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Fred Hitt never knew his father. He got a new one instead.
Middle school years were the down ones for Fred. He started getting into trouble, hanging out with the wrong kids. He started disobeying his mother and slacking off at school.
“I really didn’t care,” Fred said.
Without a man in the house, Patricia Hitt had to be hard. She couldn’t control everything her growing children did, so she laid out strong expectations with steep consequences for violations.
Her kids didn’t stay out late. They went to church on Sundays. And they didn’t start trouble.
Fred was starting to break those rules. One day in eighth grade, he crossed the line, throwing snowballs at passing cars.
Fred and his mother clashed when she found out. She kicked him out.
It could have been disastrous for Fred. But Wakeso Peterson brought him back home.
When Fred first met Mr. Peterson, he was in awe. The drug and alcohol counselor had come to Fred’s school to give presentations, and Fred immediately tried to spend as much time with him as possible. Mr. Peterson was so energetic and personable. Fred wanted to be like him.
“He’s a good guy,” Ms. Hitt said. “Just a super, super person.”
Fred started hanging out with Mr. Peterson after school, and got involved with many of his mentor’s community groups. He started doing volunteer work on weekends, to give back to the community.
So when his mother kicked him out, Fred went to Mr. Peterson’s. He brought him back, and along with a brother hashed out the dispute.
Fred’s made a 180-degree turn since, Ms. Hitt said. And Fred has grown even closer to Mr. Peterson.
One day, someone asked Mr. Peterson who Fred was. He replied that Fred was his son. They’ve called each other family since.
When Fred and a brother were ready for high school, their mother wanted to send them anywhere but Scott High School. She tried Start and Bowsher, but she said they wouldn’t let her children transfer in.
It wouldn’t have mattered to Fred.
Mr. Peterson constantly lauded his alma mater. He wore Scott gear and talked about people who graduated from the school and accomplished much. Fred was hooked, and he wasn’t going to go anywhere else.
“Scott got a bad rap,” Fred said. “You don’t have to live up to what people say.”
Involving the parents
Kelly Averill Savino wants her students to know how to argue.
Not in the streets, but on paper. She led her University of Toledo students through the art of argumentative writing, suggesting they delay their thesis statement and first hit readers with something compelling.
“At the beginning,” she tells them, “I’ve got to grab your attention.”
Her 13 students, some in their 20s, some much older, pitched thesis concepts to their teacher, who reminded several that what they had selected was a subject, not a thesis.
Outside the classroom door, Pickett Academy students shuffled from homerooms to the cafeteria, some peering into the university class.
Later that day, Chad Greeley would lead a handful of parents through practice GED tests in the Pickett classroom next door. His class is part of the Adult Basic and Literacy Education program; he does similar classes on the weekend at the Main Library on North Michigan Street.
These adult students at Pickett want to better their lives through education. School leaders also hope there will be a side effect on Pickett’s children.
With parents and adult neighbors taking classes in their school, the hope is the children will look up to their new schoolmates. If a second-grader sees his or her father going to school, the theory goes, that child will see education as even more important.
“Kids see parents learning, and it becomes a good role model for them,” Principal Martha Jude said. “It convinces them that it’s smart to stay in school.”
The GED and college classes at Pickett are just part of a major initiative in Toledo Public Schools’ education plan. The district is partnering with community service providers and government agencies, centering them at their new K-8 schools.
At Spring Elementary, dozens of students stay after school for three hours for a program ran by the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo, and other community groups such as the Cherry Street Mission Ministries.
The kids are tutored, eat nutritious snacks, and test skills on laptop computers. The program also focuses on parent involvement, with the community groups sponsoring family trips to bowling alleys and other events.
A Boys and Girls Club has run out of Sherman Elementary for three years. School leaders point to increased enrollment and the school moving from academic emergency to academic watch as proof of success.
They also say parent involvement has increased, and the neighborhood has noticeably improved.
