published Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Cook: Sit-ins all over again

David Cook

I wish there were some cheerleaders who could magically emerge out of this column while you're reading it. Six smiling cheerleaders, leaving little pompom trails all over your kitchen, back-flipping into your track lighting, each holding yellow signs that spell out one big word:

H. O. W. A. R. D.

(Not the duck.)

The school.

It's that important, the message. I want you to hear it -- really hear it -- because there were lots of tears Tuesday in Chattanooga as rezoning issues at East Hamilton and the lottery drawing for magnet spots put parents in the awful position of playing "win, lose or draw" with their beloveds' education.

And that's not the way the world should be.

But the story unfolding at Howard is like some Oscar underdog film being played out on the screen that is our city. The school whose students conducted sit-ins in the 1960s is again modeling for our city a vision of how the world can be.

Cue cheerleaders.

In 2005, Howard's graduation rate was 25 percent. One in four. That's not a school, that's "Lord of the Flies."

Last year, Howard's graduation rate was 88 percent.

"That's above the district average," said a smiling Dr. Paul Smith, principal.

Cheerleaders, megaphone it: Howard currently out-averages the district graduation rate, which was 80 percent in 2010.

"These kids are not just talking about graduating, but going to college," said school counselor Ismahen Kadrie. "This is a place where the focus is on education."

Teachers I talk to scratch their heads, trying to remember the last time they saw a fight.

They tell stories about kids running -- hustling might be a good word -- to turn in their homework on time.

Last year, a student scored a 29 on the ACT. Dr. Smith announced the news over the intercom.

"Kids left their classroom and ran to mine, just to see what this kid looked like," said teacher Mason West. "When he walked down the hall, he was like a hero. They were whispering about him."

Give me an H!

What's happened? All the right things: contagious leadership affects positive teachers who inspire students who are supported by parents. Most roads lead back to Smith and his influence.

He's our version of Geoffrey Canada, the dynamic educational reformist who's turned schools in Harlem into global models of success.

Smith's motto: You've got to dream for kids until they can dream for themselves. He wants Howard to become a K-12 school, where a vertical curriculum would keep every student in what he calls "a failure-free zone."

One piece of this puzzle depends upon Volkswagen. On March 7, students from West's Talented Tenth program will present a proposal to VW executives.

Their idea: VW would invest in transforming the school's nine-bay garage into a working, 21st-century model of an auto-tech apprenticeship. Students could track early into the auto field, and upon graduation, would be ready to immediately walk onto the VW factory floor and start work.

That's why during my recent visit to West's classroom, all his students were speaking German. After the VW presentation, they're preparing for trips to Washington, D.C., and Jamaica, presenting to university and government leaders in both places.

Dozens of people, groups and associations have volunteered their time to help the Talented Tenth. Last year, those trips were funded within the county's budget, West said. This year, no budgeted money, and they're having to raise $27,000.

Remember: This is a school where 95 percent of the population is considered economically disadvantaged. Are they going to car-wash their way to $27,000?

"People ask me if I want to go to another school. I can't leave this place," said Derelle Roshell, the gifted sophomore that Smith has nicknamed "Senator."

"It is a school of excellence," he said.

He was dead serious.

David Cook can be reached at

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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ldurham said...

A school of excellence? Their ACT score is the lowest its been in five years, a dismal 14! And their graduation rate is up? So: students are learning less, but getting a diploma anyway. David Cook's article is typical TFP cheerleading, but God help these Howard grads when they get into college. They won't get a high exam score and a degree just for coming to class. David Cook, you told an entertaining story, but not an accurate one.

March 1, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.
jjmez said...

Predictable, some a'hole would have to come and throw in a wrench.

Thank you Mr. Cook for an inspiring editorial piece. Not to take away from Principal Smith and what he's accomplished. Kudos to him for seeing what those prior to him failed to see. That is, like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. The lesson in that story was there was no magic outside the realm of her own abilities and capabilities. She learned the magic was within her all along. She just had to believe. Thank YOU!! Dr. Smith for believing in Howard, it's students, its faculty and its community and knowing the power to change a situation lies within each and everyone of us.

Keep moving forward. Don't let the naysayers hold you back. There's no place to go from here but up. Now, how about reopening that swimming pool Howard once had and students can learn and compete in swimming competitions and other athletic as well as academic competes? Children are born mulitalented and nare also born naturally multi-gifted. A well rounded school will build on that and teach from that angle. Over the years those natural gifts have been discouraged and replaced with much less. It will address all aspects of learning. There's no limit to what a child can do or learn under positive influence. Over the years there have been a lot of negative people, some from within, tearing the school, students and parents down. Some students may get to go on and become rocket scientists. Some may learn the skills to work in a factory. Others may design and engineer spacecraft, automobiles and the likes. Some may have the gift of making fine jewelry, become a world renown artist, and some may get to be Olympic stars competing in swimming competitions and other athletics. Some can be exposed to foreign languages and go on to perform humanitarian works in under-developed countries. And some may become housewives or housefathers. It doesn't matter___We all have worth. Regardless of who are or where we come from. We're all born with a gift. That's one of God's most amazing promises to man. That we're all a gift and gifted.

