Howard School serves up healthy batch of optimism along with the chicken and biscuits

Howard School serves up healthy batch of optimism along with the chicken and biscuits

August 11th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Paul Smith, principal of Howard High School, greets students as they enter the building on the first day of school on Wednesday. As students entered the cafeteria and gymnasium, staff of the school checked for white, tucked-in shirts and ties for each student. Students who did not meet dress code were asked to correct the issue before they could enter the school.

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.


Howard is in the Achievement School District managed by the state because it was defined as a "persistently lowest achieving" school, or one with a graduation rate lower than 60 percent for two of the past three years. This year, the state report card showed Howard's graduation rate rose to 78 percent. Math scores increased 16 percent.


Click here to read previous stories about the Howard School of Academics and Technology.

In the south side of Chattanooga, hearts flutter and prayers go out to God on the night before the first day of school at Howard School of Academics and Technology.

Seven hundred students, give or take, with a little help from truancy officers, will walk through these doors into the hands of 61 teachers eager to prove that this year at this inner-city school will be better than last.

For some, including the principal, the morning alarm blares before 5 a.m. The buses will arrive at 8:30. It's go time.

6:50 a.m. The call goes out to 802 parents. Don't forget school starts this morning at Howard School, Principal Paul Smith says. He lowers the tenor of his voice. Have them in uniform. Boys wear ties. Girls wear ties or ribbons. "Defiance will not be tolerated," Smith says. The message reaches 201 voice mails; 396 parents answered; 205 were unreachable.

7:45 a.m. Down the hall and up a flight of stairs from the principal's office, Bill Abel's calculus classroom is finally in order. Questions fill dry erase boards: What is calculus? What are the norms in this class? Moody Bible radio station plays in the background. The hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" fills the empty space. Since last night he's been thinking through what will happen when students come through the door. "I used to play basketball," he says. "Today is the big game." He walks to the lobby to see students already trickling in.

"Mr. Abel," a senior, Demesha Fletcher, says to get his attention. "I've been studying ACT all summer."

He smiles as wide as he can.

"Good," he says.

8:10 a.m. The biscuits are done in the cafeteria. So Edith McKibben, a broad woman with a gappy smile and bright red lips, yanks them out of the industrial oven and brushes butter across the tops. She sways to rhythm and blues coming from a CD player nearby. Chicken and biscuits for breakfast and chicken fajitas for lunch. She's been doing this 11 years, and every year the first day still feels like Christmas morning.

8:25 a.m. The first of 14 buses is about to pull up. While Smith waits in the lobby, a mother walks up to him with her son in tow. They just changed neighborhoods and she thinks someone may jump her son today. A group of boys beat him up during the summer after they moved. She asks Smith to watch his back.

8:35 a.m. The double doors open and teenagers pour through. Girls, some with blue and pink and caramel hair, hug. Boys strut in bleach-white tennis shoes. Cell phones and Pop-Tarts in hand, ear phones hanging off their shoulders.

An assistant principal nabs hats off some of the boys' heads. A teacher, Betty Jo Everett, corrals six boys to tell them to tuck their shirts into their pants. They wince.

She catches another group. Then another. Then another.

In a corner, she pauses to tie some of the boys' ties. Fat knot, short knot or a long knot, she asks.

"I don't have a tie," one student says to Smith.

"Go in my office and grab one," Smith says. A few donated ties are left.

A pastor from the neighborhood, Jonathan Thomas, greets other students with urgency.

"You going to do it big this year?" he asks, offering a firm hand.

8:45 a.m. A student with swollen purple eyes walks by Smith, and he grabs the boy.

"What happened to your eyes?" he says.

"I got ganged," the student says, hesitating.

"Do they go to Howard?" Smith says.

"No," the boy answers and walks on.

8:55 a.m. A teacher walks up to Smith with her arm around a trembling freshman girl. "This is Erika from East Lake," the teacher says. The girl, wearing a bright purple tie, holds her stomach and looks nauseous.

"We are going to go for a walk," the teacher says.

9:00 a.m. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. The first day has officially begun. "Get to the gym," Smith says to students still lingering, talking to friends they haven't seen over the summer.

9:05 a.m. He walks into the gym, its bleachers filled with students. Cheers erupt.

This is the year, he tells them.