Sunday, April 29, 2001
Harsh life, hard lessons

Johnny Watson (left), Vivianna Price and Will Buchannan on their way home.
A POVERTY OF HOPE: Failing students often just don't care anymore. They have lost confidence that success in school will mean a better life. This is the story of a group of Taft High School students trying one more time to make the grade, even as daily life outside school drains away their hope.

Students begin make-or-break English

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Photos by Stephen M. Herppich

        A 15-year-old boy with somber eyes steps out of a noisy hallway at Robert A. Taft High School and into his second-bell English class.

Frequent absences can often lead to failure.
This two-part series continues with semester tests and grades.
A mentor can be a lifeline to a young person struggling to find success. See how you can help.

        In the fall, Johnny Watson's routine in Room 217 never varies. He hands teacher Sandy Houck the special attendance form he must have signed every day, in every class. The form is for his Hamilton County probation officer, to prove Johnny was in school.

        Poor attendance last year hurt Johnny. He missed almost one-fifth of the school year, racked up three suspensions and skipped dozens of classes. He failed most subjects, including freshman English, as did each of the students in Room 217. He came close to joining the 236 Taft students - 29 percent of the entire school - who dropped out last year.

        Now Johnny and other second-year freshmen have reached a crucial crossroads. In Ms. Houck's class, it boils down to this: Catch up this year by earning double credits in English; or flunk again and fall almost hopelessly behind.

        In Cincinnati schools, where half the students who enter ninth grade do not graduate, two levels of high schools now exist. Academic achievement is highest at the five specialized or "magnet" schools, which draw students from around the district. Meanwhile, dismal dropout rates, low proficiency scores and high absenteeism have led to plans to redesign the five neighborhood high schools, starting next fall with Taft and Aiken.

        But finding success at school - some days, just getting there - is not easy for students such as those in Ms. Houck's class. Many live in a world where poverty, broken homes, teen pregnancy, parental neglect or abuse, criminal behavior and violence are stacked upon the everyday pressures of adolescence.

        In high schools where students progress normally, the number enrolled in each grade, ninth through 12th, remains fairly steady. But at Taft, like other inner-city schools, enrollment drops off precipitously in the upper grades, and few make it to graduation.

        In October, Taft had 405 freshmen, more than half of whom were spending their second or third year in ninth grade. There were 147 sophomores, 115 juniors and just 72 seniors.

        "We're losing people," says Ted Coakley, a Taft assistant principal who retired in January. "These are not just bodies, these are human lives that in many cases people have written off."

        In addition to lost lives, failure puts an enormous financial burden on students and the community. A high school dropout earns about $7,600 less a year than a graduate. About four-fifths of America's prisoners are dropouts. And according to a study by the University of California at Los Angeles, each year's class of dropouts costs the country more than $200 billion during their lifetimes, in lost earnings, unrealized tax revenue, and prison and welfare costs.

        Schools also spiral downward. Higher-achieving students tend to avoid schools with high dropout rates, opting for suburban, charter or specialized schools. The schools and neighborhoods they leave behind languish with heavy concentrations of low achievers.

        "By the time these kids are 16, 17 years old, in many instances they've been shell-shocked by the conditions of their lives," says Jonathan Kozol, a best-selling Boston author who has been writing about urban youth and schools for more than 30 years.

        "But this is not something we have the right to blame on the parents. The parents usually were victimized by the same situations when they were children.

        "The biggest problem is just the grinding toll of poverty."

        Poverty wears children down physically. And it can cause greater emotional harm, stripping away a child's basic confidence that effort will be rewarded. When that's gone, school becomes a meaningless exercise.

        Despite all this, Ms. Houck's class illustrates that some students doggedly persevere. For at-risk youth, the difference between dropping out and staying in school often comes down to two factors.

        One key is for students to have a relationship with at least one adult who supports and challenges them. Such a relationship sustains the second factor, an inner resilience that allows them to endure tough times at home and in school.

