Success in the City
A once troubled urban school system is lauded for blazing a new path to academic progress
Such strategies can be a lot of work for kids as well as teachers--but they don't seem to mind. "Sometimes I think if I have to take another assessment test, I'm going to scream, but when I get my SOL scores back and they're so high, I know it's really working," says Heather Hensley, a senior at Lake Taylor High School, once called a "dumping ground" for difficult teens by a city councilman. "I ain't never really passed a test, even in class, before I came here, and last year I passed four SOLs, so I know they're doing something right," chimes in classmate Khalil Moye, who attends extra-help sessions after school, as well as optional Saturday classes, where, in addition to writing and test-taking drills, the school provides breakfasts from student favorites like Chick-Fil-A and Sonic. "Even the hardest thugs in this building come to Saturday classes--everyone comes--and even if they're just there for the food, they're still learning."
Reaching the previously unreachable is Lake Taylor Principal Noah Rogers's mission, and a revamped curriculum, constant teacher training, longer school hours, and strict attendance and truancy policies, among other innovations, have helped get results: In 2002, fewer than half of students here passed the SOL math exam, while just 63 percent succeeded in history; last year those numbers improved to 72 and 84 percent, respectively. Attendance is also up, and the dropout rate is way down, along with discipline problems. "The message I've got for these kids is, 'If you're poor, it doesn't matter anymore--if you've got the smarts, you're going places," says Rogers, sitting in his office surrounded by photos of recent graduates who are thriving at colleges like William and Mary and Penn State--and glancing periodically at a security monitor that allows him to see his hallways at all times. "We are proof that change is possible."
Lessons learned . Take Theodore Ford, who was classified as "emotionally disturbed" in middle school, and who as a ninth grader was still getting into fights on a regular basis, skipping classes left and right, and--when he did manage to show up--goofing off with friends instead of focusing on his work. The result was C's and D's and worse. During his sophomore year, however, the teen's electronics teacher encouraged him to get his act together, sharing a story about how his own brother's life had taken a difficult turn after he flunked out of school. "I realized it was time to grow up," says Ford, who started staying late for tutoring in subjects like history and geometry and showing up early on Saturdays. Today, the 17-year-old senior is taking chemistry, Algebra 2, and Advanced Placement government, among other courses--and getting his fair share of A's and B's. "I wanted to do better, and lots of people here wanted to see me do better, which gave me the confidence to keep on," says the soft-spoken teen, who also captains the football team and DJs at school pep rallies and dances. "It's not easy--it takes a lot of work--but I think it will be worth it."