Howard high school chasing a dream

Howard high school chasing a dream

May 29th, 2011 by Kelli Gauthier in News


This story was compiled during the course of the last school year. Reporter Kelli Gauthier and videographer/photographer Patrick Smith spent five months in the Howard School of Academics and Technology observing and interviewing students, teachers, administrators and other staff. Principal Paul Smith gave the journalists full access to the school.



Howard becomes part of public school system.


School moves to corner of East Eighth and Douglas streets; high school courses added.


First high school diploma awarded.


School moves to East 11th Street.


School moves to Carter and West 10th streets.


First black school in state to receive "approval status" from Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.


School moves to its current location on Market Street.


Group of Howard seniors participates in lunch-counter "sit-ins" at Chattanooga restaurants.


School earns recognition for producing graduates who go on to study law, medicine, teaching.


Reggie White, future UT "Minister of Defense" and NFL Hall of Fame inductee, graduates from Howard.


Renamed Howard School of Academics and Technology; uniforms are introduced.


Hamilton County Commission approves renovation rather than building a new school.


Middle school grades added to Howard.


The school hires extra staff to cut down on student absenteeism.


Students make double-digit gains in math and reading on standardized tests.


Graduation rate climbs 12 percentage points to 68.6 percent, the highest level in years.


Number of suspensions drops from 146 to 67. Expulsions decline from 73 to 17.

Source: Newspaper archives; 2010 State Report Card

It came down to this. One last chance for Howard School of Academics and Technology to prove that its students could learn, that its teachers could teach. One last chance to prove that the school could be what it once was.

Once there was glory - and pride. But that golden era is buried so far beneath decades of decline that most people don't realize Howard ever had one.

Principal Paul Smith says the school can - and will - rise again. Howard was on notice as the year began last August: Improve or be taken over by the state. Smith set out to change the school's culture. To stop more students from dropping out than graduating, reverse plummeting test scores, halt steep teacher turnover, weed out gang colors on students.

Howard has made gains. Nearly seven of every 10 seniors graduated in 2010, a success rate not seen in years.

Hope was high as the first days of the school year unfolded.

Then reality set in.

The fifth day of classes at Howard came, like many before it, in a flash of fists and furor.

A boy stepped out of the cafeteria wing onto the grassy yard alone. He was surrounded by wannabe thugs, posturing, looking for a fight.

Students gathered. The yard is the best place for fights because there's room for a crowd, and it's visible from classroom windows around the building: a center stage for amateur fighters to display their grit.

Shirts came off. Fists flew. The boy was slammed to the ground. Before a police officer could get there, someone kicked him as he lay on the ground.

News of the brawl was walkie-talkied to Principal Paul Smith. He wasted little time, heading straight for the intercom: "All male students report immediately to the gym. Teachers, please dismiss all of your male students to the gym."

In the end, this fight wasn't so bad. No one was arrested; no one seriously hurt. Some kids in a gang called MOE were beaten up over the weekend by members of the Boone Heights Mafia. MOE members came to school Monday looking for revenge.

Another neighborhood conflict brought into the school.

Fights happen at every high school: the white ones, the black ones, the poor ones, the rich ones. But teachers at Howard will tell you their students are different; many have little more than pride to their names. Too many grew up without fathers. Too many haven't seen their parents hold down jobs. Too many are just out of jail or taking care of their own babies.

Howard students come from Chattanooga's three poorest areas - Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills, downtown and South Chattanooga, according to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. More than 90 percent of residents in those neighborhoods are economically disadvantaged, which means an annual income of $41,347 or less for a family of four.

They also have among the lowest school attendance rates in Hamilton County - nearly 40 percent of students zoned for Howard fail to meet a state-defined goal of being in class 93 percent of the time.

South Chattanooga and Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills have the highest numbers of home foreclosures in Chattanooga since 2006. In some of those neighborhoods, more than one in four babies are born to moms between the ages of 10 and 19.

Many of Howard's students live in housing projects. Their neighborhoods are home to rival gangs, their friends are victims of shootings. Eighty-two arrests - 70 misdemeanor and 12 felony - were made on Howard's campus last year alone, according to Lt. Shaun Shepherd, head of the Hamilton County Sheriff Office's School Resource Officer program. Incidents at Howard accounted for more than 20 percent of all criminal charges filed against Hamilton County's public school students, he said.

One of Howard's school resource officers said that if he wanted to, he could arrest someone almost every day, but he has to pick his battles.

