By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CORRYVILLE - Attendance problems and low-proficiency test scores continue to challenge some of Cincinnati's public high schools despite the district's strategy to shrink its low-performing high schools into smaller, more focused "schools of choice."
School board members learned Wednesday attendance and proficiency test results have been mixed since 2001, when Cincinnati Public Schools began converting its neighborhood high schools into "schools within schools."
Following a national trend, Cincinnati Public Schools officials anticipated that specialized schools would entice more teenagers to stay in school, graduate and move on to career or college success.
CHOICE FAIR TODAY
Cincinnati Public Schools parents are invited to attend a Schools of Choice Fair 4-8 p.m. today at Xavier University's Cintas Center, 1624 Herald Ave., Evanston.
Another reason for potential student buy-in: students and their parents got to choose their school instead of being assigned one based on where they lived.
The first school redesigned was Taft High, which became Taft Information Technology School in 2001. Its partnership with Cincinnati Bell meant massive technological upgrades, donations and armies of tutors.
Since its redesign, the percentages of its ninth-graders passing all five areas of the state proficiency tests has climbed steadily. Last year, more than half of Taft's students passed reading and writing, but 37 percent or fewer passed math, science and citizenship tests.
Attendance problems appear more difficult to overcome. Taft initially boosted its freshman attendance rate from 78.8 percent as a traditional school in 2000-01, to 81.08 percent in 2001-02. But last year, attendance at the West End school dropped to 76.36 percent.
Principal Anthony Smith said the school - which is the only technology high school in the nation with no admissions requirements - has spread "safety nets" to catch its stumbling students.
There are tutoring sessions at night, on Saturdays and in the summer. The result is so many sophomores are passing that the upper grades have outgrown their space at Taft.
"We're still not where we want to be," Smith said.
In 2002, Western Hills converted into two schools: a University High School and a Design Technology High School. It, too, reported declines in attendance last year, from 85.17 percent average attendance as a traditional school in 2001-02 to 83.3 percent at the University School last year and 81.44 percent at the Design Tech school last year.
On the other hand, Withrow High's conversion has resulted in better attendance and test scores at its new International High School and its University High School.The best statistics are from Withrow University High School, a college prep academy where children wear uniforms and where girls and boys are in separate classrooms.
About eight of 10 of the school's freshmen passed the writing and reading portions of the proficiency test, while six of 10 passed the science and citizenship portions.
More than four of 10 passed the math portion, the highest passing rate in math among the five redesigned schools.
Some of the board members were unhappy about the results.
"These math scores are really bad across the board," said Melanie Bates. "What are we doing with these kids to get them back on track?"
Principals from several of the high schools told board members that they've added "fifth quarters" - they're not calling it summer school - and they're tracking what is taught to students more carefully.
Smaller schools, they said, are headed in the right direction.
Three Withrow International students who spoke at the school board meeting echoed that message. They said their specialty school is pointing them to college.
Kaitlyn Staley, 16, of Mount Washington, said that when she attended Withrow's traditional high school, she was unmotivated and her grades slipped. She assumed she wasn't going to college.
Now a junior at Withrow International, Kaitlyn said she is excited about learning.
"It was a step up for me. I had to focus for the first time on my work," she said. Kaitlyn plans to attend college when she graduates and study psychology.
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