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Making The Grade

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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.

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Terry Greene