Company Aids Ohio High School's Comeback

Bowers--Making the Grade; Cincinnati high school
Bowers--Making the Grade; Cincinnati high school

Updated Sept. 9, 2010

Four years ago, CBS News took you to Taft High School in Cincinnati - a poor inner-city school that had become synonymous with failure over a decades-long decline. But, thanks to a unique partnership between the school and Cincinnati Bell, which included giving every student who maintained a "B" average a free laptop and cell phone, the school began an extraordinary turnaround.

Today in Washington, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged just how far that turnaround has gone. Now called Taft Information Technology High, the school became the first public high school in Cincinnati to be named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. The accomplishment is especially significant considering eight years ago it was the worst performing school in the state and nearly closed. The school has since raised its Ohio report card rating from Academic Emergency and a roughly 18 percent graduation rate to Excellent this year and a roughly 95 percent graduation rate.

When Upton Darden enrolled at Cincinnati's Taft High School in 2001, success felt far away. And no wonder, since students there were three times more likely to drop out than graduate, CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports. Taft had become a four-letter word for failure.

"Our books were outdated. I didn't have a locker. We had four principals that year, I believe," Darden explains.

The fourth principal was Taft grad Anthony Smith, who was shocked by what he found - and didn't find.

"No football team, no basketball team, no baseball team, no band, no choir," Smith says.

This school was getting a reputation as a dead-end place. "This is not where you want to send your children," Smith says.

But the principal had a plan, and he found a partner at one of the city's biggest companies, Cincinnati Bell.

"We had to do something," says Jack Cassidy, Cincinnati Bell CEO.

That something was an extraordinary commitment. Bell hardwired the school with five state-of-the-art computer labs, provides internships and even 10 college scholarships every year.

Read Cynthia Bowers' reporter's notebook on this story.

But most importantly, for five years now, twice a week, every week, dozens of Bell employees show up to tutor kids who need extra help. Every student who has gone to tutoring has passed state proficiency tests.

"We are 100 and O," Cassidy says, proudly.

And the comeback hasn't stopped there. Graduation rates went from 25 percent in 2002 to 75 percent last year. Attendance is up to 95 percent.

There's a football team now, and a band, and for the first time anyone can remember, there was a waiting list to get in.

For the teenage students at Taft, sure all this technology and the mentoring is great, but what really fires them up is knowing that upper classmen who maintain a B-plus average get free use of a laptop and cell phone. And what's more, every student gets the cell phone number for Cincinnati Bell's CEO.

It's a number that means a lot to Upton's little brother David.

"It's a lot of encouragement. It's like, wow, I could just be a big achiever or I can set high goals for myself and complete them, or accomplish them," David says.

What is the secret to the principal's success at Taft?

"Commitment, hard work, dedication, hard work, hard work and hard work. And some more hard work. And believing that kids can go beyond what you think they can," Smith says.

And convincing the kids to believe it themselves.