Former Howard student Brendan Barnes, 16, is charged with first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery in the October 2010 killing of the Rev. David Strong, who was pastor of St. Paul AME Church.

But despite where they come from, Howard students have choices. Right or wrong. Finish or quit. Break the cycle or follow the crowd. This is what Smith will press on them again.

After the yard fight, Smith walked down the hall at his usual quick clip, but this time he was not smiling or fist-bumping students along the way.

He didn't have a full week of school under his belt, and already he was doing damage control.

Gang fights are always a good chance to lay down the law, and Smith specializes in bravado.

He swung the gym door open, stood before several hundred boys and paused for effect.

"We've had five days of peace at Howard, and we'll have 175 more. If you don't want to be a part of that, you can go somewhere else," the principal said to the towering rows of bleachers. He didn't need a microphone.

"Howard cannot go back to what it was four years ago. You're too good for that," he told the boys.

Most people who have an opinion about Howard aren't wrong. Depending on the hallway you walk down, the student you talk to or the class you observe, Howard is every bit as good and every bit as bad as people say.

Those who have never stepped foot in its halls find it easiest to condemn Howard as the worst school in Hamilton County. It's the one you'd never want to work at, the one you'd never want to send your kids to.

Howard is one of the 13 worst high schools in Tennessee. That's what state education officials said last year when they put those schools in a separate school district run with state help.

So far, the Tennessee Department of Education merely has provided oversight for Howard, and it has let Smith and his staff stay put. But this year was a trial.

Howard is in the Achievement School District 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.

If the school does not improve, state officials have the power to:

• Fire and replace Smith and any teachers or school board members deemed to contribute to the school's failure.

• Run Howard by a partnership between a nonprofit organization and the school system.

• Form a partnership between the state and Hamilton County Schools.

• Completely take over the school.

The problem is, no one knows how much improvement is needed for Howard to get out from under state direction.

In 2008, only half of Howard's students could solve grade-level math problems. Slightly more than 80 percent of them could read on grade level, and their average ACT score was a 14.7 out of 36. Exactly half of them graduated from high school.

When the federal government began tracking graduation rates in 2003, about three out of every 10 Howard students graduated, according to the Tennessee Report Card.

Howard once was the pride and joy of Chattanooga's black community, and the school's alumni can't help but remember the good old days.

Established in 1865 after the end of the Civil War, Howard was Chattanooga's first public school.

In the 1960s, the school made national headlines when a small group of black students staged nonviolent sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters.

The school's alumni association boasts many of Chattanooga's black leaders, including County Commissioner Greg Beck, state Rep. JoAnne Favors and former Chattanooga City Judge Walter Williams.

A sense of solidarity among those prominent alumni led to a protest of a 2002 school board and Hamilton County Commission effort to replace the school. The facility itself was a historic landmark, alumni said, so officials instead spent $17 million to renovate the school on Market Street in 2003.

There are several theories about what triggered Howard's decline as a source of community pride, but many alumni agree the slide began in the mid-1960s, around the time of desegregation.

When schools were segregated, Howard was given hand-me-down textbooks and library materials from the white schools, they said, but students made do because it was all they had. Education was the only way out of a segregated world, they were taught, so there was no choice but to band together and make themselves, and Howard, successful.

"Howard succeeded in spite of, not because of, its circumstances," said Eddie Holmes, who attended Howard from seventh to 10th grade.

Also, in the 1950s and early '60s, smart blacks weren't hired in Chattanooga as doctors or lawyers or engineers, so many of the best and brightest turned to teaching instead, alumni said. The result was a school full of dedicated and intelligent black teachers whom students admired.

Then in 1962 - eight years after the federal Brown v. Board of Education case that overturned school segregation - Chattanooga schools began to integrate. Integration came in phases over a decade - first elementary schools, then middle and high schools.

As schools across the county became available to black students, the community suddenly had options it had never had before. To become better, to become middle class, students thought they had to leave Howard.

The tight-knit black community, united in its desire to succeed at the one school blacks were permitted to attend, now dissipated. Those most determined their children would succeed enrolled them at schools like Red Bank, Hixson and Ooltewah - the "white schools."

"We decided we wanted to be middle-class people and do middle-class things and forget the other folk. But we were the other folk," said Fannie Holmes, Eddie's wife and a 1966 Howard graduate. "We started feeling like Howard wasn't good enough for our kids."

Around the same time, high-quality black teachers also saw other opportunities in more lucrative careers, so they left teaching.

"You had the cream of the crop, but then they're getting other jobs now," said 1959 graduate Irvin Overton. "That's what started the decline of Howard."

