Class Action 

Finally: A school that doesn't settle for failing black kids.

Nearly all of Brush High's black male students graduate, beating national trends. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Nearly all of Brush High's black male students graduate, beating national trends.
"Gentlemen in the back, we're gonna work," Theresa Lockhart warns the restless teenagers before her. It's the end of a long day at Brush High, a 1,600-student, castle-like public school in Lyndhurst. The ninth-graders, slumping in their seats, are here to learn the basics of surviving high school: how to organize their assignments in a binder and how to find the right friend to help catch up on missed work.

"Miss Lockhart, we don't need no study buddy," one girl complains.

"We don't need no?" the teacher chides.

With that, the girl is shoved into a land many public-school kids never visit, where teachers assume you're smarter than you act and push you to perform -- whether you're ready or not.

Brush's strategy is simple, if seldom employed: When the population of your school district begins the rapid transformation from lily-white to majority black, don't panic. Ignore the parade of evidence that suggests you're doomed -- your black students will lag behind, and your white students will move to Solon. Instead, play offense.

Lyndhurst, with its luxurious Legacy Village and country-club hills, isn't the first place you'd look for such innovation. In 2000, the East Side suburb was still 97 percent white. But it shares a school district with its western neighbor, the more modest South Euclid, whose generous lawns and affordable houses were an appealing option for families longing to escape inner-city chaos. So in the late '90s, the school district started to face the same waves of Cleveland refugees that for years had flocked to Shaker and Cleveland Heights. At Brush, whose yearbook once resembled a Jewish News photo spread, black students have swelled to half the student body.

The arrival of these new neighbors meant that plenty of white families packed up and moved to Solon and Twinsburg. But others found reason to stay.

Denise Novak, a Brush alum whose three sons each graduated from the school, says the school refused to relinquish the academic standards that brought pride to Jewish mothers for decades. The teachers, some of whom have been on the job since she was a kid, are the kind who worry about finding students scholarships and badger them into taking honors French. Novak's oldest son threatened to go live with Grandpa if the family moved. "My kids got a good education," she says, "and they didn't want to move out of the system."

Meanwhile, district officials, led by Superintendent Bill Zelei, refused to let daunting national trends discourage them. Half of black male students drop out anyway. Why bother trying? They didn't ship the new arrivals to special ed or let them coast in dumbed-down classes. They didn't pull money out of the high school and into majority-white elementary schools. They kept the honors courses, the Japanese language instruction, the art classes, and the drama club.

They also poured money into helping students who fell behind. They started Arc Tech, an alternative school on Brush's campus, where computerized courses, extra attention from teachers, and shorter days help potential dropouts earn diplomas.

In 2003, Brush leaders noticed that students were falling into an all-too-familiar trap: Young black men lagged behind their peers in test scores and graduation rates. But instead of blaming the statistics, Brush worked to change them. They started their own version of a successful Shaker Heights program called the Minority Achievement Committee Scholars, handpicking promising kids to serve as models for their peers. The students tutor other kids, discuss current events, and, perhaps most important, prod friends to go to college.

This may be the hardest task: making good grades and college-prep classes seem cool. "We can do more than just score a touchdown on the football field," explains Darryn Suttles, a baby-faced junior in a violet collared shirt and tie. "I'm a black guy. I don't rap, I don't play football . . . We're more than that."

Darryn's among just a handful of black kids in advanced-placement classes, but he says their numbers grow each year. And at least 95 percent of Brush's black males graduate, superintendent Zelei says, compared to about 50 percent nationally. That's why Brush has now twice won an award, from the nonprofit Schott Foundation for Public Education, for helping black males keep up with their white classmates.

"They're trying," says Michael Holzman, the consultant who picked Brush for the award. "As opposed to schools where they're not trying."

Brush's sprawling campus feels lifted from the set of The Wonder Years. The halls are hushed, even with classroom doors wide open. Security guards cruise past like Rocky River patrol cars -- available if needed, but rarely called to duty.

Things aren't all pristine. Last year, Brush's state ranking dipped from "excellent" to "effective," and there remains a yawning gap between black and white students on math and science tests. Also, since the school's emerging black population is still new, it's hard to say how long their success will last. "I don't know what the school's gonna be like in, say, five years, if everyone keeps moving out," Novak says.

But Brush isn't waiting to find out. This year, the school launched yet another new program, designed for ninth-graders showing early signs of underachievement: high test scores but low grades, and parents who didn't attend college.

Families have to commit to the program for four years. Students get extra reading and writing help, and they're pushed to take honors classes. It's in this program that Lockhart, who sounds motherly even when frustrated, struggles to drill home the basics of note-taking and organization. Her faith is unwavering: "You can resolve to be whatever you want to be," she says. That is, if you remember your schoolbooks.

"Please, look under your chair before you run out of here with wild abandonment!" she calls as the bell rings.

The kids tumble out the door, barely leaving time for one final edict.

"Go to bed early!" Lockhart shouts.

And that's all she can do -- until tomorrow.

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