Cuts at academy don't add up

Friday, July 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Project Succeed Academy is a success. But it's being treated like a failure.

Since the school for troubled students opened in 1996, suspensions and expulsions are down 27 percent, system-wide. At the North Fairmount school, 463 kids with severe discipline problems are being helped and getting an education.

So how do the ruling powers at Cincinnati Public Schools reward Project Succeed for a job well done? They slash its budget by 35 percent. In cold, hard cash, that's $745,000.

Four teachers will have to go, along with 15 of the school's 30 staff counselors. To do this to a school where every student needs counseling is a disgrace.

The cuts will also eliminate eight of Project Succeed's 15 case managers. Case managers do everything from referring students to community health agencies to occasionally picking up kids in the morning to make sure they go to school.

The unkindest cuts of all will be inflicted on the school's student body. Lionel Brown, the school's founder and the district's director of student affairs, had asked that the student population be increased to 500. Now, he's being told to cut it to 400 -- even though 800-1,000 names are on the school's waiting list.

Dollars, no sense

The school's critics say Project Succeed costs too much and somebody else -- outside agencies, for instance -- can solve its students' problems.

I'll try to say this without all the education and social-work jargon: Project Succeed is designed to help kids who can't handle school. They get in fights. They show up late, or not at all. They rage at teachers or other students.

Many are struggling with tough lives outside school. So there are those who say their problems are not our problem.

But how do you draw a line between these kids and other kids? We're talking social or self-control skills. Don't try to tell me everyone else in school is picking up only academic skills.

Project Succeed serves grades kindergarten through eighth. How much of what goes on in those grades, in any school, is academic education versus learning the rules of life?

So how do you identify one group of kids, kids in need, and say: "They demand too much, cut them"? I don't see the distinction. Others do. To them it comes down to money. These kids cost a little more.

But so do the physically and mentally impaired students. And so do the gifted students. But we figure they, like all kids should be, are worth it. The kids at Project Succeed, and dozens waiting to get in, just need some extra help fitting into our rules and our way of life.

Out of whack

On another level, the debate over funding Project Succeed reflects a society whose values are so misplaced as to be obscene.

As a community we have no problem coming up with $1 billion for two new stadiums. No one squawks when the Board of Education slaps a price tag of $300 million to $600 million on the estimate to repair the city's crumbling schools.

But Project Succeed's critics can say with a straight face that spending $7,067 per student per year at the school is too much. They point out that that generous amount is more than the district average of $6,800.

Even though I'm a product of Cincinnati Public Schools, I can do the math on this one. The difference between the two figures is $267. Guess that's too much to spend to keep from adding one more life to society's scrap heap.

No one is advocating that Project Succeed send its case managers home to cook dinner for the students or give them a free ride for the rest of their lives. The idea is just to provide extra help early in their lives so the community can enjoy the benefits of educated and capable adults for decades to come.

Cincinnati's educators should be reminded that public schools have a universal purpose. They exist to give everyone a decent education. That includes kids who need to learn how to get along in life.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.