Sparking underachieving students -- the Shaker Heights way

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the main office of Shaker Heights High School hangs a large blue and white banner bearing the presidential seal and in large red letters proclaiming: ''Excellence in Education 1982-83.'' The banner is a token of the Reagan administration's recognition of the school as a model of educational achievement. such accolades are not new in a school which, for most of its 53 years, has stood out for achieving results consistently above national averages. For decades, Shaker Heights High School has been associated with excellent college placement and high achievers.

But more recent here is an effort to pay greater attention to the needs of underachieving students, who for lack of motivation or organization or outside encouragement aren't getting results commensurate with their potential.

''The problem of low achievement -- especially among minority children -- has been a major issue here in recent years,'' says Mark Freeman, director of curriculum and instruction for the school district. ''In that you might say we're defying national trends,'' he adds, alluding to new emphasis across the United States on the kind of high achievement for which Shaker is already known.

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Over the past few years Shaker Heights has taken a number of steps, including setting up after-school tutoring centers for students who are lagging behind their peers, creating all-day ''achievement centers'' where students can seek academic assistance, and bolstering literacy instruction for students who are falling behind.

The new emphasis is in large part the result of demographic changes in this 70-year-old planned community just outside Cleveland. Originally known as an enclave of parklike neighborhoods for high-salaried professionals, Shaker Heights over the past two decades has taken on a much broader economic and racial mix. Forty-three percent of the students are minorities; about 40 percent are black.

According to Elizabeth Walker, a retired Cleveland school principal and a Shaker Heights resident, much of the concern for the community's underachievers can be traced to 1977, when a group of mostly black parents first met to discuss how their children's need might be better met. Out of that meeting grew an organization, the Concerned Parents of Shaker Heights, of which Mrs. Walker is now president. ''But we've managed to turn some of the attention toward those who don't perform at the top [of their class].''

Charges in 1980 that the high school's system of dividing students by achievement level was discriminatory prompted the district to commission a study by the College of Education at Western Michigan University. A 1982 report listed 14 recommendations, including improved methods of identifying low achievers; staff development for teachers working with underachievers; and reviewing the high school's remedial level, to ensure that it be just that, and not a dumping ground for students achieving below the Shaker average.

Despite some effort to implement the recommendations, Mrs. Walker says the needs of underachievers have taken a back seat to other issues, such as school closings.

The Michigan report noted that a student's attitude and the involvement of parents play a crucial role in determining the success of his education. Shaker schools have long been accustomed to dealing with high-sighted students and parents whose careers and backgrounds made school involvement second nature. But the growing need has been to work with parents who are often either intimidated by the school establishment or do not know how to help their children learn.

Shaker Heights has learned that most underachieving students can do much better -- with a little help. One junior, DeAngelo Royster, says the encouragement he received from a particularly tenacious worker at the school's PUSH/Excel program has done more than just help him raise his grades ''considerably.'' The 16-year-old black youth adds, ''The people here helped me put my priorities in a right order. Before, I didn't really like school, but now I feel like I'm on my way.''

The PUSH/Excel program is often cited as one of Shaker Heights High School's most successful means of sparking its underachievers. The program's director and two assistants work to forge relationships with students who, for a myriad of reasons, have never done their best. Each year, the staff contacts sophomores entering the high school with lower than a ''C'' average -- usually about 175 students. At one-on-one conferences, each student's academic record is reviewed, study or attitudinal problems discussed, and both short- and long-term goals set.

Immediate goals might be an extra half-hour of homework a night, or agreeing to talk with a ''difficult'' teacher. Long-range objectives could include higher grades or taking more academic-level courses. Then specific steps needed to meet these goals are discussed.

Teachers are asked to provide regular progress reports, and parents are advised about how they can promote their child's progress.

In its first four years, the program was jointly maintained by the Shaker Heights schools and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's PUSH organization in Chicago, which supports a network of similar projects throughout the US. But since 1982 the school district has supported PUSH/Excel on its own. Program director John Addison says the district's willingness to pay for the program is the second-best evidence that it is successful. ''I'd say the best indication is the number of students and parents who contact us for assistance, and the degree to which we are utilized by the staff.''

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