CINCINNATI – Bad grades and incompletions forced Rio Turner to leave Walnut Hills High School and seek his academic fortunes elsewhere.
He chose Carpe Diem Aiken, a brand new charter school in College Hill sponsored by Cincinnati Public Schools. He liked that Aiken was different, a hybrid that combines spending half the day working independently on a computer with half the day in classrooms working on group projects.
By March, when he sat down with WCPO, Turner said he was caught up on all of his delinquent credits and earning high grades. In fact, he can transfer in the fall back to Walnut Hills, the highly acclaimed college preparatory high school, if he chooses.
"Walnut was more like everybody moves at the same pace. Here, everybody gets ahead and nobody gets left behind," he said. "I'm really leaning toward staying here. I like the structure."
Rio Turner, a student at Carpe Diem Aiken in College Hill, works on a project with GE engineers.
Turner spoke during a science workshop, designing a working model airplane in coordination with GE engineers, who volunteer there twice a month.
"This is a unique opportunity for us to reach high-potential kids," said Erin Schilling, a GE engineer.
That's our hope in general to get them excited. We want kids to get the spark and maintain the spark," added Alisha Kalb, GE Aviation engineer.
Turner's imagination has been sparked. "I want to be a scientist," he said, working in bioengineering to grow new limbs on animal and reversing memory loss.
His turnaround story is the kind that Carpe Diem hopes to replicate many times over as administrators tweak the model to the needs of the 7-12th grade students it is serving. It shares a brand new building with Aiken New Tech, which is a CPS magnet school for middle and high school students. .
It is the third of its kind to open in the country following the original school in Yuma, Ariz., and the second in Indianapolis. The school serves students who are almost universally from low-income families – 98 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Enrollment is about 150.
The Carpe Diem model that blends online learning with class time and project-based learning is the brainchild of Rick Ogston, whose journey to educational innovation was a long, circuitous one.
Rick Ogston, the developer of the Carpe Diem model, speaks to WCPO about the Aiken location in College Hill.
The creation story of Carpe Diem starts with Ogston serving as a member of the U.S. Marine Corp. training in scorching hot weather when a chaplain came out on the training grounds in a Jeep drinking a cold Dr. Pepper and not offering it to the parched marines. He became a military chaplain himself, then a church pastor and a marriage counselor.
His wife suggested he pursue a master's degree in education. "She thought I could make a difference," and after a time, he agreed.
After earning his master's, he began thinking about charter schools and their potential. In one burst that he describes as an "Ichabod Crane moment," a flood of ideas poured into his head about leveraging technology and computer design in the classroom.
He created the plan for Carpe Diem in a day and refined it during the next three months.
"The key was not on technology. It was students finding their level and accelerating their progress. We benchmark, assess them and place them in a plan."
Students are grouped by their current level of achievement in a given subject rather than by age, allowing them to collaborate and to talk the same academic language.
They don't encourage socialization outside of class for students of different ages given the maturity difference between seventh graders and seniors.
Principal Tyree Gaines taught before joining Aiken and also worked at Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard and Holmes High School in Covington. She was drawn to the innovative curriculum and the regimented assessments.
Gaines and other school leaders quickly found out how difficult it would be to create a culture of learning, butting up against a street mentality that made students defensive and closed off.
Tyree Gaines, principal of Carpe Diem Aiken in College Hill, spoke to WCPO about how her staff was forced to change the culture of the school before they saw academic results.
"We spent two months trying to change the culture of these kids to where there was a desire to learn," she said.
The students were initially given more autonomy than they could handle, Gaines said, including the freedom to listen to music on ear phones while they worked, keep their phones on a silent setting during school hours, play video games and to leave class or computer time to use the restroom at will.
But staff confiscated all of the phones and music devices during school hours, telling the students they needed to earn back the
privileges to use them. Gaines said nearly all of the students have earned back their phone privileges and music is back for all those who are making sufficient progress on their work. They still need permission to use the restroom during class time to curb the temptation to linger away from class.
