Columbus South High School Turnaround, Catapult Learning Partnership Highlighted
Catapult Learning is completing a year-long partnership with South High School in Columbus, OH. As part of this partnership, the Catapult team provided instruction to reengage freshman and sophomores, we launched a schoolwide reading program and school climate improvement initiative, provided extensive job-embedded coaching and professional development support to reengage teachers and instructional leaders, and hosted monthly parent involvement seminars to reengage families.
Catapult Learning’s efforts at South High are highlighted below in a recent feature article from the Columbus Dispatch.
By Jennifer Smith Richards
The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday June 10, 2012 12:53 PM
There were classes, and there were sports. But there was little else at South High two years ago. The couple of lunchtime clubs barely attracted students’ attention. Even with its long history of robust school pride and a beautifully renovated building, South High School had become, by most accounts, a wisp of its former self.
This past year, there were about 20 clubs — everything from a Harry Potter reading club to one for weightlifting. The student newspaper is back. The drill team, too.
It didn’t happen without outside intervention, and one shouldn’t mistake progress for perfection. But things have changed at South since an outside operator came into the school and started disrupting the way business had been done.
The first and most important order of business for Catapult Learning, the New Jersey company that Columbus City Schools hired in August using part of its $1.2 million federal school-turnaround grant, was to make students care about coming to school again. South was the only public school in the state to use its grant to bring in an outside operator. The principal says it has worked.
“They’re more enthusiastic, more motivated,” Principal Johnetta Wiley said of her students. The entire school read the same book during the school year that just ended. Wiley saw the custodian on a break one day. He, too, was reading the book.
South’s dismal graduation rate made it eligible for a federal turnaround grant. On average over the past several years, fewer than half of its students earned a diploma.
In the 2010-11 school year, South tied with Clearbrook Middle, a school for emotionally disturbed students, for the worst attendance rate in the district. On average, 89.7 percent of students came to school each day. In recent years, as few as 35 percent of the students in South’s zone actually went there. The building is less than half full.
Some students who chose to stay in their neighborhood school say their friends sometimes mock them: Why would they want to go to South?
“It’s my home school,” said Keir Pace, who just graduated from South as a valedictorian. “(Other kids) try to make it seem like something it’s not. They try to make it seem like everybody’s pregnant.”
Or in trouble. Or that the school is dangerous.
South is a good school and getting better, Pace said. “There are more kids who are serious about education this year.”
Catapult won its contract to help South in August; two weeks later, Catapult employees were in the school. They were getting to know the needs, the problems.
Their plan had three key parts: Give students reasons to come to school. Help teachers improve. And immediately help freshmen who began the year way behind but would have to pass graduation tests as sophomores.
One thing they didn’t have to address: School safety. As one Catapult worker put it, “Not everything in the school was on fire.”
One project manager had an office at the school and oversaw the work. Two coaches worked with teachers and taught small-group-intervention classes. It was uncomfortable at first. The coaches came into the classrooms of teachers who had been there for years and were set in their routines.
“I walk around with nothing in my hands. I don’t take notes,” said Marcia Kish, one of the Catapult coaches. She didn’t want teachers to feel as if they were under a microscope.
But they were. “It was a good two months” before teachers warmed up, she said. By the end of the school year, only two people on the staff of about 65 had made it clear they didn’t want her help.
Wiley, the principal for the past nine years, also was coached.
“I understood big CEOs have coaches,” she said. “I told my staff this is support for us.”
The Catapult staff worked with small groups of students in math, literacy and science. They reworked the class schedule. They helped form clubs and organized parent nights. A full-time nurse was brought on, and a full-time social worker was hired to help with home and attendance problems. School secretaries were trained in customer service.
In the end, Catapult teachers intervened with nearly double the number of students and did more staff training than they had planned to, said Giuseppe Basili, who oversees school-turnaround efforts at Catapult. The company’s original proposal said it would work with 96 students, but too many more needed help.
The Catapult workers say that, slowly, the staff at South began to view them as allies.
“I’ll take anything I can get to make myself a better teacher,” said Erin Vanderzwart, who teaches math.
The school’s new graduation rate isn’t out yet, nor are its Ohio Graduation Test scores. So it’s hard to see if, on paper, South has changed. For now, the school looks to anecdotes, such as the high participation on parent night or the schoolwide book club, as markers of success.
Army Master Sgt. Michael Buschur began teaching Junior ROTC at South this school year, expecting chaos. But there wasn’t chaos, just detachment. He was stunned when just four of his students showed up in uniform to perform at the first football game of the season. But by October’s homecoming game, 22 kids in uniform proudly took the field.
By the end of the school year, his students were participating in the JROTC lessons — learning to balance checkbooks, read maps and make household budgets.
Catapult is not coming back next school year. Wiley isn’t, either. Colon Lewis, who has been principal at nearby Southmoor Middle, will succeed her. Southmoor is closing as a middle school because of low enrollment and poor academic performance.
The high school will add grades seven and eight, so the big building won’t be as empty. Wiley will become a supervisor at Columbus Downtown High School.
The district says Catapult did a good job, but because of the school’s transition to a grade 7-12 building, another program called Diplomas Now is a better fit.
“We hope to build on the work and progress started this past year,” district spokesman Jeff Warner said.
South is moving in the right direction, said Aleesha White, who will start her junior year there in the fall. “Students are a lot more involved now. It’s not as bad as people make it to be. It’s a good school.”