In many ways, these are extensions of a school’s duties today. Once simply houses of education, public school duties have expanded to meal providers, social workers, and general troubleshooters; for instance, some schools have arrangements to get free glasses for their students who need them.
Now, they’re community organizers and neighborhood hubs. Educators say they have little choice.
“We have to do more than educate the students,” said Romules Durant, assistant superintendent for elementary education. “We have to educate the homes and the community as well, in order to have an impact.”
The glow of a SMART board beamed on Lynn Smith’s back as she led her Birmingham Elementary class through pronunciations of the sounds on the board.
Ms. Smith pointed to her mouth, opened as wide as she could open it, and told her first-grade students to do the same. “Big mouth!” she told them, as they made the sound “ow.”
The sounds mastered, it was the students’ turn to physically form the words.
“Raise your hand if you can come up here and make the word cow,” Ms. Smith said.
All 17 kids shot their hands in the air. The teacher called out a mop-topped boy named Anthony with a rub-on tattoo on his arm.
He dragged letters with his fingers; first C, then ow, pulling them to the top of the screen and forming the word.
The class sounded out the letters together, “Kah, kah, kah, ow.”
Despite their youth, the first graders improvised when the SMART board glitched, working their way through screens that lagged as if they had used the board for years.
Even at a young age, they show initiative beyond their years. And the school they are at is showing results beyond its peers.
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The student body is one of the poorest in the district, with about 86 percent considered poor by Ohio education department standards. While more diverse than central-city schools, about 43 percent of Birmingham students are minorities.
The school once performed much like those in the inner city. It was rated in academic emergency a decade ago, with fewer than half its students scoring proficient on state tests.
But then, the school began a consistent march of improvement. It jumped to continuous improvement on state report cards, and continued to raise its test scores.
Last year, after a performance index jump of 10 points, Birmingham was rated excellent, with the help of its value-added ratings.
Considered over time, the school’s improvement is more impressive. Since 2000, Birmingham’s performance index score has risen 37 points.
During that time, Birmingham’s characteristics have not significantly changed. Its student body is slightly poorer now, and slightly less white. The only significant difference is there are about 25 percent fewer students in the school.
So why has Birmingham improved so much when central-city schools have languished for years?
Staff struggle to pinpoint core differences between their school and others. They laud the dedication of Birmingham teachers, but are quick to add that teachers at other schools also work hard. They talk about their focus on data and interventions, but other schools have picked up those practices.
Birmingham’s staff then points to their tight-knit community. Getting parents involved never has been a struggle, Assistant Principal Jennifer DeYarman said. Why that is, when similar schools struggle to connect with parents, was harder for Ms. DeYarman to explain.
One theme, however, comes up time and again, and it has little to do with curriculum, classroom techniques, or grade configurations.
The Maumee River.
East Toledo is only a bridge away from the rest of the city, but in many ways, it’s a separate town.
East-side natives historically have avoided the rest of Toledo, and center-city residents rarely cross the river.
“Many people don’t get off the East Side,” said Mr. Durant, an East Toledo product himself.
In many ways, that could be seen as a hindrance. People could feel trapped in the community, their options limited.
But it also means, at least to an extent, stability. Which seems very much a positive when it comes to education.
“East-side pride,” the ardent loyalty to the distinctive community, appears to have an effect on its schools.
East Toledo isn’t a suburban enclave cloistered from city problems. It has its own struggles with poverty and crime. Denzel Moore remembers seeing people viciously beaten on east-side streets.
All the elementaries in East Toledo are Title 1 schools, which is a governmental way of saying their student populations are poor. They are considerably diverse; their demographics largely mirror Toledo as a whole, though their students are more Hispanic than black compared to the rest of city.
And yet, in many ways, the schools buck the trend expected of schools with their characteristics, the biggest in how they score on state tests.
Of the five elementary schools in East Toledo, three were rated effective, one continuous improvement, and Birmingham excellent last year.
