published Saturday, December 17th, 2011

At Howard, some big steps forward but a long road ahead

Dimar Stephens works on a Spanish 2 test at Howard School of Academics and Technology.
Dimar Stephens works on a Spanish 2 test at Howard School of Academics and Technology.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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  • Howard graduation rate climbs
    Four years ago, when Howard Executive Principal Paul Smith started, the school had a 47 percent graduation rate. Today, it has climbed to 88.3 percent, but Smith says he won't be happy until it's reached 100 percent.

Paul Smith picked up plenty of baggage when he walked into Howard School of Academics and Technology as principal in 2007.

He inherited a school where fewer than half of the students graduated. Hundreds of expulsions and suspensions were common during the school year. More than 95 percent of the students were poor.

Howard's new leader was met with six gang fights on his first day.

"It was a bad place," he said, remembering some of Howard's worst days before he arrived.

While many of the students' home circumstances are the same -- or even worse now -- the school's performance and graduation rates are climbing. Some credit the fifth-year principal, while others attribute Howard's turnaround to increased parent involvement and a change in school culture.

Administrators, including Smith, caution that much work remains to be done at Howard.

Last year, state test results show that 88.3 percent of Howard's students graduated -- a 20 percentange point increase from 2010's graduation rate of 68.6 percent. Howard's graduation rate now is higher than eight other Hamilton County high schools, including Soddy-Daisy, Red Bank and Hixson.

Howard also saw double-digit gains in math test scores. While only 24 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in 2010, that number increased to 40 percent last year.

More modest gains were realized in reading and language arts scores. The percent of students scoring in the top two categories increased from 40 percent to 43 percent from 2010 to 2011.

But the gains don't make up for already low scores, which are well below state and Hamilton County averages. The number of students scoring proficient or advanced in math averages 55 percent across the state -- still 15 percent above Howard's score.

STUDENT PROFICIENCY SCORES


Math

Percent of students scoring proficient or advanced

• 2010: 24 percent

• 2011: 40 percent

Reading/Language Arts

• 2010: 40 percent

• 2011: 43 percent

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

"We have a lot of room to grow," Smith said. "We're still a school that has a long way to go."

That's perhaps best evidenced by Howard's ACT score, which has seen little movement in recent years.

The average ACT score was 14.3 last spring, down slightly from 14.4 in 2010. In the past five years, the average ACT score never reached higher than 15.1 in 2007.

"It's not where we want it to be," said Kirk Kelley, director of testing and accountability for Hamilton County Schools. "That's still a major challenge for Howard."

The 14.3 score falls short of Hamilton County's 2011 average of 18.8 and the state average score of 19.8.

Changing culture

Since 2007, Smith said he's tried to make connections with students, "personalizing the educational experience." He tries to know each student by name and keep in tune with what's going on in their personal lives.

"I have high expectations of them," Smith said. "I call home a lot."

On a recent day, students came in and out of Smith's office, asking to use his attached restroom or to grab a Coke from his minifridge. In the hallways, students asked about their GPAs, while the principal kindly nudged stragglers back to class. He patrolled the halls, leaping up the stairs two steps at a time. His necktie was missing. He had given his to a boy who forgot his tie, which is required under the school's dress code.

Every three weeks, school counselors compile data on individual students that includes test scores, grades and the status of current courses. Data is tracked meticulously. Smith has a time-lapse Rolodex of test scores, graduation rates and disciplinary actions in his office for quick reference.

Smith said professional development of staff has improved in recent years and that teacher turnover is way down.

"This staff has stabilized," he said.

As student achievement improves, discipline problems at Howard have plummeted.

Data kept by the school district show 81 expulsions in 2008. Last year, only 18 students were expelled. In 2008, 1,352 in-school suspensions were handed down. That number, too, was down last year, with only 591 in-school suspensions. In 2008, 898 out-of-school suspensions were given. Last year, 254 were handed down.

"Students find Howard is a very safe place to be and a place they want to be," said Superintendent Rick Smith, who's daughter, Hilary, is a guidance counselor there.

Students say the number of fights are way down and consequences and expectations are clear.

"They're always on us about discipline," senior Ciara Roshell said. "If we step out of line, they're on it like that."

Dropping out is no longer the norm at Howard. Rather than the exception, graduation is the expectation.

On a recent night, Smith received a text message from a counselor about a student who planned to leave school. It was 9:30 and he was in bed. But he started working immediately, persuading the student to stay.

For Smith, late nights, early mornings and weekends are normal fare. If a student doesn't show up, he hunts him or her down at home. He's pulled students from jobs if they were working during school hours. He's constantly in touch with family and community members.

"I don't let kids drop out anymore," he said.

Leadership

Those who know Howard say leadership has a lot to do with its recent improvements.

