Sunday, May 16, 1999


First problem: Getting students to show up

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Sharon Elliott's junior math class, today's lesson is about square roots. As Ms. Elliott fires questions, she doesn't have far to look for answerers. The two wildly waving hands belong to two of only three students in class today.

        “This,” Ms. Elliott explains later with a big sigh, “is normal.”

        Attendance is Taft High School's biggest hurdle to improving performance, school leaders say.

  Where: 420 Ezzard Charles Drive, West End
  Enrollment: 920 students in grades 9-12. Eighty-two percent black, 18 percent white; 48 percent male, 52 percent female.
  Student attendance: 24 percent absent daily.
  Discipline: 357 out-of-school suspensions and 70 expulsions.
  Staff: 53 teachers and seven instructional assistants (three of whom are funded from a grant).
  Impact of cuts: Taft will lose two teachers, one guard, one secretary and one custodian. Office and instructional supplies also were cut. Preserving items that would boost achievement was key, such as administrators and social workers to tackle truancy and implement reform strategies.
        Students at the West End school grapple with so many problems — poverty, drugs and alcohol addiction, teen pregnancy, learning deficiencies — that the school's average daily absentee rate is 24 percent. Ms. Elliott's class, which enrolls 12 students, rarely draws more than six.

        So when it came time to make budget decisions, school leaders had a clear plan in mind: Preserve anything that would boost attendance and achievement.

        That meant cutting two teachers, one security guard, one secretary, one custodian and office and instructional supplies in order to preserve items that would boost achievement, such as administrators and social workers to tackle truancy and implement reform strategies.

        “If you can't get them here, you can't teach them,” Principal Mary Gladden said. “So that's where we have to spend our money.”

        Even Taft's biggest boosters admit the statistics are depressing.

        Two-thirds of Taft's ninth-graders arrive at least two years overage, and three-quarters have only a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level. Half of Taft's ninth graders flunk their freshman year. A quarter of all Taft students are classified as special-education.

        A fifth get into criminal trouble, and a fifth are teen mothers. Nearly a third don't live with their parents.

        Such deep-seated problems keep achievement down and truancy up at the 920-student school, administrators say.

        “High schools are not designed to go back and teach basic social and academic skills,” Assistant Principal Helen Rindsberg said. “I don't know that the school — or the district or the community — is truly meeting the needs of kids who are deficient.”

        Extracurricular activity is one tool Taft teachers hope will help them boost attendance and performance, figuring that involved students have more reasons to stay and excel in school.

        In the choir room, Kiauna Harrison, 18, hits a high note. Another choir member, four bites into a ham sandwich, quits chewing to listen appreciatively.

        While hundreds of their peers pour into the cafeteria, members of Taft's choir opt to exercise their vocal chords instead of their digestive systems at lunchtime every day.

        The choir disbanded last year after Taft lost its music teacher.

        This year, Taft replaced that teacher. Next year, it hopes to add a choir class to the school day, so the dozen members don't have to give up their lunch period to sing.

        The program has proven extremely popular in a school that struggles to persuade students to participate in extracurricular activities. Taft leaders say they'll try to schedule a choir class next year.

        “This teaches them responsibility,” choir director Jacqueline E. Carr said. “Children basically want structure. They can do anything we expect them to do; we just have to expect it. And I have very high expectations of my students.”

        Persistently poor performance prompted district officials last fall to classify Taft as one of seven district schools in dire need of redesign.

        But Taft teachers and leaders already were recreating themselves. This fall, they hope to implement “High Schools That Work,” a program based on the best practices of 800 schools in 22 states.

        If performance and attendance improve within a year, administrators wouldn't force another redesign on Taft leaders, Superintendent Steven Adamowski said.

        But for the plan to work, Taft leaders say they have a lot to do. The proposed budget cuts throw more obstacles in the way, Mrs. Gladden said.

        With one less security guard, principals and teachers worry about keeping order in the troubled school. Guards patrol halls during lunch and before and after school, monitor detentions after classes and supervise athletic games. They also act as impromptu counselors and role models, Ms. Rindsberg added.

        Teacher morale also is sagging.

        “When they tell you they're going to close your school, and then they slam you with all these cuts, it's not exactly the biggest mood enhancer,” said Jim Engel, a science teacher and track coach.

        Ms. Rindsberg agreed: “These cuts hurt. The district has decided the schools will make the decisions, and it's tough, especially when you have to let people go. It's really hard to sit here and tell two people: We cannot use you anymore.”

        Taft leaders also hope the district's move toward decentralization will loosen strangling mandates, as CPS officials promise. As Taft struggles with budget cuts, frustrated leaders point to $63,000 they have but can't use because of union mandates.

        The $63,000 is part of $113,000 the school receives for athletic coaches' salaries and extracurricular advisers. Taft only uses $50,000, but union contract prevents Taft from using the rest on anything else. “Believe me, we have a ton of places we would like to use that $63,000,” Ms. Rindsberg said.

Surgery on the schools
Cuts and reforms: 'This is an issue of survival'
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Carthage children wil get less indivdual attention
- Taft's first problem: Getting students to show up

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