And in the end, Eddie Holmes said, Howard really never was desegregated.

"Black kids went out, but the white kids never came here."

Smith believes the school's glory days need not be only a memory.

While others dismiss his school as a failure, he acts as if it's a success. And he has reason to be hopeful.

While 41 percent of Howard's students dropped out of high school in 2001, only a quarter of them dropped out in 2010.

The percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in math jumped from 51 percent in 2008 to 72 percent in 2009, and it rose from 83 percent to 94 percent in English. The state began giving harder tests with higher standards in 2010, so like other schools around the district, Howard's scores were significantly lower: 24 percent of students scored at or above grade level in math, 40 percent in English.

When Smith talks about the future of his school, he downplays the uncertainty. Tilting his head back and raising his eyebrows, he talks with the confidence of a man in charge of his own destiny.

"Last year this time, they were talking about shutting us down and firing me. But we've made it without their help," he said in March. "Howard's going to be the state's first success story. We're going to make grad rate next year."

One day in April, Smith huddled with a small group of senior staff, all of them hunched over, trying to read a report.

Brows furrowed, voices hushed. The group was conducting a post-mortem on a critical Tennessee Department of Education review that evaluated everything at Howard from school safety and culture to learning environment and curriculum.

"I know I take failures very personally, but there are people in this building who don't. And they don't belong here," said senior counselor Hilary CQ Smith. She's worked at Howard for seven years and regularly drives her own car around to the projects, dragging truant students to class.

For three and a half days in December, a team of state administrators descended on Howard, observing classes, interviewing students and collecting surveys.

The teams evaluated the good and the bad at Howard in detailed reports, called "What's a Good School."

The state presentation on their findings focused mostly on Howard's shortcomings. Smith listened stoically.

"Some of this stuff was right on the money. Some of it, eh ... " he said quietly as the officials left the room. "But when you go with the word 'all,' like 'all students are learning,' you'll never hit that."

The state reviewers noted that many students are disinterested in their classes - a warning sign that they might drop out.

" ... At-risk students often struggle to learn in a traditional classroom," the review stated. "Only a few classrooms were observed at [Howard] where learning activities appeared to be sufficiently varied to give all students the opportunity to excel. Few students appeared to be fully involved in their learning rather than disinterested."

Near the end of his staff meeting, Smith let his gaze wander from the report in front of him and rubbed his forehead with his thumb and middle finger. He raised his eyebrows and looked up at his teachers.

"Howard staff does not get paid enough to do what we do."

The state report also criticized Howard's teachers and its learning environment.

"Regarding the course syllabi, students stated that some teachers clarified rules and expectations, but others lacked the skills to teach. They also indicated that some classes were so rowdy that it was impossible to learn," the report reads.

Distractions at Howard can be hard to escape. If students aren't listening to music on their cellphones or MP3 players, teachers are playing it over speakers in classrooms. Power 94 is the soundtrack of the school.

And distractions at school are amplified at home, where students are forced to grow up sooner than they should.

After a tour of the Hamilton County Courthouse last year, senior LaToesha Green had managed to snag an internship with General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon. The opportunity gave her hope.

Then in her neighborhood one day, a friend was playing with a gun they didn't know was loaded and accidentally shot LaToesha in the chest.

As she recovered at home, she got further and further behind in schoolwork.

Then, the summer before what was to be her senior year, she found out she was pregnant.

"I was gonna do my best to do good," she said. "I wanted to go [to Spelman College] so bad, but then I got pregnant. I was upset when I first found out, but I'm gettin' over it. People make mistakes."

Now she's a homebound high schooler with a newborn, working hard to make up enough credits to earn a diploma. She thinks she'll be lucky to go to Chattanooga State.

When Smith, who turned 40 this month, came to Howard three years ago, he was young and green and ready to dive headfirst into his first position as principal. A graduate of Tyner Academy, he'd taught there, too, and figured Howard couldn't be much different.

"I thought a black school was a black school was a black school," he said. "Now I know, Howard is the only inner-city school in Chattanooga."

In his standard suit, tie and matching pocket square, Smith demanded that his students trade in their saggy pants and oversized baseball caps for button-down shirts and ties. Many had never tied a necktie, so Smith taught them.

Like any good politician, he stands in the halls when school begins and when classes change, shaking hands, greeting parents and teasing his charges.

"Hey, I heard about you this morning, Christina," Smith gravely told a passing student. "I heard you passed your Gateways," he finished, relaxing his face into a smile.

