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Fred Hitt is supposed to fail.
By the numbers, by expectations, he’s supposed to lose. He’s supposed to do poorly in school, he’s supposed to be emotionally unstable, he’s supposed to drop out, get in trouble, go to jail.
But he’s not.
By the time Fred was 3, he’d been abandoned by one parent, taken by the state from another. Fred’s foster file lists his father’s identity as unknown. Fred and a brother were taken from their mother because of neglect.
They spent months in foster care, waiting for a new home.
“Nobody didn’t want me, or couldn’t take care of me,” Fred says with a shrug. The house he lives in now sits on the relatively quiet Kevin Place in central Toledo off Cherry Street.
But the neighborhood near his home is rife with crime. A man who lived next door was shot and killed nine years ago. And just two blocks away, four men forced their way into a disabled woman’s Fulton Street apartment in November, staying there for days and taking her rent money.
Children born into broken homes, pushed into foster care, raised amid crime, and educated at poor-performing schools are supposed to fail.
Many of them do. But not all of them.
It’s the same with schools, and many are called failures in Toledo, but maybe they’re not.
Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe we’re measuring success in the wrong way.
The bell rings and Scott High School’s halls explode. Students pile out of doorways, down corridors of the old DeVilbiss High School, Scott’s temporary home while its building on Collingwood Boulevard undergoes renovations.
Fred, a maroon T-shirt proudly stating “Scott” along his chest, sticks his lanky arms toward a poster telling students to “Stand Up,” an acronym for a student movement for personal accountability that Fred helped organize at the school.
Students at Scott get an unfair reputation, he says. Most of them are good kids who want to learn.
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Little of Fred’s 17-year-old body matches those who pass by him.
The brown hair shaved on the sides, molded in the middle into a mohawk. His red, thick, oval-rimmed glasses. His pale white skin.But the rest of Fred — where he’s lived, what he’s gone through, the handicaps that are supposed to limit him — is much the same as other students at Scott.
Fred might be Scott’s biggest booster. He’s literally the school’s mascot, donning the Bulldog costume for Scott sports.
He’s not a straight-A student. He won’t be a star alumnus.
He’s an average kid who, despite a bevy of other schools that perform better under every measure, wants to be at Scott.
“They say if you from Scott you’ll be nothing,” Fred said. “But we not.”
The simplest way to describe the Toledo Public school system is that it’s not simple.
Critics, many of them parents, call the district a hopeless failure, filled with kids who can’t or won’t learn, teachers who can’t or won’t teach, and an administration that can’t or won’t lead.
They’ve voted with their feet, pulling students out of the school system by the thousands. The district has lost more than 4,400 students in the past five years and now stands at about 25,000 students. More than half of the students who left were from the Scott and Libbey communities.
Teachers in central city schools say they are unfairly maligned and are doing their best with students who want to learn but are so far behind other students their age that classroom time is often spent on work that should have been mastered the year before.
And administrators say the Toledo system, as a whole, is better than many similar urban districts in Ohio and that they have a plan to make it even better.
All of those views are a little bit true.
Despite definitive policy statements such as “A Nation at Risk” describing the ills of America’s public schools, and all-encompassing laws such as No Child Left Behind meant to fix those faults, public education, especially in urban areas, is complicated.
A great disparity exists in Toledo Public Schools.
Nearly as many public schools last year in Toledo were rated as excellent — eight — according to Ohio’s system for rating schools, as were rated as failing — nine. More than 3,600 students went to those eight excellent schools, while about 3,000 attended those nine failing schools. Another 14 schools rated the equivalent of a D.
Not terrible, but not great.
Like many urban school districts, Toledo is stained by a massive achievement gap between white and minority students. The largest minority group, black students, scored on average below proficient on state standardized tests at twice the rate of white students.
And there’s a disparity between how students with similar backgrounds perform, on average, at different schools throughout the district.
At some schools, such as Grove Patterson Academy, black students outperformed their white classmates. Impoverished students last year excelled at Birmingham Elementary — one of the top eight in the district. Impoverished students at Pickett Elementary — one of the bottom nine — scored much lower last year but showed more than a year’s growth, according to the school’s value-added scores.
Value-added can be used to show, at least in part, how effective a teacher has been with a group of students. It doesn’t measure just where a student ended up; it measures the difference between where he or she started and ended in a year.
The easiest way to categorize Toledo’s district is that it has many good schools and many bad schools. Those bad schools — or more specifically, low-performing schools — are concentrated in the central city, an area plagued by high poverty, crime, and family instability.
That is a problem, and one most cities face. It means many students face unfair odds that the school system so far hasn’t found how to overcome.
But how to solve that problem and improve those schools, is, well, difficult at best.
“If we all had the answer, you wouldn’t be sitting here interviewing me,” said Romules Durant, TPS assistant superintendent for elementary education. “I’d be out there selling it and having the golden pill for everyone.”
