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Making The Grade

Emery Johnson sauntered into South Mountain High School this fall wearing his shades and his Attitude. He fit right in with all the other gangly, streetwise kids who sure as hell didn't need to be bothered with school.

He started ditching classes almost immediately. He decided he'd rather spend his time hanging out in west-side pool halls or on the streets of a South Phoenix neighborhood where the most common commodity is crack and people carry knives and guns just in case something unexpected drives by.

Emery quickly figured out ways to spend more and more time on the streets. He knew that if you go to the school nurse with a fake illness during lunch, when the classroom teachers aren't around to call your bluff, you have a good chance of getting a sick pass. He learned that cutting school was even easier if you just don't bother to show up at all. And he learned that his indulgent grandparents, who'd raised him since he was a baby, didn't get too upset when he ditched if he just told them the truth: "I'm bored."

In any other school, Emery Johnson probably could have ditched to his heart's content until he eventually flunked out. Ironically, he got lucky by enrolling in the one school in Phoenix--its reputation notwithstanding--where he had the best chance.

To most people, South Mountain High School is that poor school on the other side of the river, where achievement is low and the dropout rate is high. A place where the teachers are unprepared to deal with the overwhelming real-life problems of their students. A school that turns out losers.

If that's the kind of school Emery Johnson expected to find this fall, he was wrong. By chance, he unwittingly stumbled into a school that is making waves across the country for doing what no other urban school has ever accomplished: finding ways to keep the Emery Johnsons of the world off the streets and in the classroom.

In just one year, the experimental South Mountain Plan has caused long-time educators to take note. It's received a rave review from the National Education Association journal Today. It's also causing some local folks to reevaluate South Mountain.

The crux of the South Mountain Plan is this: The school has gotten aggressive about helping kids "at risk" of dropping out or flunking out by giving its teachers time during the regular school day to double as social workers. Instead of teaching the normal five classes a day, many teachers in this plan teach three classes, using the rest of their time to individually tutor kids, talk to their parents, work on solving their problems. Kids likely to quit school are in a special classroom where their work and attitude can be closely watched. None of these kids can just "slip away" anymore, as Emery used to do. Families who never before had heard from the school are now on familiar terms with teachers.

The plan amounts to such common sense, it's surprising nobody else has ever tried it before. And although there's nothing magic about the plan, there's nothing easy about it, either. Dr. Alim Muhammad, whose job it is to track South Mountain kids at the very brink of dropping out, recalls that he first met Emery last fall when teachers reported his constant truancy. When he was called in for a chat, Emery was "angry, playing games, acting a tough role." Much of that anger began boiling over the year before, when Emery had tried living with his natural father and clashed with his dad's live-in girlfriend.

By the time he'd moved back with his grandparents, Emery had developed his Attitude. But Muhammad and science teacher Gwen Holmesley teamed up with Emery's grandfather and eventually managed to convince the headstrong teen-ager that it's smarter to hang out at South Mountain than to wander around the glass-strewn alleys that feed into his East Broadway Road neighborhood.

Today Emery is one of the students that South Mountain officials point to when they say, "There's hope here."

THE WORDS "AT RISK" are trendy in education circles these days. But few educators can figure out what to do to help kids in danger of dropping out-- except yammer on and on about them. Educators are so overwhelmed by the problems many of these kids have at home that they're paralyzed.

"We get the kids who are on the streets, who were beat up the night before, who are hungry, in gangs, on drugs, contemplating suicide," says Dr. Tim Dyer, the exiting superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District. "None of this is the fault of the school. But if we as educators ignore that, basically we're going to assign a whole group of students as well as society to a destiny that is less than desirable."

 

Dyer, who is leaving Phoenix this spring to become executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, has sensitized the City of Phoenix to the terrible state of its schools. He warned city officials and state officials that unless they started to adequately fund inner-city public schools, middle-class parents would continue pulling out their kids. Only poverty-stricken students would remain; dropout rates would soar while scholastic achievement declined. (See related story on page 27.) Dyer started the South Mountain experiment last year because nothing else had curbed the school's shameful dropout rate--in 1987, one out of every four students dropped out. What's more, Dyer's district was under a 1983 federal-court order to desegregate itself, and by last year South Mountain was the only high school that didn't have its quota of white students. Middle-class parents of all colors just didn't want to send their kids to a school where truancy is more hip than either football or Hemingway.

Dyer figured that if the school had a lower dropout rate, academic achievement would improve and so would the confidence of middle-class parents who might finally decide to send their kids to South Mountain.

