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Wisdom from Principal Smith, and others, urban and rural, in Ohio

Date Published: 06/29/2011

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Anthony Smith belongs on a growing list of today's public school "turnaround" artists, having transformed a rock-bottom high school in Cincinnati into a model of academic success, and interestingly, athletic success, too.

Smith will be in the Twin Cities Wednesday evening to tell his story about imposing rigor with a human touch (and finding a corporate sponsor) to bring confidence and real achievement where little of either existed before. The host for Smith's visit is the Center for School Change at Macalester College and co-sponsored by Growth & Justice.

I got a preview of Smith's Minnesota presentation as a member of the Blandin Foundation's "Student Success" team, which is on the ground in Cincinnati this week to study the progress of the Strive Partnership and its model of total community involvement and "cradle-to-career" investment in improving education outcomes.

Smith could have been a military or corporate leader. He's all about mission and focus and results. His students, mostly African Americans and mostly boys, must wear uniforms. The link between mental and physical discipline in his school is clear, and the Taft Information Technology High School has gone from bottom to top in football and basketball rankings too.

But Smith is also proficient at the softer skills, exerting a peripatetic and surrounding presence. He says that he is almost "never in his office" and that he prowls and drops in on classrooms throughout the day. He tries to know every student in his building, often personally tutors in math and is focused on the intellectual and spiritual content essential to success, and has enlisted a veritable army of tutors (from the employee ranks of his corporate partner, Cincinnati Bell) who are similarly committed.

Before Principal Smith's bravura performance, we were treated to an equally persuasive presentation from some African American leaders in Cincinnati who are working on parental and community involvement in the cause. Rolanda Smith, executive director of Parents for Public Schools of Greater Cincinnati, made the case for an intensive two-day program that her nonprofit is conducting for "professional development" for parents. It 's the first time I'd heard the term"professional development" applied to parents, and it struck me as a brilliant concept.

We also heard from Khalilah Slater Harrington, director of community partnerships for Strive, who admitted that despite encouraging gains, "we're not there yet" with grassroots community understanding and embrace of the Strive concept.

Ohio's urban challenges on the education front are matched by problems on its rural eastern Appalachian border. And our fact-finding expedition ended up Tuesday with a presentation from Megan Wanczyk, manager of Strategic Initiatives & Partnerships for the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio. A common chord was struck with the Grand Rapids contingent and Blandin Foundation representatives, over how to deal with distance to school, access to the quality courses offered in metropolitan areas, and worries by rural parents that higher education attainment will cause kids to leave and not return.

This is the third and final dispatch from Ohio, and the Blandin team and I are thankful for more than a dozen committed Ohioans and Kentuckians  who have been eager to tell their stories about efforts to do better by their children. We have learned from them.

--Dane Smith

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