School & District Management

In Big-City School, Books Take Back Seat

By Robert C. Johnston — April 11, 2001 9 min read
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The students scheduled to give persuasive speeches in Erva Curtiss’ 9th grade English class were acting as if they’d rather be at the dentist than speak in front of their peers.

One young man—after several tortured minutes of shifting his feet and grinning at classmates during his talk on suicide—turned to his teacher, shrugged his shoulder, and said, “I don’t know what to say. Just give me an F.”

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Ms. Curtiss was disappointed, but not surprised. Lamenting that many students don’t finish assignments, she added: “All they have to do is one thing, but they don’t do it. Grades just don’t motivate.”

Like other adults at Western Hills High School here, she can’t blame students alone for such failings. She knows that many things in the 1,800-student school and its community need fixing.

In her own drafty classroom, only one of 11 computers is hooked up to a printer, and there is so little storage space that books spill out of boxes under tables and elsewhere on the floor.

Western Hills is not alone. As a large comprehensive high school that takes everyone who shows up, it is asked to shoulder many tasks that were unheard of when it opened more than 70 years ago.

Today, 18 percent of Western Hills’ students require special education services. Just 11 percent of all incoming freshmen entering the school last fall had passed all five sections of the state’s proficiency test for incoming 9th graders, the school’s analysis shows. Thirty-eight percent had passed none.

Western Hills students rise at 5:30 a.m. or earlier to ride city buses across town for the 7:30 a.m. bell. Because of limited cafeteria space, the first of three lunches begins at 9:30 a.m. Students, many of whom work at night, often nod off in class.

Meanwhile, parent participation is scarce. Teachers now lead the school’s parent-teacher organization. Some households actually block phone calls from the school, one teacher reported.

“If they were at an academic high school, a lot of these students wouldn’t fit in,” said Thomas A. Shaver, the school’s principal. “You have to provide services to students who can’t fit in anywhere else.”

‘Fashion Show’

On any given day last year, about one-quarter of the school’s students were absent. Fewer than half the freshmen graduate from the school in four years; last fall, Western Hills had 829 freshmen and just 252 seniors.

Faced with similar challenges elsewhere, the Cincinnati school district is redesigning all its comprehensive high schools so that each has an academic theme, and no more than 600 students.

“If you look at low-performing high schools anywhere, you’ll see that they have improvement plans and are working on special programs, but they are working around the edges,” Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski said.

While the 43,000-student Cincinnati system has one of the nation’s most ambitious plans to downsize its high schools, leaders across the country are considering similar ideas. They would do well, though, to listen to what students have to say.

Nyklisha Corbin, a 14-year-old freshman at Western Hills High, put it this way: “When I go to school, it’s hardly about learning. It’s a fashion show. You get tired of being compared to others and ridiculed.”

Nodding in agreement, a classmate chimed in, “If you’re here, doing work, you are an outcast.”

Western Hills opened its doors in 1928. Serving a predominantly white, middle-class community, it became one of the city’s top academic institutions.

When Cincinnati integrated its schools in the 1980s, black students were drawn to Western Hills for a better education. Today, Western Hills is 60 percent black and 40 percent white. At least half of the students live in poverty.

Mr. Shaver has been the principal for eight years. Teachers say he’s as dedicated as they come. But, the demands of keeping Western Hills running leave him scant time to be an instructional leader.

For starters, the five-story school is showing its age. Long-dried-out glazing no longer seals individual window panes—one even fell out and landed on the principal’s car last year.

Leaks have rotted sections of plaster throughout the school. Mr. Shaver depends on weekend work crews from a local, minimum- security detention facility to paint walls and do other tasks. When he’s lucky, skilled workers are available to do electrical or other technical repairs.

But some things are out of his control. As Tony Barga, a technology teacher, summed it up: “I could raise hell and get the plaster in my room fixed, but what good would it do when the roofs leak?”

Price of Order

When the bell rings at the end of each 55-minute period, students flood the halls during the four minutes they have to stop at lockers, chat with friends, or see one of the school’s two counselors.

As quickly as it begins, the rush is over. The sun’s brilliant reflection returns to the empty, polished floors. All is calm.

That order comes at a price, however. Nine security people help assistant principals on each floor monitor the halls during class changes.

Gerard Shields, an associate principal, said he spends so much time monitoring students, tending to discipline, and taking care of paperwork that just 5 percent of his time is spent training teachers.

“We can go three to four weeks without getting into the classroom,” he said. “There are teachers who go begging for help, but I don’t get to be a teacher-educator here.”

Mr. Shaver has made some changes, but it hasn’t been easy. For example, grouping students into certain areas of the school was tough because all the science labs are in the same part of the building.