"You've had some continuity in leadership," Superintendent Smith said. "They have obviously done an outstanding job at Howard the last several years."

Students said they appreciate Howard's sports programs and varied offerings like honors and AP courses. But Sandra Smith, an event coordinator for the school, said Smith's leadership is what's responsible for the change in Howard's culture.

"That's what's turned this place around," she said. "It isn't sports or honors classes. It's that we have someone who truly cares about these students."

Dean of Students Jimmy Seymore said he's noticed a change in students' attitudes since Smith's arrival. Seymore has taught at Howard for 37 years. He said recent additions of after-school and tutoring programs have strengthened Howard's academics. Given the extraordinary challenges that students bring with them every day to school, Seymore said the school is doing well.

"Dr. Smith has done well with the cards he was dealt," he said. "I think it's a work in progress."

District 4 Board of Education representative George Ricks, who represents Howard, said parent involvement has a lot to do with improvements. More than 400 parents attended the last parent meeting.

He said some credit should go to schools such as Orchard Knob elementary and middle schools, which feed into Howard.

"Howard is a high school," he said. "It only gets what's fed into it."

Howard's horizon

Howard's poor performance had put it on a list of the state's worst schools. The school is currently being co-managed by Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District, a separate school district made up of the state's lowest performing schools.

Officials are hopeful that if improvements continue, spring 2012 test scores will take Howard of the list of lowest-performing schools and out of the ASD's jurisdiction.

"The kids deserve to go to a school that isn't in the bottom. It does something to their psyche," Paul Smith said. "We're going to get off that list."

While visiting with parents earlier this month, Barbic said such a goal can't be seen as the finish line for the Howard community.

"I don't think anyone will call that a victory, getting out of the bottom 5 percent," he said.

Superintendent Smith agreed and said now is no time to rest at Howard.

"We need our students at Howard to achieve at a higher level," he said. "Now is certainly not the time to slow down."

Staff writer Andrew Pantazi contributed to this story.

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about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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larwilb60 said...

"On a recent day, students came in and out of Smith's office, asking to use his attached restroom or to grab a Coke from his minifridge."? Sounds like REAL discipline! Just walk into the Principals office and use HIS bathroom? Grab a COKE from his minifridge? You have got to be kidding me! Where is the discipline? Did the reporter speak to any of the kids?

December 17, 2011 at 6:12 a.m.
ldurham said...

So: who was the principal when the school was out of control in 2007? (Hint: she is an administrator for Chattanooga State, and was PROMOTED after leaving Howard). Why was it "out of control" then?

And if this article is correct, more kids are graduating with a diploma from Howard, despite lower ACT scores than 2007. So, they're learning less, but still getting a diploma. That's a real success story, huh? And it must be real encouraging for employers who will hire based on this "high school diploma."

Let's do whatever it takes to graduate them, whether they're actually learning anything or not. No child left behind, indeed.

December 17, 2011 at 7:34 a.m.
01centare said...

larwilb60, that racism of yours is like an acid that's eating away at your inside. It will destroy you.

Indurham, That former Principal at Howard, now an administrator at Chattanooga State {God forbid}, she wouldn't happen to be that same sh%t starter principal that created division and hostitilities at just about every school she was a principal, would she? She's not the same one, is she, that wanted to suspend a 6yr old for showing cleavage because her shirt didn't button all the way to the top. What six year old do you know of that has cleavage

P/S I never saw a city with so many churches and people claiming their Christian faith filled with so much hatred, resentment and bigotry.

December 17, 2011 at 9:29 a.m.
LongSleve1 said...

@ 01centare

Where did you get racist out of the comment? That's the first thing people yell out when they have NO other argument.

Howard has been a dead end for decades. Even before consolidation, it was in this same shape. No amount of money that has been thrown at it (millions of dollars), no amount of radical teaching philosophies, no amount of press coverage can solve the real problem. Was it not last school year that there was such a tardiness issue that school starting time had to be changed? People are sick and tired of hearing these stories and seeing THEIR tax money thrown away.

Also, the best way to shut a racist up: Prove them wrong with you actions.

December 17, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.
WEBMAN said...

WOW. @LongSleve1 "Howard has been a dead end for decades". How did you come to that conclusion. Have you been inside the school for "decades" to actually come to this scientific conclusion.You are basing your opinion on what you hear in the news or what you see on television. To make a bold statement like you did, and you are entitled to your opinion, makes me wonder if you actually know anything about Howard.Before you throw an entire school under the bus, visit the school and see what actually goes into teaching kids that have so many diverse problems outside of the classroom. These kids, I believe, should be applauded for obtaining their diplomas under such trying circumstances.You try getting an education when your one parent is addicted to drugs. You try getting an education when your teacher is only teaching you because they could not get an appointment at one of the suburban schools. You try getting an education when you have outdated text books. You try getting an education when you are constantly fearing for your life because a majority of the kids in your class are in different gangs and you don't know when the next fight will break out, just to name a few.YOU TRY THIS ON A DAILY BASIS AND LET US SEE WHAT YOUR SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE.Congrats to the students and faculty and staff at Howard High School.

