Cook: Sit-ins all over again

Cook: Sit-ins all over again

March 1st, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

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