Students at the schools are considerably less transient than central-city peers: about 24 percent of east-side elementary students changed schools last year, compared with 42 percent of students at schools in academic emergency across the river.
Kids go to the same school from which their grandparents graduated, Ms. DeYarman said. Teachers know their students’ parents because they taught them as well. Parents and grandparents are invested in their children’s school because of that innate connection.
“They stick around in this neighborhood,” Birmingham art teacher Gretchen Paskiet said.
Denzel Moore avoided the gangs in middle school and managed to stay out of trouble.
But his grades at Libbey High School weren’t anything to write home about. By the end of his sophomore year, he had a C average.
Then, his home fell apart. His mother, Yvette Moore, was arrested for robbery. She pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced to jail for 11 months.
With nowhere in Toledo to go, he moved in with an aunt in Ridgecrest, Calif.
It could have been an exile, a year of depression and recoil. It could have been an excuse to drop out and give up on dreams. Instead, it was the best year in school of his life.
“I always said I wasn’t going to be a statistic,” he said.
California was another world for Denzel.
It wasn’t just the distance from home or the sun. School there was a revelation.
He enrolled at Burroughs High School, once rated a California Distinguished School, given to about 5 percent of schools in the state a year.
The school felt, to him, like a college. The teachers put the onus for learning on students. They would stay late to help, give one-on-one tutoring, whatever was needed, but it was up to the students to get their work done, to have the drive to succeed.
One English teacher laid out a challenge for Denzel.
“I already graduated, got my diploma,” she told him. “It’s up to you to get yours.”
Those words resonated with Denzel. Instead of withdrawing while in California, he buried himself in books. He went to the tutoring sessions, and asked teachers for help.
There were no distractions, no friends, none of the normal teen things. Just football and school.
Denzel arrived at Burroughs with a 2.3 grade-point-average. He left with a 3.3.
Gauging test scores
In this age of education accountability, test scores and school ratings are the metric we use to determine the quality of our school systems.
How well a school scores shows its worth. How much scores increase gauges how successful a reform was.
But what if those tests don’t say what we think? At least one Ohio professor’s work shows that it doesn’t.
Randy Hoover, a professor at the Beeghly College of Education at Youngstown State University, twice tested the validity of state standardized tests as tools for showing school quality and student learning.
In a 2000 study titled “Forces and Factors Affecting Ohio Proficiency Test Performance: A Study of 593 Ohio School Districts,” which he revisited in 2008, Mr. Hoover analyzed test scores of nearly every Ohio public school district.
He measured how effective state standardized tests are at determining the academic achievement of students. His conclusions are damning.
What his analysis showed was that the state tests were not valid tools in predicting the academic achievement within a school district. What they are good at, is predicting the life children who took the test have led.
“The research findings from the 2000 study and this 2007 study both support the case that the tests are not valid,” Mr. Hoover wrote, “because the results are shown to be determined almost exclusively by the lived experience of the students — their lives outside of school.”
Mr. Hoover tested the indicative ability of variables with the test scores of Ohio school districts. He then took the three variables that had the highest correlation, and created something he calls the “lived experience index.”
The index is a compilation of three characteristics of families and students within a school district: median family income, percent of economically disadvantaged students, and the percent of single-family wage earners.
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“The reality that contradicts those assumptions even at the common-sense level is that we are what we have experienced in life — no more, no less,” he wrote. “And, given that reality, common sense informs us that the lived experience of school children is extremely varied and often very diverse across families, wealth, individual differences, lifestyles, and enrichment.”
The problem, Mr. Hoover said in an interview with The Blade, is that standardized tests deal with things considered cultural capital: word meanings, vocabulary, etc. They don’t deal with experiential knowledge or a student’s ability to apply learned concepts.
So, students raised in stable, well-off families, with educated parents in upscale communities will be more likely to test well, regardless of how good their school is.
