Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Tech turns around Taft

New attitude at West End school

By Jennifer Mrozowski jmrozowski@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fifty-eight students today will be the first to graduate from Cincinnati Public Schools' boldest experiment: the redesigned Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School.

        Because of a commitment by Cincinnati Bell, the low-performing West End school this year was wired with computer equipment so students could learn the latest in information technology, along with standard subjects.

        The enhancements are part of a districtwide effort to overhaul low-performing high schools.

  • Enrollment: 750
  • Number of new computer labs: four.
  • Number of computer labs to be added next school year: Two, including a community computer center.
  • Number of students on A/B honor roll November 2001: 94.
  • Number of students on A/B honor roll November 2000: 53.
  • Number of pupils to get free laptops, cell phones and high speed Internet access from Cincinnati Bell for good grades: 41.
  • Number of Cincinnati Bell college scholarships this year: 10.
  • Amount of scholarships renewable for four years: $5,000.
        Taft was among the first of Cincinnati's five poorest-achieving high schools to undergo the extensive high school redesign.

        Next year, two more Cincinnati Public high schools — Western Hills and Withrow — will launch curriculum redesigns, and a new Entrepreneurship High School will open.

        For now, eyes are on Taft.

        Students say the partnership with Cincinnati Bell gave them experience and business contacts they never would have made otherwise.

        “This is making students work harder to get their grades up,” said 18-year-old Lukenda Hocker, a graduating senior. “It's making me work harder.”

        Lukenda, who plans to attend Wright State University in Dayton, was one of 41 recipients of a free laptop computer with high-speed Internet access to take home. She also got a cell phone with unlimited local calls from Bell.

        The condition: she had to maintain a 3.2 or better grade point average to keep the equipment.

        Bell contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money, employee assistance and student incentives. Bell employees also donated thousands of hours to tutor students, as well as paint, wire and improve Taft's school building.

        Taft students say people finally are paying attention to them and their inner-city school. Better yet, they say, school seems relevant because the technology learning creates a direct path to college and lucrative jobs.

        That's the point, said Jack Cassidy, president of Cincinnati Bell.

        Mr. Cassidy, who is Taft's commencement speaker today, got involved in restructuring the school in large part because he thinks of Taft students as Bell's future customers and employees. Better to employ them than disenfranchise them, he said.

        “At the end of the day, I'm spending shareholders' money,” he said of investment in Taft. “It has to have a return. I'm not about failure.”

        Mr. Cassidy said his first glance at the inner-city high school before its redesign reminded him of a bombed-out building in Beirut. Not anymore.

        Hallways are repainted. The four new air-conditioned computer labs give the school a 21st-century feel. Teachers conduct lessons from tall electronic boards with touch-sensitive screens.

        Yet school officials and business leaders say more academic progress is necessary.

        Today's graduating class is small — just 58 in a 750-student school. Districtwide, only 58 percent of students who were freshmen four years ago made it to graduation last year.

        Taft's schoolwide grade point average increased slightly, from 1.25 in January 2001 to 1.37 in January 2002. But it's still near the bottom of a 4-point scale.

        More encouraging, school officials say, was that the number of A/B honor roll juniors and seniors jumped from 53 in November 2000 to 94 in November 2001.

        “It's an improvement and that's what we're looking for,” said Michael Turner, Taft's senior institute manager. “Every dietitian will tell you it's better to lose weight gradually. I would much rather make progress in a steady fashion and look back in five years and say "Wow!'”

        Students say they like the changes.

        “Last year, all the kids used to walk the halls during class,” said junior LaShonda Raines, 17.

        Not now.

        “If you do anything to interrupt the educational process, you get in-school suspension or Saturday school or a conference with (Principal Anthony) Smith and your parents,” she said.

        Students say they're trying harder because they know people are watching — and ready to help.

        Along with Bell, Mr. Smith's name comes up as a big reason for the school's new attitude.

        Mr. Smith wants every kid to be invested in attending school daily. He's pushing sports and clubs hard.

        Last year, two students ran track, there was no baseball team and varsity football had to forfeit games for lack of players.

        This year, 35 kids ran track and the baseball team had a full roster. About 50 students are expected to play football next fall. Though the ball players ended the season 0-15, Mr. Smith said he couldn't have been more proud.

        “When you have kids who want to come to school, that's an accomplishment,” he said.

        Bell officials and Cincinnati school administration say they're committed to their new product — schools offering dividends for students and students being dividends for communities.

        The partnership with Bell is expected to grow, with a new mentoring program next year at Taft and additional scholarship money. Mr. Cassidy is entreating other companies to increase their partnerships with schools, too.

        “I have to appeal to other business leaders on the same level,” he said. “It's about customers and employees.”

        Twenty students will intern at Bell this summer.

        LaShonda will make $10 an hour in network operations. “It's great they're doing this for us,” LaShonda said. “It'll give us a chance to show them what we learned in our computer classes.

        “And it might be something I want to do later in life.”


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