So in an effort to integrate the school, lower the dropout rate and improve scholastic achievement, Dyer did something that's never been tried so thoroughly or completely before any place in the country: He gave teachers the time to be social workers.

Fortunately Dyer had the money for his radical plan. Because the same federal judge who ordered the district to desegregate in 1983 also ordered that the desegregation be funded with a special property tax, Dyer had about $2.1 million a year to funnel into South Mountain. That property tax, says Dyer, will always be around because once a school is integrated it still needs extra dollars to stay integrated. That means the South Mountain Plan will always be funded.

Some might think $2.1 million is too much to spend on inner-city kids with poor skills and a passel of problems. Others might think it's too little. Either way, South Mountain officials figure it's a bargain. It costs only about $3,000 a year to educate a kid at South Mountain, they note, but it takes $25,000 a year to incarcerate a lawbreaking dropout.

Dyer used the money to hire seventy extra teachers. By cutting their teaching hours, he allowed all teachers half their workdays to visit parents' homes, tutor, get kids signed up for health care, even learn Spanish.

In an unprecedented move, the superintendent also managed to get the district's seniority rule disregarded at South Mountain alone by negotiating with classroom teachers' representatives. In the normal course of events, teachers with seniority are given the first shots at coveted teaching jobs. And because of South Mountain's lighter teaching load, many wanted to transfer to the school. But Dyer, fearing that the school would attract burned-out teachers who just wanted a lighter load, waived the seniority requirement for teachers applying to work at South Mountain.

And here's another first: South Mountain is the only school in the district that is overseen by two principals, who have two very different jobs. Rene Diaz is an administrator; Art Lebowitz covers social services. Under the plan, freshmen, sophomores and some juniors are divided into sixty- to ninety-member "families" who share the same main teachers--a move that allows teachers to stay aware and confer about the students they have in common. When a kid like Emery repeatedly misses classes and has no excuse, he's sent to a special "at-risk" room where he and his fellow near-dropouts get extra attention.

South Mountain also has a new teachers' center, another first in the district, with open-air cubicles and private telephones. Teachers don't feel isolated from each other anymore; they get together in the center to discuss kids and link up with the parents. Home visits aren't required, but some teachers prefer them to meeting parents on campus or talking with them on the phone.

Muhammad, for instance, frequently visits homes. Sometimes, kids give him bogus addresses and he ends up at a city dump. "You get used to it," he shrugs. "I try to rescue as many of these kids as I can. Sometimes I go to their house before they get up, I wait for them to take their showers, I drive 'em to school. It's not cool to be smart or interested in school. If a kid is congratulated on how good he's doing, then he might drop out. So sometimes you have to sneak education on them until they want to do it on their own."

You'd think most parents would resent teachers nosing around in their kids' lives, but, remarkably, teachers say parents usually welcome their calls or visits. No one is quite sure why. Maybe some exhausted parents are glad to have the teachers as disciplinary allies. Maybe others are relieved there is somebody else to deal with their unruly kids for a change.

 

It's way too soon to tell if this plan is going to work, but early statistics are promising. Dyer himself says it will take four years--the span necessary to track freshmen through to their senior year--before there's enough data to judge the plan. But after just one year, the dropout rate fell nearly six percentage points. In a school district that has made no appreciable change in its dropout rate since 1985, the South Mountain statistics are encouraging.

White-student enrollment is up 2 percent as well, which may mean white parents are becoming more confident in the school.

Parental involvement is also up, says Principal Rene Diaz: Last year only 100 moms and dads showed up for the fall open house, this year more than 1,000 parents attended the affair. Says Diaz: "It's amazing."

WHEN YOU THINK of blighted urban high schools, Phoenix wouldn't come immediately to mind. Detroit or Chicago, maybe. But as Dyer has hit home again and again, all the problems you'd expect to find in Detroit or Chicago you also find in Phoenix. For years, nobody wanted to admit that, preferring to point to the affluent Anglo schools and conveniently forgetting to mention the growing problem of segregation. Even today, when the South Mountain Plan is being touted around the country, local people--including vocal advocates for minority education--seem to know little about it. Maybe that's because most everyone gave up on South Mountain High years ago.

MDSD
MDNMMDNMOf all the inner-city schools in the Phoenix Union District, South Mountain has always been the most problematic. Its location on the lower reaches of South Seventh Street isolates it geographically from the other schools.

It's also sociologically isolated, with more than 35 percent of its students coming from families with incomes below the poverty level. Depending on which teacher or administrator is talking, from 50 to 90 percent of South Mountain's 2,700-member student body is, like Emery Johnson, at one time or another at risk of dropping out or flunking out. Many of the dropouts will end up in prison or on welfare. And those who do manage to stay in school until they graduate average only a ninth-grade level proficiency in English and mathematics.

