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."