Think of it this way, he said. How many schools in rich communities perform poorly on standardized tests?
“There isn’t one,” he said.
The findings are ominous for school districts trying to make major test score improvements through reform. Nearly every district’s relative position in the state remained unchanged since 1997, he found, despite numerous attempts at improvement.
Mr. Hoover is an ardent opponent of using achievement assessments to gauge student learning and to compare schools.
The achievement gap between black and white students, his study shows, shrinks considerably when there are controls for the impacts of poverty.
For instance, he said, Youngstown’s district frequently rates as one of the worst in the state. But he found that the district’s performance was near the top of the state after he controlled for socioeconomic factors.
Across the state, there’s an even mix of upper, middle, and lower-class districts that perform above expectations when controlling for socioeconomic factors.
“When you look at actual performance,” Mr. Hoover said, “you will find a lot of urban schools are really doing quite well, considering the disadvantages of the students coming in there.”
A better way to measure student achievement, Mr. Hoover said, would be to run a ratio between achievement test scores and the results of ability tests, such as reading grade level.
That would control some socioeconomic factors, and better show if schools are actually educating students, or if they are simply learning through the lives they’ve lived.
If Mr. Hoover is right, it brings into question whether we are accurately assessing our students, and if school reforms with high aspirations to improve test scores are doomed to fail.
And it questions whether we are even having the right conversations about our kids’ educations.
Denzel Moore wanted his mother to see him graduate.
Yvette Moore was released from prison early, and Denzel moved back to Toledo after his junior year in high school.
Even though his mother was constantly moving the family, even though she made mistakes, she did stay on Denzel to work hard at school. She stayed involved in his education, made sure he knew he had support, and wouldn’t let him give up on himself.
“I wasn’t taught to quit,” he said.
At Scott, Denzel carried on what he started in California. He’s been on the honor roll all year, and now has a 3.8 grade-point-average. He’s set to go to Defiance College, where he’ll play football and might study to be an athletic trainer.
And when he walks across the stage next month to get his high school diploma, he’ll do it on a knee that shouldn’t have even worked.
In California, the 5’, 6” Denzel got chop blocked while playing defensive end during a playoff game. He tore multiple ligaments in his knee.
With no insurance, he simply suffered through. He played his entire senior year of football at Scott High School with a knee that shouldn’t work. He finally got his knee repaired this winter after five surgeries.
If a coach could teach his whole team to have that kind of grit, they’d never lose. But you can’t teach toughness; some people just are tough.
Luckier than most
When people see Fred at Scott, there are always questions, his classmates say.
“People ask, ‘Is he OK?’” Denzel said with a laugh. “Is he lost?”
But Fred is home at Scott. He’s one of the most popular kids at school, Denzel said.
He’s a leader in student groups, and a leader of crowds. After filling in at one game for a friend as Scott’s mascot, Fred was hooked. He auditioned for the role, and has been the Bulldog ever since.
He’s got another year at Scott, another year as the Bulldog mascot. He’s finagled his school pride into a ticket up, he said, with a cheerleading scholarship to the University of Michigan.
His grades are strong, though he’s struggled somewhat in his focus at the school, cosmetology. It doesn’t matter, because the barber shop is only a backup plan to his career goal. Fred wants to be a firefighter, like an older brother who is a Toledo Fire Department battalion chief.
And though she was hard, Fred knows how lucky he was to end up at in Ms. Hitt’s home.
“She wants us to succeed,” Fred said. “She wants us to do something with our lives.”
And though Mr. Peterson came late, Fred knows how lucky he was to find a father.
If every child who is neglected or forgotten found a home like Ms. Hitt’s, maybe fewer would fall through the cracks. And if every boy without a father had someone like Mr. Peterson to look up to, maybe more would see their dreams as within reach.
But you can’t teach a kid to be cared for; some people just get loved.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org 0r 419-724-6086.