CINCINNATI | A school that was once considered to be one of the worst in the country is slowly pulling itself out of an academic emergency by targeting students' individual needs.
The process is slow, but Rothenberg Preparatory Academy administrators and teachers are proud to say they've made improvements without resorting to cheating like some other districts across the country.
Even inside the echoing canyon of a school cafeteria filled with dozens of gabbing grade-schoolers, there is no way to muffle the sound of confidence coming from one little girl's voice while she marvels at her own mastery of math.
"Four plus four is eight," the Rothenberg Preparatory Academy first grader rattles off from her breakfast table bench. "Six plus six is 12."
In between bites of her prepackaged chocolate cookies, another first grader from the same tightly packed table chimes in too. Her favorite subject in school? "Math! Math! Math!" she exclaims. A third smiling face says reading books about baby animals is just as fun as addition and subtraction -- or as these kids like to call subtraction: "takeaways."
For administrators and teachers who work in the tough, low-income Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, the delight in the children's eyes is enough of an indicator that their work has been a success.
"It's this feeling on the inside that you have when you know you've touched a life -- that it will be changed forever," said Principal Alesia Smith.
Of course, when school test scores reflect their success, that helps too.
Rothenberg Preparatory Academy still has a long way to go to improve proficiency in many grades and subjects, but it has boosted math and reading scores since 2009, when Smith took charge.
At the time, only 7.1 percent of fifth graders were proficient in reading, and only 3.8 percent of fifth graders were proficient in math. The school was in an academic emergency, the lowest possible place it could be in the Ohio education system.
"I was like, 'I just got here,'" Smith chuckled.
She recalled when she learned Rothenberg Preparatory Academy was about to be labeled one of the most underperforming schools in the state and the country.
"[The superintendent] calls us out of the meeting and says, 'Just want to let you know ahead of time because it's going to be in the paper tomorrow,'" Smith said.
"We were already at the bottom," she said, "so there was no place else but to go up."
"We realized that a child could start at a school in preschool and stay there through eighth grade and never once have made their federal targets, and we just decided as a team that is unacceptable," Superintendent Mary Ronan said.
She launched a plan called the Elementary Initiative to revitalize the city's 16 elementary schools. It increased instructional time for math and reading each day to 90 minutes per subject. Prior to her changes, the amount of reading and math instruction was sporadic. Sometimes, kids would spend as few as 40 minutes on one subject.
Most of the staff was replaced, and a new teaching style was developed to tackle each student's individualized needs. The biggest obstacle, said Smith, was getting the children to believe that the school really was going to change after many previous problems.
"They had several principals. They had all different teachers," she said. "They didn't really believe in anything that any adult was saying to them at school. They didn't trust that we were going to stay. They didn't believe that we were going to do what we said we were going to do."
Smith said she, like many administrators at other underperforming schools, felt pressure to turn the school around quickly.
"It's a hard place to be. So much pressure," she said. "I mean around testing time, I'm like a different woman. It's crazed around here."
She doesn't understand, however, why other underperforming schools that became embroiled in cheating scandals allowed the pressure to push them over the line.
"People handle stress differently. Under that pressure, people fold, and it's like you don't ever want to get to that place where you feel like you have to compromise what you believe in," she said.
"It hurts everybody. It just doesn't hurt your district. It hurts all of us."
Smith says there are no shortcuts to turning around a failing school. Getting the staff to work hard is the only way to put the school on a path to recovery.
Winning them over
There were days, Smith admits, when tears would well up in her eyes and she would wonder whether she was cut out for the uphill battle she faced every time she entered her office.
"I pray a whole bunch," she said. "A lot of what I do is centered in my relationship with God. So to be honest, there were days that I left here and I would be crying all the way home because I would think, 'What have I signed up for? What is going on?’" she said, recalling encounters with many unhappy kids.
Most students deal with struggles at home, she said. Some are homeless or depend on welfare. Some have a parent or a relative in prison. Some come to school wearing dirty clothes.
She makes sure every student feels loved when he or she walks into her school.
"You can see sometimes they're sad, and you can say something like, 'Look at your hair! It's cute,' and it makes them smile," Smith said, "Or, 'Baby, what do you need? Come and give me a hug!'"
She gives out hugs on a regular basis as she walks through the hallways. She says the hugs are sometimes more for her benefit than the child's. She knows every student by name.
"Sharing what we have with kids … it makes their lives better, it makes you better,” she said. “ There's this feeling you have - like I made that baby smile today. I made that baby feel good about who they are today ... If we are all doing that, the world is just going to become a better place.
She also makes sure kids are rewarded with food when they do something great. It helped motivate them to do better on tests.
"Once we got them [to trust us], we were really starting to build on their confidence," she said. "We had all kind of parties," she said. "The kids loved food … If they wanted chicken wings, we got chicken wings. If they wanted cheese coneys, we had cheese coneys."
Success has been a gradual process. Teachers received special training at the University of Virginia to learn how to become more effective in the classroom and work together. They also developed a "data room" to develop innovative ways to make students learn.
Teachers and administrators use the room to analyze students' test scores and develop new, creative, non-traditional methods for teaching the kids who may not learn in traditional ways.
Teachers track a student's learning abilities and progress using a color-coded system: green, yellow and red.
A student in the red would receive extra one-on-one help in the classroom and possibly a tutor, a mentor or another teaching method to help him or her. A student in the yellow is slowly improving, and a student in the green means, "we obviously did something right," said Emily Campbell, the school's education coach.
"We will sit in here every week and go over our data," she said, explaining how the teachers help each other help the students. "This room is powerful," she added. "It's a very great visual to sit down as a teacher and say, 'OK, this is what went well. This is what I need to revamp, and it's rewarding as well because when you do revamp and you do teach and you do find the best practices, the [color-coded] cards move up," she said.
As of the 2011-2012 school year, Rothenberg Preparatory Academy had pulled itself out of an academic emergency and is now labeled by the Ohio Department of Education to be in “continuous improvement.” Fifth graders, for example, are now more than 60 percent proficient in reading and nearly half are proficient in math.
On Thursday, the school is expecting the results of a new statewide school evaluation system. It will help them determine whether school administrators will need to adjust their teaching methods even more as they move forward with the school year.
There is still a ways to go, says Smith, but the things are looking good, and she's proud of what her students have accomplished already.