Making The Grade

Page 3 of 5

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.

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."

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Terry Greene