Classroom Technology

Ohio School Goes from Dead End to High-Tech Star

By Jessica Brown, The Cincinatti Enquirer — November 30, 2010 5 min read
Teacher Dan Woodly, left, works with students Pleze Davis and Darnasia McKinney in a computer-networking class at Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Only one in five students who passed through the classrooms at Taft High School in Cincinnati eight years ago ended up in a graduation gown. Educators considered the school among the worst high schools in Ohio. Test scores and graduation rates were abysmal. Nearly a quarter of the students didn’t even bother to go to school.

Calls sounded to just shut it down. And those who remember the old Taft don’t sugarcoat their thoughts.

“It was an insane asylum,” said teacher Jocelynne Jason, who’s worked there for more than a decade.

“A slum school,” said Jack Cassidy, the chief executive officer of Cincinnati Bell. “You would never want your kid to go to Taft High School.”

Fast-forward to an October day in 2010.

About a dozen juniors and seniors edited video clips in a well-equipped computer lab. Taft is now a technology school, and the interactive-media course is one of three technology focuses that students can pursue.

In the cafeteria, about 20 students mulled math and English questions with Cincinnati Bell volunteers during a tutoring session for the Ohio Graduation Test. Every student in the tutoring program passed the test.

Other areas show similar improvements. Graduation rates have skyrocketed from about 21 percent to more than 95 percent.

Once-nonexistent extracurricular programs thrive—the football team made the playoffs this year for the first time in history. And next spring, the school will move from a temporary location back to its old site in the city’s west end, where the district has built a state-of-the-art facility.

To top it all off, not only did the school earn an “excellent” rating on its state report card this year—its highest rating ever—it also won a prestigious National Blue Ribbon Schools award, the first Cincinnati public high school in more than 25 years to do so.

How Did It Happen?

So how did the high school, once considered a dead-end dropout factory, become one of the district’s best schools? Those who have lived it say they’re not magicians, they just had some good leadership, a good plan, good partners, and a bit of luck.

Some say there was another factor, something less tangible: People started caring.

Taft High School began to decline in the 1990s. “I was so embarrassed,” said Mr. Cassidy, recalling his first tour of the building during the 2000-01 school year.

“My God, as a taxpayer in Ohio and Cincinnati can we really have this as a place that we call a center of education?” he said. “It was literally on any metric the worst-performing high school, not only in Cincinnati but in the state of Ohio.”

Anthony Benton, a 2009 Taft graduate, recalled growing up near the school. “All you heard about Taft was a lot of bad things,” he said. “A bunch of fights. Grades were horrible.”

At the time, the school district was in the middle of a redistricting plan.

Most expected it to shut Taft down. But the community lobbied for it to be restructured instead.

Anthony Smith, a Taft graduate himself, was recruited from a Cincinnati public middle school to be the principal.

In addition to Mr. Smith, the school gained a new technology focus and a strong partnership with Cincinnati Bell, which provides students with everything from regular tutoring to cellphones to $20,000 in scholarships.

The district decided to turn Taft into a technology-focused school. Mr. Smith and a group of his teachers visited the best technology programs in the country and crafted a program for Cincinnati.

The school was renamed the Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School. All students take basic technology classes. Juniors and seniors enter the “Senior Institute,” where they choose a specific emphasis, such as Web design or information technology.

The restructuring was a huge factor in the turnaround, educators say, because the school began attracting students who wanted high-tech careers. It became a destination school rather than the default school.

And Taft has made those improvements happen while still offering open enrollment, meaning students don’t have to pass a test or meet academic requirements to get into the school.

‘All About Relationships’

Around the time of the restructuring, a fortuitous seating arrangement at a Cincinnati Business Committee lunch provided the final piece of the turnaround puzzle.

Mr. Smith happened to sit next to Mr. Cassidy from Cincinnati Bell. The pair struck up a conversation about the school.

“He said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to partner with you,’ ” Mr. Smith said.

So the pair crafted a plan. They held community forums to get feedback on the idea of a technology school. Cincinnati Bell volunteers cleaned and repainted the entire interior of the building in the summer of 2001 to celebrate the redesign.

The company now provides tutoring, scholarships, and internships for students. It set up an academic-incentive program, in which it gives free laptop computers and cellphones to all juniors and seniors who earn at least a 3.3 grade point average and wires their homes with broadband Internet.

Mr. Cassidy, who attends the football games and gives all the students his cellphone number, admits the partnership is as much about business as altruism. It creates new customers and future employees.

Mr. Smith said the relationships forged through the partnership are more valuable than any amount of money.

“It’s all about relationships,” the principal said. “When kids believe that you really want them to be successful, they’ll do whatever you want them to do.”

Taft’s turnaround wasn’t magic, Mr. Smith said. It took hard work.

But in a day and age when turnaround schools generally involve a staff overhaul and expensive help from outside experts, Taft has managed to right itself with little guidance or interest from the outside world. Its staff talks to other districts looking to turn around their own high schools. It was recently featured on the “CBS Evening News,” and it was cited in a recent Education Week commentary. (“The Neglected Topic in School Turnarounds,” Oct. 27, 2010.)

Mr. Smith said Taft’s success comes down to a lot of people who cared an awful lot, and who worked tirelessly on a turnaround plan with the attitude that failure was not an option.

“When you take on this education thing, you have to be serious about it,” he said. “If you mess up kids, you can’t go back and fix them.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ohio School Taps Technology in Remaking Reputation

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
When SEL Curriculum Is Not Enough: Integrating Social-Emotional Behavior Supports in MTSS
Help ensure the success of your SEL program with guidance for building capacity to support implementation at every tier of your MTSS.
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology Software That Monitors Students May Hurt Some It's Meant to Help
Instead of referring kids to counseling services, the software is often used for discipline purposes, a tech policy group says.
2 min read
Students using computers.
E+/Getty
Classroom Technology Q&A Superintendent: Recruit More Black Male Educators, Get Tech in the Hands of All Students
Middletown, Ohio, school district chief Marlon Styles Jr. is the first Black superintendent of that school system.
9 min read
Middletown City School District Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr. speaks at the 2022 ISTE Leadership Exchange in New Orleans on June 26, 2022.
Marlon Styles Jr., the superintendent of the Middletown City School District in Ohio, speaks at the 2022 ISTE Leadership Exchange in New Orleans on June 26. The session was part of the International Society for Technology in Education's national conference.
Courtesy of Marlon Styles Jr.
Classroom Technology This Technology Can Write Student Essays: Is There Any Educational Benefit?
Educators don't yet know what to make of GPT-3, an artificial intelligence application that generates text on command.
6 min read
Blue artificial intelligence woman made up of dots with sound waves coming from her mouth.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Classroom Technology Why Computer Science Classes Should Double Down on AI and Data Science
AI and data science should be part of the focus for those working to expand computer science education, an expert says.
3 min read
Tight shot of diverse, elementary school children using a tablet in class
iStock/Getty Images Plus