Sunday, September 19, 1999

Youths pick up a trade, hope




BY DANA DiFILIPPO
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Michelle Henderson, 20, and Erica Peek, 19, tend to landscaping around an apartment building in Dayton.
(Tony Jones photos)
| ZOOM |
        DAYTON — Michelle Henderson isn't shy about admitting she was a “problem child.”

        She did drugs, shoplifted, ran with a gang. She fantasized about marrying her dope-dealing boyfriend. She skipped school more than 125 days in the ninth grade, and when she did attend, she usually slept through class.

        “I was a menace to society,” said Ms. Henderson, now 20.

        But then she found God ... and Ann Higdon. God persuaded her to turn her life around, she said, and Ms. Higdon showed her how.

        Ms. Higdon is the founder and president of ISUS Trade and Technology Prep School, a charter school that targets dropouts and chronically truant students in Dayton.

        Students rebuild houses — learning trade skills and rejuvenating ruined neighborhoods — as part of their school day.

        The program has proved so successful Ms. Higdon aims to open a similar program as a charter school in Cincinnati in fall 2000. The Cincinnati Board of Education agreed Monday to negotiate a contract with her, rejecting four other applicants who hoped to open district-approved charter schools next fall. If approved, Ms. Higdon's school would be the first charter school overseen by the district, where six state-approved charter schools operate.

        While annual dropout rates have fallen in the 45,600-student district, more than two thirds of ninth-graders in 1994-95 didn't graduate from district schools within four years. They either dropped out, were held back, transferred to other schools or enrolled in alternative programs.

ABOUT ISUS
• Location: Dayton. Founder aims to open a similar school in Cincinnati in fall 2000.

• Enrollment: 360 students, ages 16 to 22.

• Curriculum: The competency-based high school offers a year-round, extended-day program in which students rebuild ruined neighborhoods. Students learn math, science and reading skills through carpentry, landscaping and other construction work. Students can get certified in a trade.

        ISUS Trade and Technology Prep School

• Location: Dayton. Founder aims to open a similar school in Cincinnati in fall 2000.

• Enrollment: 360 students, ages 16 to 22.

• Curriculum: The competency-based high school offers a year-round, extended-day program in which students rebuild ruined neighborhoods. Students learn math, science and reading skills through carpentry, landscaping and other construction work. Students can get certified in a trade.

        In Dayton, Ms. Higdon formed the nonprofit ISUS — Improved Solutions to Urban Systems — several years ago to help truant students and dropouts turn themselves around. Considering construction's aging work force, ISUS leaders partnered with Dayton Public Schools to create a vocational school.

        Though its name has changed frequently — it's been called Green Academy, Builders' Academy and Youth Build — the program has been consistently popular with troubled students.

        ISUS started with 13 abandoned houses it bought for $50,000 on a crime-riddled block in Dayton's Fairgrounds neighborhood.

        Students gutted them and rebuilt them, adding such finishing touches as whitewashed lattice-work on porches and gardens fragrant with lilies.

        The first renovated house sat empty for a year before a brave buyer offered $45,000 for it. The other homes quickly sold, with the last one snagging $94,000. All buyers were low-income families.

        Under a partnership with Sinclair Community College, ISUS students can get their trade certification at Sinclair. Their “dorm” is an eight-unit apartment building they rebuilt at Frank and Rubicon streets.

        Contagious as a baby's smile, the renovated houses are spurring more redevelopment. Neighbors have spruced up their homes, and the city and Miami Valley Hospital pledged $1 million each to further rejuvenate the neighborhood.

        Seeing the changes inspires the students, Ms. Higdon says.

        “These were non-attending, low-achieving, court-involved, discipline-problem students,” she said. “Life is hard; I don't deny that. But at what point are you going to start accepting responsibility for yourself? These kids have started to do that.”

        The school is successful because teachers trade traditional classroom lectures for hands-on laboratories, Ms. Higdon said. When students aren't on construction sites, they're in labs learning blueprinting, framing, drywalling and other skills.

        “I like getting dirty,” said Richard White, 18, adding that he regularly skipped school, did drugs and got in frequent fights before enrolling in ISUS. He now works after school in a factory producing car parts and plans to study electronics in college after he graduates in May.

        ISUS ensures high attendance by offering stipends — $12 to $50 a day — for good performance. Truancy, poor test scores and misbehavior result in docked pay; regular attendance, improved scores and hard work earn students raises.

        ISUS also sends school counselors to visit the homes of students who skip school.

        The program is expensive. Ms. Higdon estimates it costs about $16,000 per student to operate. Cincinnati Public Schools spends nearly $7,700 per pupil.

        But compared with the cost of incarcerating young people (more than $30,000 a year), ISUS is a bargain, Ms. Higdon argued. Dropouts and chronically truant students are more likely to get in criminal trouble, according to local law enforcement officials.

        “Students rebuild communities, flushing out drugs, prostitution and other crime. They receive job-training and join the work force. And educating them instead of ignoring them saves money in the juvenile justice system. That's how you figure out whether it's worth it,” she said.

        ISUS lobbies hard for state, federal and city aid. Several foundations and community groups, including the Dayton Rotary Club, have been eagerly supportive.

        The group is close to acquiring 50 run-down properties in another depressed Dayton neighborhood. Ms. Higdon hopes ISUS students can rehabilitate those sites in three years.

        If enthusiasm is any indicator, that goal will be easily met.

        “I used to sleep through class — when I went. Here, they broke out the measuring tape, and I started learning math like that,” said Ms. Henderson, snapping her fingers.

        “I was on the dean's list for the last three quarters. Now I want to go into real estate and build my dream house.”

        She's just a year away. Now enrolled in Sinclair Community College through the ISUS partnership, she'll finish the program in a year.

       



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