December 17, 2011 at 12:40 p.m.

Dr. Smith is going in exactly the right direction. He's the kind of leader Howard needs. He and the school have every right to be proud of their accomplishments.

December 17, 2011 at 1:29 p.m.
328Kwebsite said...

I was glad to read this article. I was glad to see that the writer did the research it took to report specifics about student performance improvements over several years.

I was impressed with the described efforts of the principal. Sometimes being a leader means providing informal counseling and making the trips and inspections to show that you care. Bravo.

What can we do as a community to get these scores up into the majority? How can we broaden the base of success to get more students with some ACT scores in the 18 to 21 range, critical for admissions to in-state four year colleges?

December 17, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
01centare said...

LongSleve1 said... @ 01centare Where did you get racist out of the comment?

The fact that those two would have never posted here if the school hadn't been Howard or Brainerd. They're avoided mentioning race doesn't make their posts not about race.

Was it not last school year that there was such a tardiness issue that school starting time had to be changed?

But no one uttered a word about the schools that have always had later and flexible start times to make it more convenient for the parents and students. Schools for the Arts and Sciences have always had a later and flexible start time.

WEBMAN it doesn't matter whether people like LongSleve1 know anything about the school They just can't miss out on an opportunity to bash the school because it's predominantely black. They're reluctance to come out and use the "B" word doesn't lessen that.

People are sick and tired of hearing these stories and seeing THEIR tax money thrown away.

Oh, PLEASE! You must be payingattention's evil twin or something. That's all she screams when in a corner.....YADA YADA YADA "their tax money." The parents of students who attend Howard pay taxes too!

Guess it would surprise steve to know there's been evil insider hands working to try to get Howard closed down for decades too. The way to accomplish that was to fail the students in order to force closing of the school.

People have been trying to destroy the school since it was opened in the 1950s. Howard was a state of the art school for its time, that boasted of even having its own swimming pool They had to close that part of the school down because racists kept firebombing the school and it was too dangerous to allow the students into certain areas of it. If you don't know some of the wicked things that have taken place in Chattanooga that collaborate with a lot of things taking place today, then you have no business commenting on thins which you know nothing about.

Yes! I said RACIST again! Because that's what the failing the students and attempts to shut Howard down for decades, over a half of a century to be exact, has always been about.

December 17, 2011 at 6 p.m.
rolando said...

Yeah, that's right. Don't comment on anything racially controversial in the slightest. .

Good way to solve race-based problems, that. Just ignore the issues and maybe they will go away.

Or forget about them altogether...that's what has been happening anyway. Just graduate them -- regardless whether or not they can count without using their fingers or spell their name. So long as they can vote themselves more goodies...

That's what some here espouse...er-r-r...want. Sorry.

It's all whitey's fault, anyway, right? Yeah, right.

Kudos to the principal...unless he is white, then "Never mind".

sarcasm=OFF

December 17, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.
01centare said...

rooooLAANNNND! Anyone who would throw their support to a mother who most certainly murdered her own daughter then tossed her away like two week old trash, then lied about it for months lost all credibility a long time ago. Try cleaning up your own backyard before pointing fingers.

P/S, rooland you and your minions don't post here on such issues as Howard, the inner cities to help as much as post here to demean, bash and gloat.

December 17, 2011 at 9:02 p.m.
sangaree said...

This is wonderful news. Keep up with the positives Howard. However, I like the add, it wasn't the fact that one person can be credited with the great changes taking place at Howard, it's a change in attitudes and a regime change in staff. When so much focus is placed on rules and discipline {as was the case for years at Howard} rather than learning, this damages the learning process for students. For a great number of years, the students were being punished and discipline for minor to non-existing and even made up issues. They were being routinely suspended for basically no reason. Who can learn in such an atmosphere, where every move is an uncertainity?

As to the comment made by larwilb60, There's nothing wrong with Dr. Smith allowing students get a drink out of his fridge or being allowed to use the office bathroom. At some of your better{sarcasm and a wink} schools students have been allowed to do a lot more without facing any consequences. Such as smoking the wacky stuff on school property, chewing tobacco and dipping snuff in the classroom to having weapons in their cars while on school property.

So get a life, and that your *hate somewhere else.

To Howard: Keep on moving forward and don't let the naysayers stop you! This approach should have been taken several principals and a long time ago.

December 18, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.
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