Search for solutions
Myriad efforts have sought to change that. School choice, standards-based education, merit pay for teachers, and a host of curriculum and teaching models have been tried and instituted, to varying degrees of success.
Built inside the experiment is an assumption about what the educational system is and can be.
The assumption in the school-reform movement is that the education system is the catalyst for change in a community. If we fix our schools, we’ll give our kids the tools they need to fix our neighborhoods, cities, and country.
But what if, instead, an education system is the result of change in a community? What if a school system can’t really be “fixed” until its community “fixes” itself?
Toledo is trying its own reform plan. Gone for the next school year are middle schools, and in are K-8 schools. Coming are specially focused high schools and distance learning labs. And happening now, in the district’s lowest-performing schools, are new efforts to raise test scores at an early age.
Individual teachers change students’ lives every day. Schools have been made over and turned from failure to success, time and again.
Huge urban school districts have made gains after going through reform programs. But in many cases, those gains have been relative, from very bad to somewhat bad or average.
If they had found the answer already, Toledo probably would have just bought its golden pill.
On the move
The door on Denzel Moore’s Jervis Street home won’t stay shut. It must be locked to keep it closed.
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Denzel, 19, a Scott High senior, has seen doors to many homes.
When he was young, his family moved constantly. There was always a new home. At one, an electrical fire left them with no lights, nowhere to go. They lived by candlelight for weeks.
“I did what I had to,” his mother said. “I always kept a roof over us.”
With each move, there was inevitably a new school: Warren, Sherman, Pickett, Fulton.
By third grade, Denzel had been to all of them.
The moving and the turmoil finally caught up with young Denzel that year. He flunked and had to repeat third grade.
His mother sat him down over the summer and told him he wasn’t going to give up, that he was going to buckle down.
“That was not necessarily a good year,” Denzel said.
He moved on next to Riverside Elementary in North Toledo.
Denzel Moore isn’t alone.
Students at Toledo’s central city schools ride a merry-go-round of buildings, rotating among them at an alarming rate. Nearly 40 percent of students at schools in academic emergency changed buildings at some point last year, a Blade examination found.
Students move between TPS buildings. Parents pull them from public schools, place them into charter schools, and then pull them back out. Some families move out of town.
Many of Pickett Elementary’s students are homeless, Principal Martha Jude said. It’s one of the facts of life at urban schools. According to school district statistics, about 5 percent of TPS students are homeless. School officials said it’s more likely that double that many are homeless, but many families don’t report it out of pride.
At Spring Elementary, literacy coach Molly Henry knows only what her students tell her. “Rent is due, and momma can’t pay.” “Someone shattered another window of our house.” “Someone broke into our home, again.”
“It’s survival,” Ms. Henry said. “It’s no one’s fault. It’s a survival mechanism.”
The moves, over time, pile up. When Ms. Henry did assessments with sixth graders at Spring, she found nearly all had been to five different schools.
Meanwhile, students enrolled at excelling Toledo schools are considerably more likely to remain in those buildings. Only 17 percent of students at schools rated excellent last year on state report cards changed schools during the year, according to Ohio Department of Education statistics.
Over the past five years, students at Toledo’s academic emergency schools with available data averaged more than twice as much transiency as their peers at schools rated excellent.
With an educational reform framework largely built around stability, student movement may be the main enemy to success. It’s also frequently linked with poor academic performance, although other studies argue student mobility is rather a symptom of larger issues such as family strife or poverty.
Whether the cause or symptom of hardship, frequent changes in schools can make relationships between teachers and students seem fleeting and futile. But it doesn’t make those bonds impossible.
In one Spring third-grade class, five students have moved on since September. Three, including Russell Bland, were additions from other schools.
In two straight lines the Spring third graders filed — one for boys, one for girls. Their reading lessons were done this April day, and they had a break between classes. Russell lingered behind, then peeled off toward Ms. Henry.
He wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Thank you for teaching me,” he said.
In from the cold
The cold brings them.
Every morning, the cafeteria of Rosa Parks Elementary School on Cherry near I-75 is filled with students. Principal Diane McGee guessed 85 percent of her kids come most days before school starts for the free or reduced price breakfasts.
In the winter, more come. Principal Diane McGee doesn’t know why. The food is the same.
Maybe it’s warmer in the school than at home. Maybe there’s less food to go around in the colder months. Maybe some have only candles for light and heat.
“If they are here, they’re here,” Ms. McGee said.
The first thing Patricia Hitt noticed in Fred was the quiet.
Fred and his biological brother Victor were incredibly shy when Lucas County brought them to her house 17 years ago. They wouldn’t mingle with her other fostered, adopted, or biological children.
Victor would even hide behind couches to stay away.
Ms. Hitt thought her new children may have felt out of place, living in a black family. The two boys had spent six months being passed around temporary homes before Ms. Hitt took them in.
So she would drag Victor and Fred out from hiding to play with the rest of the family. She was going to make sure they felt they belonged.
“I treated them like I did all my other kids,” she said. “I showed them love.”
Fred isn’t quiet anymore.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.