School on the Brink

3 men on a mission to save failing school

Darryl Holsendolph, class of '81, sometimes wonders what happened to Miami Central Senior High.

When he walked the school's hallways, Central produced some of the brightest minds in Miami-Dade County. Many went on to college. Some won prestigious awards.

But the school Holsendolph was once so proud of fell into a steady decline -- so much so, that the state Department of Education is now threatening to close it.

Central's teachers, its principal, even its students are battling for its survival.

But the effort to make lasting change extends beyond the iron gates surrounding the campus. The North Central community that surrounds the iconic West Little River school has also joined in the fight.

Leading the troops are Holsendolph and two of his closest friends, Kent Pollock and D.C. Clark.

Holsendolph, 46, heads Central's community oversight team, a group of volunteers working with the school district to improve the climate.

Pollock, a father of eight, is president of Central's Parent Teacher Student Association.

And Clark, a 1974 graduate, is working to rally a half-century's worth of proud alumni through the Miami Central Rockets Alumni Association.

Together, the three men -- and their respective organizations -- are on a mission to restore "Rocket pride" with the current generation of Central students and the greater community.

Among their projects so far: making sure that all college-bound students get a free laptop computer, selling Central Rockets gear to raise money for student activities, and planning end-of-the-year events for students, faculty members and alumni.

The three men say they are inspired by the changes put into motion by new Principal Doug Rodriguez, who came to Central in December after the former principal fell ill.

"Mr. Rodriguez is one of the first principals who has come to Central with a true vision, " said Pollock, 50. "But he can't do it alone."

"That's where we come in, " Clark said.

EARLY SUCCESS

Ask any alumnus: Miami Central Senior High School was once the gem of the North Central Miami-Dade community.

When the school opened in 1959, it appealed to gifted students interested in science and engineering. Central drew top students for nearly two decades, alumni say.

"We had one or two Silver Knight winners each year, " said Holsendolph, who was himself a runner-up for the prestigious awards, bestowed on South Florida's top high school seniors for the past 50 years.

Clark, 52, the alumni association president, has vivid memories of the walk to school from his childhood house on Northwest 87th Street.

"Every day, on my way to school, at least five elders would say, 'Son, how are you doing? We know you're playing good football, but are you keeping your grades up?'

"I had the idea that I wasn't just doing this for me or my parents. I was doing it for my block. I was doing it for my community."

But in the decades that followed, specialized magnet programs lured talented students away from neighborhood schools like Central.

The demographics of the area changed, too. The 1980s brought an influx of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean to West Little River. The average household income dipped significantly.

Like other urban high schools in Miami, Central experienced a steady decline. The building fell into disrepair. And gang violence became part of the culture.

"Miami Central had become the dumping ground for unwanted transfer students, " Clark said. "Students with criminal records from as far away as Homestead were coming here."

By the end of the 2007-08 school year, Central had received its fifth consecutive F school grade from the state -- branding it with the worst academic record in Florida.

Now, for Central to remain open as it exists today -- that is, without becoming a charter school or undergoing a massive overhaul -- it must earn a D grade or better from the state.

Rodriguez, the new principal, wasted no time in establishing order, improving morale and providing students with specialized tutoring services they needed.

Still, by quantitative measures, Central's success will depend on how its students performed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, which wrapped up last month.

While the state won't begin to release the scores until May, there are some early indicators of progress.

This year, 99 percent of Central students showed up for the tests -- up from 90 percent last year, according to school district records.

That's just the kind of momentum that community members want to seize. They say self-confidence and pride will help propel the students to success.

COMPUTER PURCHASE

Members of the three organizations hope that buying laptops for college-bound seniors will encourage students in all grades to set their sights on furthering their education. The groups are hard at work to raise $10,000 to buy 50 new computers.

They're hosting a fundraising bazaar at the school on May 2.

The alumni association is also planning an alumni appreciation night to take place the same weekend as the spring football game.

Pollock admits that getting parents involved has been a challenge.

Membership in the PTSA holds steady at about 50 people -- a small number, considering that Central has more than 1,500 students.

"Parents in this community are doing their best, " Pollock said. "Their plates are full. Many work two or three jobs."

Despite the small membership, the PTSA has raised funds to send students to Central's away games, and raised money for scholarships and school activities.

"We fit in where we are needed, even if that means mopping the floors, " Pollock said.

ROLE MODELS

On a personal level, Clark, Holsendolph and Pollock want to be role models for the current generation.

Whenever they visit the school, usually once every two weeks, they make it a point to shake hands with students and ask them about their studies.

"We want them to understand that there's a greater legacy -- that they're part of something much larger than themselves, " Clark said.

The trio are also hoping to bring the community back to Central.

They want to see Central reborn as a true community school -- a place where neighbors walk the track for exercise and gather for community meetings.

Earlier this month, the alumni association, the PTSA and the community oversight group named Central's new outdoor track for longtime coach John Rolle. The three organizations invited community members to attend the dedication ceremony. About 100 showed up -- a strong start, Clark said.

"We want them to be proud of Central, " he said. "This is their school, too."

On a recent boiling-hot April afternoon, the three men stood side by side on the track. The topic of conversation was outdoor lighting.

"If Northwestern has lights, we should have lights, too, " Holsendolph said, uttering the name of Central's long-despised rival.

"I agree with you, " Clark said. "We gotta get lights."

"How do we do it?" Pollock asked.

"I don't know yet, " Holsendolph said. "But we'll do it."

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