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Friday
Mar182011

Principal Turns Failing High School Around, One Student at a Time 

Creatas Images/Thinkstock(CINCINNATI) -- For years, Cincinnati's Taft Information Technology High School was notorious for being a dilapidated, crime-ridden school filled with failing and forgotten students. Teachers didn't want to teach there and it was often considered to be the worst slum school in the city. It was so dysfunctional that each clock told a different time -- all of which were wrong.

"There was no way I was going to let my son go to Taft," said Shonda Fowler, whose son is now a high school student.

Things began to change nine years ago. Taft got a new principal, his name is Anthony Smith and the motto he brought to Taft: "Failure is not an option." The phrase was not just directed at the students, but the teachers as well. Although Taft was designated a failing school, Smith decided to keep all of the teachers.

"I was ready to get rid of all the teachers because I had a premise that they didn't know what they were doing. I was wrong, 100 percent wrong," said Smith. "They knew what they were doing, they were working hard, just working hard in the wrong direction."

Smith teamed up with his teachers to closely monitor the progress or struggles of every student. Daily meetings helped identify those falling behind and plans were devised to help them catch up. Teaching reading and writing became an obsession, even in math and science classes.

"It's not good enough now to give an answer in math," said Rozell. "You have to be able to explain and articulate that answer."

But Smith's most unconventional partnership happened outside the classroom. The principal teamed up with Jack Cassidy, the hard-charging CEO of Cincinnati Bell, the city's local phone company. Cassidy was so inspired by Smith's determination that he put his company's name on the line. He promised free phones and laptops for every student who maintained a 3.3 grade point average. If they fell behind, the students would have to give the electronics back.

As a result, Taft has been transformed. Ten years ago the graduation rate was 18 percent. Now, 95 percent of the students graduate. The school, with an almost all-black student body closed the so-called racial achievement test gap. Taft students outscored white students in Ohio on the state's graduation tests in math, reading and science.

Now the place that students were once afraid to visit is attracting them. Kenny Fowler, whose mother once said she wouldn't allow her son to go to Taft, transferred there from one of the city's top schools. Kenny is now a straight-A student and his mother is now a believer.

This spring, the "old" Taft changes too. It will be replaced with a gleaming, new $18.8 million high school. The school will feature new desks, new lockers, a new gym, and even a clock -- that works. The school will still have the same commitment.

"You have to look at these children like they're the most important part of your life," said Smith. "I can teach you how to be a good teacher, I can't teach you how to care."

A lesson in saving troubled schools.. one student at a time.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio