Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Teens' coins add up to pride, hope

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        School pride is high on the lunch-time menu this week at Hughes Center.

        Alongside the pizza, french fries and chicken nuggets, school pride is the extra choice offered to students by a teacher who wants to build dreams out of pennies.

        I made that pleasant discovery during this week's “Lunch with Cliff.” That's where I meet people at their regular midday haunts to hear what's on their minds.

        All this week, the classes at the University Heights high school are competing against each other in a penny war. So far, first place belongs to the juniors. They're beating the senior, sophomore and freshman classes — as well as the teachers and staff — as everyone pitches in pennies to contribute to a planned $500,000 project to landscape the school's lawn and make Hughes' main entrance handicap accessible.

        Seeing the enthusiasm provides a very positive view of high school students today and how they feel about their school.

        As explained by Jamie Beirne, a Hughes English teacher, this is how the penny war works:

        Drop a penny in your class's plastic jug — and score a point for your side. Drop a quarter or a dime or a nickel into the jug of an opposing class or the staff — take away 25, 10 or five points from the competition.

        The group with the most points wins a pizza party, and the money goes to help fix up the school.

        Monday's lunch was a fun fund-raiser. But, it also made me realize that the parents and teachers who have worked with these kids have done a very good job.

        It was high noon when Jamie wheeled a cart up and down the rows of tables in the school's three lunchrooms. Covered by poster paper displaying artist's renderings of the school's new lawn and entrance, the cart held five plastic, coin-loaded jugs — one for each class and the staff.

        As soon as Jamie entered the first lunchroom, the noise level — already at a deafening din — exploded.

        “Let's go, folks!” the teacher called out as he shook jugs from the sophomore and junior classes.

        “These guys are in the lead.”

        Cheers filled the room.

        “But the staff is coming on strong.”

        Boos followed.

        Students raced toward the cart. Angela Green, a senior, got there first. She dropped four pennies into the jug for the Class of 1999.

        “Even though I'm not going to be here next year, I want to help beautify the school,” she told me over a lunch of blueberry yogurt, a granola bar and sips of bottled water. “After I go to college and get married, I want to come back and show my kids how beautiful this school is. I'll tell them my pennies helped.”

        Two sophomores, Stephanie Larkins and Nancy Jerrels, put their pennies in their class's jug.

        “Sophomores are No. 1!” Nancy yelled.

        “I'd like this school to look better inside and outside,” Stephanie said. “They should fix the floors, walls and ceilings, too.”

        Give us time, Jamie said as he pushed the money cart to the next lunchroom. He's chairman of Winged Victory: the Hughes Renaissance Project. The penny war is a fund-raiser sponsored by the Renaissance Project. Accepting funds from all sources, the group's first venture is the re-do of the school's entrance and lawn. Next comes cleaning the library's stained-glass windows, fixing the terra cotta tiles ringing the school's exterior and repairing interior damage to ceilings, walls and floors caused by years of neglecting to fix a leaky roof.

        Jamie's heart is in Hughes. His dad went to the school and graduated in 1928. His diploma hangs on a wall by Jamie's office. Donations from the Class of 1928 paid for a Rookwood contributions box placed just inside the school's entrance. For decades, Hughes students dropped their spare change into the box to buy works of art, including the Rookwood drinking fountains that grace each floor.

        “Ching!” Christopher Scott's pennies fell into the freshman's jug. He went back to his lunch of nuggets and fries. “Nobody deserves to go to a school like this,” he said. “This is great place to get an education. But they need to work on the school grounds and the building.”

        Washing down his cookies and Doritos with a lemonade, Tranel En gleman gave some pennies to the cause.

        “Everybody's always doggin' the public schools,” the freshman said. “A nice-looking campus will help give us a better reputation.”

        Jueisha Johnson carefully walked up to the money cart. The sophomore held a cloth sack bulging with 156 pennies.

        She dumped them into the jug for the Class of 2001. A cheer went up from her classmates.

        “School's fun,” she said. “I'm here to be challenged and get A's. I gave these pennies — some found in my yard — so we could have a nice environment to learn in.”

        Just as the lunch bell rang, Brian James extended a long arm and gently dropped one last shiny penny into the jug for his junior class.

        “I had to give something,” he said as he scraped up the remains of his chips, cookies and cola lunch.

        “So many people have done things for me, I had to give something to somebody else. Even if it was only a penny.”

        That was a valuable donation. At Hughes, a penny's worth of pride means a lot.

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


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