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Pioneering educators raise the bar at East High

New program aims for brighter future at school

By Ruma Banerji Kumar
The Commercial Appeal
January 11, 2006

When Paul Adams thwarted the closing in 1978 of a Catholic high school in Chicago, he didn't know he'd become an icon.

Over the next 25 years, he would show Chicago -- and then a nation -- that a school serving black children from mostly impoverished homes in a blighted neighborhood could succeed.
He set expectations for advanced math and science classes, expectations for college, expectations for futures in medicine, business and engineering.

At Providence-St. Mel, those expectations have meant that every senior graduates. Every one of them goes on to college. And more than half go to Ivy League and Tier 1 universities.

Tuesday, Adams walked the halls of East High in Memphis, offering advice on how some of Providence-St. Mel's magic might rub off on the embattled city school. East has had a tumultuous decade with a revolving door of principals, concerns about safety and persistently low scores, particularly in math.

But a new program that offers intensive tutoring and remediation work to help pull up students in the bottom 20 percent at East is hoping to change the school's future.

The program, founded by businessman and East alum Charles McVean, started in December 2004 with a goal to raise $3 million and provide peer tutors to help 100 seventh-graders and 50 eighth-graders.

On Tuesday, Adams and Providence-St. Mel's principal, Jeanette DiBella, observed classes with seventh-graders who started this fall nearly two years behind. They walked from the screeching chaos of hallways, to the quiet of classrooms where talk centered around fractions and prime factors.

"The difference between what I see in the hallways, and in these classrooms, is like night and day," Adams said. "There's something clicking in these kids' heads."

Adams and DiBella watched students like seventh-grader Tequila White shuffle up to a chalkboard to solve a problem that would have stumped her just two weeks ago.

"There's huge potential with this program," DiBella said. "But the key is to set high expectations for these students."

At Providence-St. Mel, DiBella says her mantra is: "The psychology of the school has to be more enticing than the psychology of the streets."

The work at Providence-St. Mel is gaining more attention as momentum builds around the nation for high school reform.

President Bush has proposed nearly $1.5 billion for a new initiative to ensure high school students graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college or the workforce.

And a $1.2 billion commitment by software giant Bill Gates to high school reform has also propelled the movement. Gates has led an effort for smaller, more rigorous high schools to erase an achievement gap where "wealthy white kids are taught Algebra II while low-income minority kids are taught to balance a checkbook."

East High, with help from Adams and DiBella, is trying to capitalize on that energy and renewed focus on high schools.

East High principal Fred Curry puts it this way: "We're planting the seeds in these students now. We may not see the fruit for years. But it'll happen. The important thing is that we're doing something."

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