Educational innovator says people — not just money — needed to save schools

Anthony Smith Photo by Charles Hallman

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

A high school with over 90 percent Black students — nearly three-fourths of its students are low income and almost a third are students with disabilities — a decade ago had a 18-percent graduation rate and was considered one of the worst schools in Ohio.
Now 95 percent of the students at Cincinnati’s Taft Information Technology High School graduate, a rate higher than the state of Ohio, and the school was named a Blue Ribbon award winner by the U.S. Department of Education.
Taft Principal Anthony Smith, now a Cincinnati assistant schools superintendent, was invited to spend two days in the Twin Cities last week, where he spoke to local school officials and others about transforming low-achieving schools into high-performance institutions.
After his arrival at Taft, Smith said he put his “Failure is not an option” motto to full practice. Rather than overhauling the staff, the school instead was reorganized into an “academy” for ninth and 10th graders and a “senior institute” for juniors and seniors. They also increased student “buy-in” not only in co-curricular activities, but also in their own learning by keeping portfolios and participating in “student-led” conferences with their parents and teachers. Smith also instituted a “Safety Net Program” to help improve student performance deficiencies in any given course.
“We have a four-year plan,” he told an audience at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis.
“When he [Smith] was talking about what Taft looked like, that’s what we have at North,” said Kim Ellison, a member of the North High School advisory group. The longtime Northside school, which has struggled in recent years, was threatened with closure but now is undergoing changes. “It is so encouraging — it is possible.”
Ellison was among the estimated 180 people who attended Smith’s June 29 appearance at the Capri Theater.
“I’ve worked with the guy for 10 years — he’s the real deal,” exclaimed Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change, one of several local organizations that sponsored Smith and Taft administrator Michael Turner’s visit last week.
Local educators also spent a day last Thursday with the Cincinnati school officials at the Center for School Change, located at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Said Turner, “I think it’s great that this type of thing is happening in Minnesota to get a varied group of people together and be able to listen to other people’s stories.”
Smith also told the audience at the Capri that he made sure that each student saw him every day: “You have to be in the classrooms,” he asserted.
He also discussed that creating a school-business partnership was a huge contributing factor at Taft. Smith teamed with Cincinnati Bell CEO Jack Cassidy, who promised free phones and laptops for every student who maintained at least a 3.3 grade point average but would take them back if they fell behind. Bell employees tutored Taft students at the school during the employees’ work day.
None of the free equipment ever was taken back, Smith happily reported.
“I was really impressed with [Smith’s] leadership ability,” Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Office of Family and Community Engagement Executive Director Scott Redd admitted.
Whether it’s Ohio or the Twin Cities, the business sector “has a civic responsibility to make this kid the best kid for you,” Smith told the MSR afterwards. “You may not be able to [give] all of the textbooks and other things, but you can give this kid some guidance and support in a variety of ways that is not about money but about relationships. Businesses and partnerships have to step up.”
Just as in Minnesota, Ohio also is going through some tough economic times. Even with budgets being slashed, there still are ways to get things done in maintaining high academic quality, added Turner.
“I really believe that when people look at resources, we immediately think money. I think we’ve seen at Taft Technology is that money is important, but it’s also important to place resources, first of all, in people. And if you don’t put your resources in people, all the money you have can be wasted. There are more to resources than money — there’s people, time and expertise that you can gather from other people.”
Could a similar business-school relationship model also be established here locally as well?
“Absolutely it can,” said Redd, who adds that his office is contacting local businesses about this possibility of working with MPS schools.
“We are doing some of that,” claimed Joan Arbisi Little of the Center for School Change, who pointed out that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce was among the co-sponsors and the Cargill Foundation helped provide funding for Smith and Turner’s visit to Minnesota.
“I know that there are companies out there who are willing to go into the community and help. I think finding that partner would be huge in Minneapolis,” Ellison pointed out.
Finally, building “meaningful and long-lasting” relationships with the students is most important, Smith believes.
“Kids want to know, ‘Do you really care about me enough to really get to know me?’ after he explained. “Do you care enough about me to get me involved in [school-related] activities and care about me to have me improve academically so that I can go on and pursue my career, whatever it may be?”
When asked, Smith briefly explained why he chose to move from high school leader to his city’s school assistant administrator: “There are some high schools that are not doing well. I have to lend myself to figure out how can I do this work but make it more meaningful. It’s a challenge for me to see if I can replicate some of the stuff we put in place [at his former school]. Even though I was at Taft, all those kids are my kids.
“We’re just happy that we were able to keep our vision about children because sometimes adults get in the way.”

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