still 'carry on'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Phyllis, Anthony and Tommie are all smiles. This is the last day of school.

And they are Cincinnati Public School teachers.

"After the year we've had, not one teacher in the system should walk out of school without a smile," Phyllis says.

Phyllis Johnstone guides third-graders behind door No. 3 at Westwood Elementary. Anthony Michele is Mr. Science at Schwab Middle School. Tommie Lewis teaches chemistry at Aiken High School.

I first talked with them on a hot August day last summer as school opened under a cloud of $31.4 million in budget cuts. The teachers shared their hopes and dreams for the coming nine months.

Three passed school levies later, I caught up with the teachers as the 1995-96 school year wound down to its final day. To put things into perspective, I asked them to grab a red pencil and give the year a grade.

Mrs. Johnstone gave it an A-. "Always room for improvement."

Mr. Michele put down a B. "Lots of neat field trips and fun in the lab. But the budget cuts hurt us big time."

Mr. Lewis gave it an A for "Exciting."

The second-year chemistry teacher based part of his grade on the school levies. "When they passed, it showed the kids - who were afraid the schools would close - the community supported them. It also showed Cincinnati Public Schools we need to measure up to that support."

Could be better

Mr. Lewis knows the year wasn't perfect. "Absenteeism's still too high," he frets. "You can't teach an empty desk."

And discipline is still a problem. "But that's going to get fixed."

There's money for it. CPS's just-released 1996-97 budget calls for the establishment of a school for problem students and the spending of $4 million to adopt a 10-point discipline plan.

With discipline being such a pressing issue, Mrs. Johnstone doesn't think there's any money in the budget to fix the leaky windows in her classroom. Or to keep her from spending her own money on note paper and treats like candy bars and apples for her students.

But she doesn't care.

"My classroom is its own little community," she says. "We just carry on.

"The kids are too important to worry about spending my own money. I don't do this for a tax write-off. I do it to give kids an education."

Mr. Michele estimates $1,000 left his pocket and went into teaching science.

"But, so what?" he says. "You have to keep them learning, not grumbling. My kids felt so let down by the cutbacks. They didn't even know we had a library in this school until the funds became available for it to reopen in April."

Wait'll next year

The library never opened at Aiken.

"To students, a library is what education is all about," Mr. Lewis moans. "And we locked them out all year!"

He turns and stares at a periodic table of elements. It hangs on a wall below the clock that has been stuck all year at three minutes until 11.

Everything is so cut and dried on that table, so exact. But education is not an exact science.

Mr. Lewis learned that lesson this year with a student named Andrew.

For the first half of the year, Andrew did nothing. He didn't study, turn in any papers or bother his neighbors. "He didn't even fall asleep in class."

At mid-year, Andrew turned into a chemistry wizard. "He told me I was making the course so easy anybody could get it," Mr. Lewis notes. "He wanted to show me even he could do it. That showed me: Never be too quick to cross someone off the list."

Andrew, his classmates and thousands like them are the reasons Phyllis, Anthony and Tommie are smiling today. They're also why the three teachers plan on returning for the 1996-97 school year.

"I have to come back," Phyllis Johnstone insists. "Next year's only my 25th in teaching. I've barely gotten started."

"I love working with my kids," says Anthony Michele. "I'll be back."

Come Aug. 27, when the first day of school rolls around again, Tommie Lewis knows where he'll be. At his desk in Aiken's chemistry lab.

"There are too many challenges like Andrew still to be met," he says. "I haven't finished running the race."

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.