"You can't have choices without consequences. We went them to be responsible with time management," Ogston said.
Jun Colter spent his science workshop working in a coding and game design group that is creating a two-dimensional, Mario Brothers-type game. "It's simple but it works," he said. It's going okay. We've had some issues with kids being absent. "
Colter went to Clark Montessori and ECOT – an online public school – before transferring to Aiken, and he's happy about the switch.
Jun Colter, a student at Carpe Diem Aiken, works with other students and GE engineers on a class project.
"The work is easy to access, and they seem to care about the students," he said. His grades have gone from Ds and Fs to As and Bs, he said.
Colter's biggest passion is making video games, a passion since he was 7, and he hopes to pursue graphic design as a career.
Andrew Butler, science workshops teacher, spent three years at Withrow before transferring to Aiken. "It's been a blast," he said, albeit a work in progress regarding structure and the level of autonomy given to students. "We morphed it. It looks nothing like it did at the beginning of the year."
One of the benefits of daily computer assessments is being able to highlight who is making the most progress on a given day. The school touts the Top 10 performers of the day, a measure of a student's progress against their own previous achievement -- rather than how the student ranks against their peers, giving everybody the chance for recognition.
"Special education students are on the same playing field as the others, and they can get in the Top 10," Ogston said. "Every student carries the weight of his own data. In our school, they have to actually learn it to move on."
At the beginning of the school year, two-thirds of students were reading five to nine grade levels behind, Ogston said. Students have improved their reading, math and science levels by an average of two to three grades, he said.
Many Aiken students have the threat of violence hanging over their heads every time they leave school grounds. The school was rocked by the shooting death of Dwayne Lamarr Lewis, a 14-year-old student, who was found dead by police near the intersection of Blaine Road and Knox Street in South Fairmount on Oct. 15.
"The homicide had a huge impact on this school," Gaines said. "He was trying to turn himself around. He had successfully curbed the impulse to lash out verbally. He said sorry when he was about to say something inappropriate."
The incident drew the students and teachers closer together. "Our students were devastated. It was February before somebody could use his seat without kids saying something about it," she said.
GE engineers coach student Rio Turner through a classroom project at Carpe Diem Aiken in College Hill.
Carpe Diem's entry into the CPS system was a sudden one. Until last summer, Superintendent Mary Ronan expected the district to sponsor a different charter school -- The SEED School of Cincinnati, a college preparatory, boarding school for underserved 6-12th graders. Ronan said plans for that school fell apart last summer, in part over issues of liability for the property should the school close.
That turn of events left CPS scrambling for a new partner. Ronan contacted Ogston, and the rest is recent history. The district's motivation for sponsoring a charter school is pragmatic.
"We have 40 charter schools within CPS boundaries," Ronan said. "With the exception of one or two, they have worse test scores than we do."
Ohio's legislature is pushing for more, not fewer charter schools, so the logical step for CPS was to make sure there are good ones for students to choose. "Charters are here to stay, and we want quality charters that are providing the academic quality that students need. When they don't work, we get the children back in our schools further behind than when they left."
What is a public charter school? A different animal, with teachers who are affiliated with the teacher's union at CPS but who work under different rules. Teachers were hired using the union's salary scale, but they'll be guided by their own handbook – which is still being drafted – to determine working conditions like hours worked.
They will have the right, like other union teachers, to transfer within CPS to open positions if they leave Carpe Diem.
Cincinnati Fedration of Teachers President Julie Sellers said the school could be beneficial to the system. "It depends on how successful the school is, the working relationship they have with teachers and the community.
"If it's a method to bring back students from ineffective charter schools, it will be a good thing. I think we'll work it out."
Ogston is encouraged by the early results. He and Gaines want the students to keep progressing until everyone is testing at least on grade level, and everyone feels safe and valued.
"We have to have a positive culture here. Never give up on them. Find the hook," he said.
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO photojournalist
This is one in our Field Trip series, where we take you inside a classroom to highlight programs, teaching methods or innovative teachers. If you know of a local school or teacher we should visit, email Bob Driehaus.