Principal Turns Around Failing High School, One Student at a Time

VIDEO: A principal takes charge and changes the lives of his students and teachers.
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For years, Cincinnati's Taft Information Technology High School was notorious for being a dilapidated, crime-ridden school filled with failing and forgotten students.

Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for more on this story tonight on ABC.

Teachers didn't want to teach there, and it was often considered to be the worst slum school in the city. It was so dysfunctional that each clock told a different time - all of which were wrong.

"There was no way I was going to let my son go to Taft," said Shonda Fowler, whose son is now a high school student.

Things began to change nine years ago. Taft got a new principal, his name is Anthony Smith, and the motto he brought to Taft: "Failure is not an option." The phrase was not just directed at the students, but the teachers as well. Although Taft was designated a failing school, Smith decided to keep all of the teachers.

"I was ready to get rid of all the teachers because I had a premise that they didn't know what they were doing. I was wrong, 100 percent wrong," said Smith. "They knew what they were doing, they were working hard, just working hard in the wrong direction."

Smith teamed up with his teachers to closely monitor the progress or struggles of every student. Daily meetings helped identify those falling behind, and plans were devised to help them catch up.

"Kids know whether or not you're genuine, or if you really care about them," said Kelly Rozell, who has been an English teacher at Taft for eight years.

Teaching reading and writing became an obsession, even in math and science classes.

"It's not good enough now to give an answer in math," said Rozell. "You have to be able to explain and articulate that answer."

An Unconventional Partnership

But Smith's most unconventional partnership happened outside the classroom. The principal teamed up with Jack Cassidy, the hard-charging CEO of Cincinnati Bell, the city's local phone company.

Cassidy was so inspired by Smith's determination that he put his company's name on the line. He promised free phones and laptops for every student who maintained a 3.3 grade point average. If they fell behind, the students would have to give the electronics back.

"You know how many cell phones and laptops we've taken back in nine years? Zero," said Cassidy.

Bell employees were encouraged to tutor Taft students at the school - during their work day. Smith said that the tutors, not the technology, have had the greatest impact.

"Here is one more person willing to take some time out of their schedule to give us one more dose of love," said Smith.

A High School Transformed

As a result, Taft has been transformed. Ten years ago the graduation rate was 18 percent. Now, 95 percent of the students graduate. The school, with an almost all-black student body closed the so-called racial achievement test gap. Taft students outscored white students in Ohio on the state's graduation tests in math, reading and science.

Now the place that students were once afraid to visit is attracting them. Kenny Fowler, whose mother once said she wouldn't allow her son to go to Taft, transferred there from one of the city's top schools.

"It wasn't until I peeked into a class where one of the student was reading his essay and he said he enjoyed a 'plethora' of things," said Fowler. "And I was like, 'what does that mean? They were high-fiving each other and everything,"

Kenny is now a straight-A student, and his mother is now a believer.

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