And at the end of the day, if some of us want to work at a fast food restaurant, clean streets or wash windows. That's OK too. Our young people will still have the tools if they so chose to change their minds at some later date. And if being a fast food worker, street cleaner, window washer satisfies us, just make sure to be the best damN fast food worker, street cleaner, window washer there is and strive to own the damN business!! The sky's the limit! Screw the naysayers and back stabbers. Leave'em in the dust! Wallowing in that hatred. They'll implode and vaporize themselves on their own hate.

March 1, 2012 at 12:46 p.m.
macropetala8 said...

I just hope the people will realize what they almost lost by bad mouthing their school, children, parents and communities. What they stand to lose in the future if they're not careful. Learn to appreciate what you have. Work to make it better. Reach out to one another and lift up one another. Stop denigrating one another so. Heed the warnins of your ancestors. That is, just because someone smiles in your face doesn't make them your friend. Be mindful of the people you allow into your environment on the pretense of only wanting to help. Sometimes they're just sizing you up to take over what you have forgotten to appreciate. Where you see only problems, they see opportunities.

Howard has always been the jewel of the southside. From the very beginning when the school was first built there were evil intents to take it away from you. Remember that the next time you get on radio, tv and other media bad mouthing your schools, your children, their parents and your communities.

March 1, 2012 at 4:13 p.m.
rosebud said...

ACT score of 14? And 88% of students graduate? How, exactly? And why don't schools with an ACT of 19 or 20 (like many others in the county) have a 99% graduation rate? Something doesn't add up here. Did this writer tell the whole story, or is it just PR?

March 1, 2012 at 11:34 p.m.
Lr103 said...

jj and mac, don't forget the music. Children who are taught instrumental music at a younger age excel in other areas too. In the 1960s and early 1970s Howard had a musical department professionally operated by two of the greatest music directors this area had ever known. Their band was actually invited to perform at the Atlanta Peach Bowl one year. The band wasn't just limited to band music, but the students were taught classical music too. They could out perform many professional orchestras here and nationwide.

Or course! Stick to the children learning the basics; the ABCs, but don't stop there. There really is no limit to a child's abilities when they have positive influence and encouragement from adults.

March 2, 2012 at 5:54 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

That was a nice story, no doubt. It's good to see students doing well no matter their school. Mr Cook should balance his reporting or at least pass it over to an education writer and see if the 14 ACT/88 percent graduation rates are accurate-and if so how are graduating students scoring so low.

March 2, 2012 at 7:04 p.m.
Lr103 said...

L'Boy, for sure no change is going to happen overnight. Especially with decades of outsiders, and some insiders too, sabotaging the educational process @ Howard because their aim was to shut the school down. There have been many dirty hands involved that brought the school, the students and its community to this point. There's no immediate remedy and one shouldn't be expected. Howard has been targeted for as long as it has been standing. It was the first state of the art school of its kind in this area first and solely inhabited by blacks. It is my understanding the schools was originally built for whites, but they didn't want their children having to attend school in such close proximity to a black community so they turned the offer down, and it was handed over to blacks.

Even then they had to close of certain areas of the school after whites apparently had a change of mind. That's why the swimming pool area had to be closed off for the safety of the students and staff when whites, angry over blacks havin such a state of the art school, kept firebombing the school's swimming pool area. That made it too dangerous to allow students or anyone into those targeted areas.

That area of South Chattanooga has again been targeted for development. It's considered prime property. That's why Poss Homes was torn down and the tenants run off. As for Howard, the problem was they had to find a way to shutdown Howard in order to ring in development and lighten {wink} the area up. That's the only reason Howard was being badmouthed by so many throughout the years, IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS.

Maybe these Tornadoes hitting the area is Gods way of letting us know that maybe we should stop hating on one another so much, and instead celebrate our differences rather than use those differences as a way to divide and conquer.

Reminds me of those mudslides in California. Some Californians moving into the hills to get away from those people they don't want to live next door to in the valley. Then when the mudslides come they come tumbling from the hills right back into the backyards of those people they were moved away from.

March 3, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.
Legend said...

Howard also boasted of a course architect class and blueprint. In fact, most all the colleges classes presently taught at vocational, trade and two year colleges such as Chattanooga State were once taught by professionals at Howard.

Howard students built some beautiful homes as class projects around the city that still stands to this day.

March 3, 2012 at 2:31 p.m.
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