Annapolis High School: A Work In Progress
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Well before the Obama administration came into office and started talking about turning around failing schools, Annapolis High School in Maryland embarked on what, for it, was a radical transformation. It went to a 12-month school year, and teachers and administrators all had to reapply for their jobs. Those rehired pledged to never again let a single student fall through the cracks.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the second of our reports on what happens when a failing school tries to reinvent itself.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: It's the last day of school for the class of 2010 at Annapolis Senior High, and Candace Green(ph) can hardly contain herself.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Ms. CANDACE GREEN (Senior, Annapolis Senior High): I feel excellent.
Unidentified Woman: If you're buying a yearbook, you come over here.
SANCHEZ: Candace and dozens of her classmates wait in line for their yearbooks, singing their last goodbyes, talking about plans for summer or college in the fall; crying, laughing about the four years they spent here.
Ms. GREEN: I'm going to miss this place a little bit, but I'm glad to graduate. I'm happy.
SSANCHEZ: Four years ago, says Candace, nobody was happy about being here. Annapolis High School was in turmoil, and incoming freshmen at the time didn't know what to expect. Candace says all she knew was that half the teachers had been replaced, and their school was in serious trouble.
Ms. GREEN: I saw what was happening, and I didn't like it. Like when I first came here as a freshman, I didn't like the aura of the school. Like, they had fights almost every day. As far as academics and all that stuff, it was bad.
SANCHEZ: That wasn't the half of it. Annapolis High was on Maryland's list of worst schools. The dropout rate was climbing, the graduation rate was falling and test scores, especially for black students, were among the lowest in the state.
Kevin Maxwell was just starting out as the new school superintendent.
Mr. KEVIN MAXWELL (School Superintendent): When you're looking at over 50 percent of African-American, ninth-grade, male students in a school not able to maintain a 2.0 GPA, I think that's really bad.
SANCHEZ: The failing rate for black male ninth graders was actually 72 percent - and Latino students weren't doing much better.
English teacher Kristina Korona says teachers were frustrated.
Ms. KRISTINA KORONA (English Teacher, Annapolis Senior High): I don't think you would walk in and immediately sense that this was a failing school - and there were a lot of students who were very successful. They went to top schools. But we were only helping a certain segment of the population. You know, and it was primarily our wealthier students, our white students.
SANCHEZ: In other words, the success of some kids camouflaged the failure of others, and teachers had become accustomed to that, says Korona.
Ms. KORONA: There were two tracks, and there really wasn't much effort to move students - the poor kids or kids of color - to move them up into more advanced classes and to try to push them academically.
SANCHEZ: In the view of many teachers, black and Latino students from the poorest neighborhoods just weren't prepared for high school. The restructuring plan was radical because it required teachers and administrators to change the academic culture that had favored some kids over others.
The man picked to lead that effort, Donald Lilley, the principal - a relative newcomer to the school.
Mr. DONALD LILLEY (Principal, Annapolis Senior High): I was one of those people that had to reapply for the job. It wasn't handed to me.
SANCHEZ: Lilley says turning around a failing school is not just about rehiring some people and letting others go. It's much complicated than that. With a new plan in hand, Lilley immediately zeroed in on the students' biggest weakness.
Mr. LILLEY: I knew if students came in two or three years below their grade level as far as reading was concerned or math, I knew that coming in, that we had to fix that problem.
SANCHEZ: Lilley started intensive tutoring, remediation and test preparation. He started issuing report cards for parents to sign twice a month. But the biggest change of all was when Lilley asked his teachers and staff to commit to a 12-month school year.
Mr. LILLEY: Some people did not want to be here for 12 months out of the year, but I did not want all of those people to leave. And I said it very loudly to them - we need you. We could've used a lot of those teachers - to have stayed.
SANCHEZ: Even those who stayed resisted, especially when Lilley asked them to reach out to black and Latino families, and knock on some doors.
Dan Pogonowski, who's taught 34 years at Annapolis High, says it changed teachers' attitudes in a profound way as well as their work habits. As chair of the science department, Pogonowski says he no longer had to force or beg teachers to meet and come up with plans to help struggling students.
Mr. DAN POGONOWSKI (Head, Science Department, Annapolis Senior High): We could ask teachers to meet weekly and collaborate, problem-solve, and be data-driven dealing with how we're going to solve the problem for our students so they can be successful.
SANCHEZ: For some teachers, the carrot was the extra money - lots of it: $2,500 just for signing up; $3,000 for committing to three years; a $1,500 bonus for raising students' test scores; and $500 for every year those scores went up.
Ms. KORONA: Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars in bonuses, just for working at Annapolis.
SANCHEZ: As the union rep, Kristina Korona helped negotiate the deal. It took up most of the $3 million the district had earmarked for turning Annapolis High School around.
Senior Candace Green says she doesn't know if it was the money or teachers' new work ethic but students began to change, too, especially black students who had a reputation for being slackers.
Ms. GREEN: The African-American students, a lot of them didn't try that much. And now, like, with my graduating class, everybody is very competitive. I mean, as far as academics, our class had a very high standard.
SANCHEZ: Today, black and Latino enrollment in advanced placement and honors courses has shot up, from 385 to 535 students. So the perception that poor minority kids drag down the school's test scores is fading.
Still, there are skeptics, mostly among former teachers, who say that if poor minority students are succeeding, it's only because there's so much hand-holding. If that's what it takes, then so be it, says Superintendent Kevin Maxwell.
Mr. MAXWELL: Kids will give a lot more, and be a lot more successful, if they know that their English teacher or their math teacher cares about them as a person. And if our kids believe if we care and that we're not going to let them down, they won't let us down.
(Soundbite of music, "Pomp and Circumstance")
SANCHEZ: At commencement practice this year, there was unrestrained jubilation -but mostly relief among the faculty. The school will no longer be on a 12-month schedule; teachers' three-year contract ends this month - some are not coming back. Most of the extra money that enticed many of them to stay has dried up. So it's unclear how the ongoing restructuring will unfold next year and beyond. Annapolis High School, after all, is still a work in progress.
But some students who spent the last four years here don't think their school will ever go back to the way it was. Seniors Patrick Ferrell(ph) and Andrew Bioche(ph) says it's a much better place now, even if some people refuse to believe it.
Mr. PATRICK FERRELL (Senior, Annapolis Senior High): Like, I still talk to kids in my work and places like that who say, oh, you go to Annapolis? It's a bad school; why do you go there? And it's really unfortunate because this is a really great school.
Mr. ANDREW BIOCHE (Senior, Annapolis Senior High): Yeah, it is, it is.
SANCHEZ: This school was good to me, says Andrew, so I try to be good to this school.
Mr. BIOCHE: Yeah, I respect this school. That's all I got to say.
SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
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