Room 217 a last-chance stopfor struggling students

        "Clear the hall!" a security staffer barks.

        "I'm at my locker, man," a student protests.

        "You've been at your locker 10 minutes!"

        Taft's daily soundtrack starts shortly after first bell, at 8 a.m. It continues through the day, as students linger in hallways and teachers and security staff usher them into classrooms.

        Between 8 and 9 a.m. a steady stream of students stop near the auditorium to pick up tardy slips. On a typical day about 85 will be late, and nearly one-third of Taft's 740 students will be absent.

        Johnny Watson arrives on time, because he knows his probation officer expects it. At 7:15 a.m. he leaves the Price Hill apartment he shares with his two brothers, his mother and her boyfriend. A 12-minute ride on a Metro bus brings him to the West End. Then he walks a block on Ezzard Charles Drive to Taft High, a plain brick building that blends in with nearby public-housing projects.

        The school opened in 1955, two years after the death of its namesake, U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft, grandfather of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. The senator's portrait hangs in the front lobby, along with motivational slogans such as "Every Obstacle Is a Stepping Stone to Your Success."

        Most of Johnny's classes, including English, are on the second floor. A long corridor unfolds against a dreary color scheme: light pink lockers, scarred by wear, set against walls painted a glum shade of pale green.

        Second-bell classes start at 9:08. Johnny drifts into Ms. Houck's English class and sinks into a desk by a chalk board, away from other students. Most days his facial expression borders on a scowl and never seems to change. Sometimes he pulls the hood of his coat over his head as if to buffer himself against his surroundings.

        Johnny doesn't like loud classmates.

        Louis Hutchinson, who is 17, is the loudest. Also, teachers say, one of the brightest. "I don't feel like workin', man," he bellows one day after Ms. Houck gives a writing assignment.

        Louis claims to have lived in 28 foster homes since age 10. He ran away repeatedly until two years ago when his sister, who is six years older than Louis, took him in. By that time he'd compiled a lengthy criminal record.

        In the fall, Louis usually makes it to Ms. Houck's class, as do Vivianna Price, who threatened suicide a year ago, and Yolanda Battles, who ran away from her foster home last spring and returned two months later, pregnant.

        But others, such as Josh Jacobs, whose mother is a recovering drug addict, miss days, even weeks, at a time.

        In all, 21 students are registered for second-bell English with Ms. Houck. Most days, about half are in school.

        "You can call parents," Ms. Houck says, "and they'll say, ‘I send so-and-so out of the house in the morning.' At that point, what do we do? It makes it difficult."

        Ms. Houck, who turned 54 in January, is a straight-talking native of upstate New York. She is unmarried, white, and lives in a town house near Taft. All but one of her second-bell students are African-American. The school's student population is 82 percent black, 18 percent white Appalachian.

        When Ms. Houck was a student, she felt put off by unnecessarily rigid rules. She wants kids in her class to feel comfortable, so in Room 217 seats aren't assigned, interaction is encouraged and snacks are OK.

        Literary "classics" don't appeal to her students, Ms. Houck says. She shuns Shakespeare in favor of works such as "Fences," an August Wilson play about a 1950s black family trying to put down roots in an industrial American city.

        Still, many of her students ignore her persistent pleas to work on assignments.

        "If I had the magic answer of how to motivate inner-city children, I'd write a book and make millions of dollars," she says one day during her planning period. "How can you have the answer? There's so much there."

        A teacher in Cincinnati schools for 26 years and at Taft for 12, she knows what her students are up against. Some, the products of teen-age mothers and absent fathers, are unwanted at home. Some witness abuse in their families, and some are abused themselves.

        Ideally, students would enter high school with a vision for the future, a plan for where they want to be in four years, says Karen Oldham, Taft's social worker/visiting teacher.