It's a school where minorities are the majority, even after millions were spent improving the physical plant in the wake of the 1983 federal-court desegregation order. In the mid-Eighties, the special property tax ordered by the judge funded a multimillion-dollar performing and visual-arts center. The arts center was a so-called "magnet" intended to lure white middle-class kids to the relatively remote campus. Two more magnets have been added--a law center and an aerospace center.

Those snazzy magnets just weren't enough to lure kids who were planning on becoming career Crips into staying in school.

And they weren't enough of a draw for white kids. "The magnets did their job, but not completely," laments Principal Diaz, who points out that although all the other high schools in the district have less fancy and alluring magnets, South Mountain still is not integrated today. To be technically desegregated, the school must have a student body made up of 20 percent white students. Although it started out with only 9 percent white students in 1984, today it has 14 percent.

EMERY JOHNSON always seems to know the answer to everything. But he's also got worries and he isn't ashamed to acknowledge them. He sometimes fears he'll lose his grandparents to a stray bullet from a drive-by or a shoot-out. "There was some shooting down by 24th Street last night," he says quietly. "I thought about them getting hurt." He knows his paternal grandparents, Rudell and Clifford Johnson, are the only people who've ever given him real love. He admits he wonders what would happen to him if they weren't around. His grandmother Rudell, who is seriously ill and recently underwent surgery, is a thin, quiet woman in her late sixties, who spends much of her day lying on the couch, smoking cigarettes, waiting for her strength to come back. Clifford Johnson, Emery's grandfather, used to take his grandson fishing and hunting, but these days he devotes most of his energy to taking care of his wife. The Johnsons married in Phoenix shortly after Clifford's World War II Navy stint. For decades, Clifford laid bricks for a living. Rudell helped supplement the family's income by working in sales at Woolworth's downtown. They've lived in a tidy, small house on the same South Phoenix cul-de-sac for more than thirty years. The Johnsons raised their four children in this house, and when their daughter died, they raised her three kids. At that point, they were middle-aged and exhausted, but when Emery's father brought them two-year-old Emery to raise, they welcomed him. "We have Emery by choice," says Rudell. "This is his home."

 

Still, the Johnsons are tired. As the years went by, their little neighborhood became an island of well-kept houses with mowed lawns and swing sets and vegetable gardens surrounded by acres of urban decay. Clifford remembers hunting quail and rabbit on the same empty lots where crack is dealt. "If I had the money, I'd move," says Clifford. The Johnsons know their grandson faces plenty of temptations when he ventures out on the streets surrounding their neighborhood. And they know he needs more discipline: The kind of gentle, trusting child raising they are accustomed to doesn't always work when a kid is seduced by the streets.

Emery and his grandparents both acknowledge he's spoiled, that he has more emotional love and material goods than most inner-city kids. "If I ask for something," Emery says, "I get it." His granddad bought him a bird he named Larry and an aquarium full of fish. He has a nice wardrobe, Iron Maiden posters on his wall and a Commodore computer in his bedroom.

Emery sees his father often, but speaks of him as though he's more of a friend than a parent. He'd lived with his grandparents since he was two, but decided to try living a year with his real dad last year. He was only thirteen when he entered high school and moved in with his father. Stresses were involved with that move, including the transfer from one high school, Camelback, to another, Alhambra.

Soon Emery started acting out, cutting classes, getting an Attitude. What bothered him most was his dad's girlfriend. One day, the two got in a physical quarrel. "She slapped me. So I hit her back. She's not my blood. She had no right to hit me. And that's my reason for coming back to my grandparents' house." He returned to his grandparents' house last summer with too few credits to be a sophomore, so he signed up for a second freshman year at South Mountain.

Emery won't talk about his mother, who abandoned him and his father when he was only two. He says he never wants to see her and can't remember anything about her except that she was white. If the abandonment has caused anger and hurt to eat away at him inside, he won't admit to it.

One of Emery's best friends is Chrys Scott, who has been kicked out of South Mountain for fighting. Some days, the two play basketball in a nearby park. On Friday nights, they get drunk on Olde English Ale. Emery says he would drink beer every night if he could, although he avoids drugs because they "mess with your brain."

Last summer, Emery spend almost every night out roaming the streets. He won't say what he did, exactly, during those nights, except that he walked a lot, from one city park to another. "It was too hot in the day," he says matter-of-factly, "so I slept all day and went out all night." Sometimes his grandfather would get mad at him, he says, but other times he'd just let it go.

