Sunday, April 02, 2000

Aiken for some help

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The girl waiting at the curb could have stepped from Teen Fashion — 14 going on 24. A horn beeped and she climbed into a car and drove off with an older guy. Much older. More like 28 going on 18.

        Anywhere else, you'd assume the guy scrunched down behind the wheel was an older brother. At Aiken High School, that would be naive.

        “A lot of our ninth-graders have already had babies by their freshman year,” said school nurse Carolyn Bloomfield. “I'd say 75 percent are sexually active. With older men. Even without consent. A lot is without consent.”

        The word for that is rape. Anywhere else, it's a felony. At Aiken, it's a fact of life.

        So is this: A girl who enters Aiken as a freshman is more likely to get pregnant than get a diploma.

        Aiken is like a parallel universe where nothing fits, where children are older than adults, where parents act like children, where “progress” sounds like failure anywhere else.

        • Three years ago, 650 ninth graders entered, and 80 seniors graduated. Last year, 117 graduated. “This year we're hoping for 173,” said Principal Tom Higgins. With luck, 18 percent will “walk” on graduation day.

        • There are dedicated teachers and administrators working with heart and soul to save kids, but the yardstick of achievement can't even measure their progress. “The proficiency tests? We can't even reach that, it's ludicrous,” Mr. Higgins said. “The only thing that matters is how many do we graduate.”

        • Aiken's student body is 89 percent African American, 11 percent white, 1 percent “other.” And 100 percent stressed out.

        “At least 50 percent do not go home to the place that is listed where they are supposed to go,” Mr. Higgins said.

        “On any given day we have more than 100 kids with severe emotional disorders in the building,” said Joan Pack-Rowe of Hamilton County Family & Children First. She's working at Aiken as part of an experiment to deliver social services to schools. For someone with less hope, it would be an experiment in despair.

        Physical and sexual abuse are “typical,” she said. Students have no guardians and bounce around. This year's valedictorian, Tenika Butler, has a 3.7 grade-point average, but the impressive number is 12 — the number of times she has been homeless in high school.

        Ms. Bloomfield said, “We have kids coming to school here and we may never know their history.” Or criminal records. Over a two-year period, 560 students had juvenile court contact for reasons other than truancy. School officials often are not told about the charges.

        I visited Aiken Wednesday because of something Mr. Higgins said during a visit to The Enquirer the day before:

        “As a principal I try to have a resemblance of a high school where a student can still come to class and get an education. I try to have a resemblance of a real high school.”

        Think about it. Does this resemble your world? At Aiken, dedicated people fight for the future one child, one day at a time. How they stay on and keep on, without broken hearts, is beyond me.

        “The degree of violence, the loudness and rudeness to each other and adults. I've never gotten used to it,” the principal said. The nurse and social worker nodded.

        Murder, drugs, rape, homelessness, disease, hunger, poverty — all are as common in this world as the features we take for granted in our own: PTA meetings, homework, yearbooks, poster-board projects on Abe Lincoln.

        Here's what Mr. Higgins would like to take for granted, just once: “I'd like to know they got to eat, sleep in a bed and weren't thrown out. I don't care if it's a single parent, I'd just like to know they have just one consistent person who cares about these kids in an appropriate way.”

        Aiken is a refuge of safety for many students, but their outside world follows them to school. And most are slowly destroyed by it.

        Mr. Higgins says everyone talks about Aiken, but nobody visits. Not black leaders, not white leaders, not city leaders, not church leaders.

        They don't look at Aiken, they just look for someone to blame. But blame won't stop the sad cycle of ruined lives.

        The man waiting for the girl at the curb could have dropped out of Aiken 10 years ago. And in 15 years, his daughter may be picked up by some drug-dealing, dead-end loser.

        He doesn't care. Do we?

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.