When Mr. Shaver started to relocate teachers into teams of four to lead groups of 9th and 10th graders, one of the biggest obstacles was real estate. “In a tradition-bound high school, a teacher waits 20 years for Ms. So-and-so to retire so he can have her room,” the principal explained.

By getting teachers to agree to the concept first, Mr. Shaver was able to make the change. Today, the four-member teaching teams are grouped in the same area of the school, and start with groups of 120 students, whom they stay with through 9th and 10th grades.

‘Let Them Sleep’

Each classroom, meanwhile, is a sphere unto itself, with a range of possibilities.

Though one student struggled to deliver a speech in Ms. Curtiss’ class, another spoke at length in favor of curfews on teenagers.

In Lea J. Brinker’s integrated-math course, 26 students dueled for the right answers to complex problems. Although they yawned occasionally, they rarely deviated from their work.

“The hard thing is to get them to see the connection between school and their lives,” Ms. Brinker said. “They’re bright. They can’t survive where they are without being bright. But, if school’s not important to their lives, they’re not going to do it.”

Many students at Western Hills said that such connections are often missing—and that it’s the students’ own fault. Shawn Aichele, an 18-year-old junior, said students often put jobs ahead of education. Asked how he’d improve his school, Mr. Aichele said, “I’d change student ideals about coming to school, so they’re here because they want to be.”

Donte Shelton, 16, quipped that teachers spend too much time arguing with students who don’t want to learn. His answer: “If they’re not doing their work, or are not interested, just let them sleep.”

That is exactly what Cameron Hill is doing. Mr. Hill, a junior, makes pizzas from 6 to 10 p.m., four nights a week, and then does homework before going to bed. He gets up at 5:30 a.m. The $6 an hour he makes will go toward a car. He wants to play professional football but he missed the last football season because his grades were too low.

Other students feel ignored. Cathryn Ramer is a 17-year-old freshman who entered the school this year after being home-schooled for five years. She’s unclear why she’s not in 10th grade or higher. “We haven’t talked to a counselor,” the girl said. “I was told I had to start over.”

Qasim McCreagh, a 14-year-old freshman, ponders the differences between Western Hills and the 350-student Roman Catholic junior high school he attended last year. “There are too many distractions at a school like this,” he said. “A lot of students do anything to get out of school. They fight with the teacher, get up, and walk out.”


Attracting teachers to this racially diverse, low-achieving urban school is one of Mr. Shaver’s biggest challenges. “Each spring, you must assume you’ll need a math teacher,” he said. “You won’t find someone if you wait.”

He uses the term “pancaking” to describe how suburban schools beat him out of teachers by layering contracts with extra duties and pay: “You have the suburbs telling teachers, ‘Name your price.’”

Mr. Shaver points out proudly, however, that his teachers have a 96 percent daily attendance rate.

Student attendance is another story. At least five people help track attendance, filling out tardy slips, reviewing excuses, and calling parents. Under a state statute designed to keep students in school, about 400 students have turned in their driver’s licenses, or lost the chance to get a license this year, because they tallied 15 unexcused absences in an academic quarter.

“There are 10,000 tardies a year. That’s sad. A business can’t run like that,” said Cindy Hughes, the school’s attendance specialist. “What’s a school to do?”

While about 1,800 students are enrolled, hundreds of them have come and gone—many of them several times—during the school year.

The Cincinnati school board is responding to the problems in its high schools. Within five years, the district’s five comprehensive high schools are slated to become 12 separately run sites.

The 9th and 10th graders at most of the campuses will attend “preparatory academies” in groups of between 75 and 90 students each. They will be placed with a core group of five teachers to focus on mastering grade-level skills. Students will prove their proficiency not by meeting certain class-hour requirements, but by showing what they can do on exams and work samples.

Students deemed proficient will then move to “senior institutions” of 250 students each. Those institutions will focus on college preparation, vocational skills, or academic themes such as foreign languages or natural history.

One of the biggest benefits of the new system, other than more personalized relationships between students and teachers, will be the school themes, Superintendent Adamowski predicts.

“The research suggests that having a focus is more important than what the focus is,” he said.

In addition, the district is starting to offer on-campus jobs to students, much like college work-study jobs. Mr. Adamowski said, “We don’t want a high number of kids working late at night outside of school.”

At Western Hills, school officials are heartened that the attendance rate climbed to 86 percent this year from 78 percent last year. But the spring exodus has yet to occur.

“After the third-quarter grades come out,” Ms. Hughes said, “the kids who are not passing say, ‘What’s the point?’ and don’t come back.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as In Big-City School, Books Take Back Seat


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