THE REASON he started ditching school, says Emery, is that it was just "too boring." Clifford and Rudell accepted that explanation without questioning it. But the excuse didn't wash with Dr. Alim Muhammad, who learned in early September that Emery was cutting classes.

Muhammad, who is now fifty, left home himself when he was twelve because he hated his stepfather. "People just took me in," he says, "I'd go live with them for a day and sometimes I stayed for four years. Teachers, especially, were kind to me and I just kept going to school and going to school."

After counseling for years in various Phoenix Union schools, he came to South Mountain because he "wanted to leave a mark." "I worked at Maryvale before that," he says, "but all you had to do is give those kids a schedule and they'd make it through. Here it's different. I see myself every day in these kids, they are young old kids just like I was."

Muhammad has an instinct that tells him when kids have the spark that means they'll eventually make it, and when kids are sure to drop out because they don't have any fight in them. He never had any doubt that Emery, who in another school would surely have slipped through the cracks, was an intelligent kid who could easily succeed if he "just learned the game." After meeting with Clifford and Emery, Muhammad assigned the boy to one of South Mountain's "at-risk" classrooms. Emery and Clifford signed a contract with South Mountain: Emery agreed to attend special classes, to be prepared, to follow the rules; his grandfather agreed to keep better tabs on Emery. South Mountain agreed to do its best to keep Emery in school. It sounds easy, but it isn't. At-risk rooms are for kids on the verge of dropping out, and only half who enter will make it to the end of the semester. Last year, of the eighty kids who were in the at-risk program, forty made it through. That's forty kids saved from the streets.

 

The number of students in Emery's classroom varies--today there are only about a dozen. Several have parole officers. Some, like Emery, have good academic skills because they didn't start cutting class until after they got out of grammar school. Others can barely add or read. Emery's classroom is nothing fancy. It has the usual requisite wall hangings--a poster of the Treasures of Tutankhamen, a picture of a football player extolling the importance of knowing how to read, maps of the world and blackboards. After lunch, Emery and his friends sit outside on the steps waiting for school to start. This pleases Sue Ellen Eyre, Emery's reading teacher, who says she'd rather have her students milling around outside than down by the football field smoking a joint. Eyre teaches three hours of reading in the morning, Gwen Holmesley takes over for three hours of intensive science in the afternoon. During their spare hours, they tutor kids and check in with parents. Eyre hugs, nags, disciplines. Holmesley, who is teaching for the first time this year, is patient and even, which isn't always easy when every kid in the room will try to make you think he doesn't care about school.

When Holmesley starts her science class, Emery and a kid named Manny, who calls himself "Little Man," work on a science experiment. They are loud and rowdy today, possibly because they are sitting near a pretty brunette named Alex, who drives all the boys crazy. They are several units ahead of everyone else in the class.

Even though Emery is smart, he's not always motivated. Holmesley has still had to call Clifford from time to time to make sure Emery is following his contract. "Emery's grandfather is very concerned and compassionate and warm," says Holmesley. "He has all the right feelings going on. And Emery is this incredible student as far as ability. Most of the times I don't have any problem with him, but I think he's involved in other things in his life and can't always see that school would be beneficial. The first step is getting him through high school. The second step is getting him to see the value of college. I think he'll make it because he's so smart, and if he gets into more trouble, he'll overcome it, I hope."

Except these days, Emery actually is talking about college. He figures he'll study computers someplace after he graduates from high school, "I will graduate, I know that," he says, although he still claims school is "something I can just breeze right through."

After Christmas, Emery will probably be transferred into regular classes. Because of the South Mountain Plan, he'll be in a "family" of about ninety kids who share the same teachers. If he starts cutting again, or acting up, the teachers will notify Dr. Muhammad, who once again will send Emery to the at-risk classroom. Some kids purposely start acting out so they'll be transferred back to the at-risk classroom where it is safe, says Muhammad. "We want to get them through to the junior year," he says."Usually by then, they realize they're going to make it and they do pretty well on their own."

THERE ARE THOSE cynics who say Superintendent Tim Dyer's attempt to make a dent in the lives of kids who've already had their share of bad breaks is quixotic and too optimistic. "How can you break the cycle of poverty with a few phone calls by a few teachers who have a little extra time," they ask. At-risk kids have so many serious problems--temptation of the streets, low academic skills, sad troubles at home--that they're not likely to succeed.

Dyer, himself a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, doesn't agree. "Sure they have terrible problems," he says. "But what's our alternative? Our only other alternative is to give up.


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