        "But for many of our students, their vision is, ‘Can I make it to the end of the day? Can I go home and mama be there? Will there be food? Will we be evicted? Do we have to move? Do I have to take care of the kids? Do I have to go to work to contribute to the household?'

        "So school gets pushed back. It's not a priority. But it's what's needed so they can break the cycle."

        Dropouts tend to have attendance and behavior problems, poor grades and a sense of disconnection from school. They're likely to live in high-crime areas. Their home life tends to be dysfunctional, with little parental involvement. They're often poor.

        In the geographic area from which Taft draws - the West End, Over-the-Rhine, Lower Price Hill and parts of Mount Auburn and Price Hill - 75 percent of families live below poverty level. The figure for the city of Cincinnati as a whole is

        "There's real clear scholarly evidence that when you're poor, you're going to have a harder time achieving success in school," says Kathleen Knight Abowitz, an associate professor of education at Miami University.

        Home life is partly to blame, she says. But poor students are also more likely to attend schools that lack resources.

        "If you're in an area with a limited sense of possibility, for you to maintain your own hope is very difficult," says Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University. "It is within these kids' capacity to do (school) work. But it is my conjecture that they have lost hope. They do not see the point."

        Last year when Johnny Watson didn't see the point, he sneaked out of Taft. He wandered city streets, killed time at the bus station or hung out at a downtown mall.

        "I just thought school was nothin'," he says. "Like I wasn't really supposed to be there."

        He argued with teachers. They kicked him out of class. He fell behind in class work and never caught up.

        Teachers called his mother, Jada, a 1982 Taft graduate. She works as a seamstress, struggles with debt and has been on and off welfare. Johnny has a poor attitude, teachers told her. Johnny isn't doing his work.

        The school suspended him the last week of the academic year for cursing at a teacher. He missed exams. He thought about dropping out.

        Jada Watson wonders if her son's trouble with authority stems from growing up without a male role model. He has no contact with his father. Ms. Watson also worries that he hangs out with the wrong crowd.

        One night last July, Johnny and friends roamed downtown during the Coors Light Festival. Suddenly, the people around him ran. Police swooped in, arrested Johnny, and charged him with violating curfew and having marijuana.

        He met his probation officer, Lori Brumbaugh, last summer. He made it clear he didn't like her and wanted no part of this.

        Fine, she told him. But go to school. If not, she would charge him with violating probation, and he'd be sent to juvenile detention.

        Ms. Brumbaugh saw in Johnny an angry boy wavering between making good choices and bad, and leaning the wrong way. But over the next four months, she also found that he was different than most kids on probation.

        Experts say young people growing up under difficult circumstances sometimes develop, on their own, an internal resilience that pushes them to succeed. Ms. Brumbaugh saw it in Johnny.

        Still, most at-risk students need outside help. And research has shown mentors - adults who spend time with youths and show they care - make a significant difference.

        When the current school year started, Johnny again thought about skipping classes. But when Ms. Brumbaugh said she would be checking on him, he decided against it.

        She gave him an attendance form. It had to be signed by each of his teachers, every bell, every day.

Workload wears on Ms. Houck's students

        Students skip school for many reasons. Many arrive in high school unprepared to do the work. Frustrated in class, they stop coming. Some have jobs, work late, and can't rouse themselves the next day. Some come from families in which adults place a low priority on school.

        As the second-quarter grading period wears on, Ms. Houck often finds herself repeating explanations to students who have missed class. Johnny attends regularly, but he worries about keeping pace with the workload.

        One day in November, after being out sick for two days, he flips through the pages of "Fences," which the others have finished. He shakes his head, dismayed.

        "You can take the book home," Ms. Houck says. "You'll find, Johnny, that it reads quickly."

        He's not convinced.

        "Honestly, it doesn't take that long," she says. "It reads a lot faster than a novel."

        Another time, he objects to a new assignment from Ms. Houck. "She's always workin' us to death," he mutters.

        But he doesn't give up.