Normally Smith is at school by 6:30 a.m. and leaves after dark.

To make the kind of progress Smith believes the state is looking for, he has no choice but to stay informed on every student in the building, and that calls for long hours.

Smith's phone number is programmed into many of the cell phones of Howard's students. He knows where they live, who their parents are and whether they're likely to sleep in class.

Smith cheers for his students at basketball games; their poor grades keep him up at night.

But ask him to tell you about key moments in the first three years of his daughter's life, and he has trouble. His 3-year-old daughter, Bethani, was born two days before he took the Howard job.

His dedication to Howard has caused a rift in his family.

"My wife hates it; pretty soon she's going to hate me," he said, only partly joking.

Knowing what he knows now, would he take the job at Howard again?

He gives a short, dismissive grunt.

"Gosh no! I would have taken a job as principal at Orchard Knob Middle."

But there's no point in living in hypotheticals. Smith talks as if Howard is a success, because if it fails, he fails.

Though he's an unflinching optimist, Smith knows his efforts at Howard have limits.

To help improve its graduation rates, Howard uses two programs to aid students who are falling behind.

Credit recovery, a controversial practice at Howard and throughout Hamilton County, allows students who have failed a class but earned at least a 60 average to "recover" the credit by doing extra work.

And this year, Howard also started experimenting with a school within the school for other students who are behind academically.

Called Success Academy, it's two rows of about 10 computers housed in the school's old cafeteria.

Students spend their days making up work they should have done weeks, months or sometimes years ago.

Critics say the program artificially boosts the school's graduation rate by coddling persistently failing students. During a tour of the place for Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, officials stumbled across several students smoking marijuana on the lawn outside the academy; one of them was on probation for murder.

Even with improved graduation rates, Smith is pretty sure he'll hit a ceiling.

No amount of credit recovery, phone calls from teachers or free food at parent night will convince some people that reading and math are the only way to truly change lives, to change a community.

Smith said one option is making Howard a magnet school dedicated to career and technical education.

If Shakespeare and trigonometry don't grab his kids and make them stay in school, maybe cosmetology or heating and air conditioning will, he thinks.

"In high school, it's notes, test, notes, test, notes, test. [Students] get that at the next level. They don't need that in high school. They don't have to be bored to death in high school," he said. "I just see Howard as having so much potential. I believe in the potential of our kids."

Howard's graduation rate-the No. 1 barometer of its success-now is at 68.6 percent, compared with the district average of 80.2 percent. Smith believes that after the numbers are counted from graduation, the school's graduation rate will jump to above 80 percent.

By his count, 180 seniors walked across the stage May 14 at McKenzie Arena. Those chosen to speak, sing or read poetry during the ceremony focused heavily on overcoming adversity.

Salutatorian Nakkia Isom got choked up while telling the audience about growing up with four siblings and a single mom.

"It's OK, baby," someone shouted out as everyone in the auditorium broke into applause.

After gathering her composure, Nakkia continued.

"Class of 2011, I charge you to be determined. Things will not be given to you. Many will fall victim to wanting something for nothing, but that doesn't work in life anymore."

Smith knows this year wasn't perfect. After Day 5, there were two more big fights at Howard and countless smaller skirmishes. Still, the culture is changing, he said.

"Guests tell me they feel safe and comfortable when they come to Howard," he said. "The kids feel really good about it."

And academically, the school has a ways to go, Smith said. Fewer than half of Howard's students scored on grade level on last year's standardized tests.

"We're taking small strides academically. Things happen over time, not overnight, and based on the data, I think we have a very long way to go," he said. "I won't be at all comfortable until we're at 100 percent [of students on grade level]. I know it's reaching, but we can make it. It's attainable."

In what also may have served as a personal pep talk, Smith addressed the senior class near the end of the school's graduation ceremony.

"Let me say to you, class of 2011, this is the commencement, this is not the end," he said. "Commencement means to begin."

Of the 13 schools originally placed in the Achievement School District, Howard is one of five that will continue being co-managed by its home district and the state education department. The other eight have been returned to oversight by their district alone. State officials say it's no secret that if Howard doesn't continue on an upward trajectory, they have final say in whether they step in with drastic turnaround measures.

At McKenzie Arena, as "Pomp and Circumstance" played on repeat, air horns blasted, cameras flashed and row after row of students in maroon caps and gowns stood up to leave, Smith stepped up to the microphone.

"Please welcome the class of 2011 of the Howard School," he said with a grin.

Because in the end, it's only a beginning.