        "Ms. Houck, can you help me?" he says one day. He's trying to answer questions about The Pearl, John Steinbeck's tale about a poor fisherman whose discovery of a valuable gem turns disastrous. Johnny doesn't understand what's meant by the "hard skin" of the main character, Kino.

        "What's happening in the story?" Ms. Houck says. "How does Kino feel about people right now?"

        "He's starting to not like them," Johnny says.

        "Right," she says. "He's got a hard shell, a hard skin. He has to harden himself against the world because he knows he can't trust anyone at this point."

        Johnny, like many of his classmates, had hardened himself against the world. But as autumn wanes, Lori Brumbaugh sees signs that he is willing to open up.

A chance to be heard,a chance to sing

        Ms. Brumbaugh, a probation officer for 17 years, says among the hundreds of teens who have passed through her office, a few stand out. They are the ones who "don't have a thing going for them. They've got every reason in the world to fail."

        Yet somehow, they don't.

        She doesn't do much talking when she meets with young people. Most have one overriding need.

        "They want someone to listen to them," she says. "It's amazing, the impact that has."

        But many at-risk children have no adult willing or able to listen. And so, "They don't trust adults. They really haven't had a reason to trust adults. If you don't trust (adults) at home, why are you going to trust them elsewhere?" Ms. Brumbaugh asks.

        Like many of the teens she works with, Johnny at first was argumentative, distant. But within a month, Ms. Brumbaugh got him to talk about issues at home and school that upset him. He told her he thought his teachers hated him. She discussed ways to cope with situations that made him angry.

        As the weeks passed, she continued asking for the attendance forms his teachers had signed. She saw - and Johnny did, too - that some teachers were writing positive comments on the forms.

        "Something within him got him moving," Ms. Brumbaugh says. Maybe it was because he stopped using marijuana, she says. "Or just that inner resiliency that we see in some kids. He definitely had that."

        Johnny was always serious and never smiled, but he began to look forward to talking with Ms. Brumbaugh. Choir was his favorite topic.

        Choir was not scheduled as part of the Taft curriculum this year. But Jacqueline E. Carr, the music teacher, noticed that teens in one of her general music classes showed a joy for singing that couldn't be silenced. She got permission to add a choir period.

        The small group in seventh-bell choir consisted of fewer than a dozen students. And only one bass: Johnny Watson.

        "As long as I have Johnny for a bass," Ms. Carr says, "I don't need any others. That child can focus himself."

Johnny makes probation but loses a friend

        One day in early December, as Ms. Houck's students take a break from reading The Pearl, talk turns to grades, credits and exams.

        "Every one of you sitting here could officially be in English 10 second semester," Ms. Houck says. "The deal is, if you have a complete writing portfolio and you pass the common exam in January, you can get credit."

        Only students with a realistic chance of completing other assignments will take the exam. Johnny is on the list.

        He has been coming to school regularly. His grades have been improving.

        His meetings with Ms. Brumbaugh have been running longer and longer, but not because she keeps him. Some days she's ready for another appointment, and he's still in the chair, talking.

        The week before Christmas - two days after Johnny's 16th birthday - he meets with her for the 16th time. He still doesn't smile, but his attitude toward her, and school, has changed greatly over four months. He thinks of her as a coach.

        "With a lot of kids, it's tough to terminate probation," Ms. Brumbaugh says later. "They take it as a rejection a lot of times, (as if) you're leaving them, abandoning them." She senses Johnny might feel this way, but he shows little emotion.

        He walks out of Ms. Brumbaugh's office this day, his eyes somber, as usual. His mother, Jada, is waiting, and as they step into an elevator he hands her a letter. "Dear Johnny," it says. "Congratulations. You have been released from probation."

        Ms. Brumbaugh no longer will be looking over Johnny's shoulder. She no longer will require him to get teachers' signatures on an attendance form. She no longer will be his "coach."

        Jada Watson, meanwhile, will continue to hope and pray that her son keeps going to school.

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