Overview: Coming to Terms with the No Child Law

As the federal No Child Left Behind law comes up for renewal, NPR decided to take a closer look at a school trying to meet the standards set down by this key educational reform.

Northwestern High School, a comprehensive school in the city of Baltimore, fit the bill: It had failed state and federal testing requirements for years and was struggling to boost test scores. Over the course of the 2006-2007 school year, we are bringing you stories about the students and teachers of Northwestern and their efforts to turn their school around.

Northwestern dates from the beginning of the 1960s. The school was racially integrated early on and attracted ambitious students from all over the city. But like many urban schools, over the decades, Northwestern saw its reputation fade as student achievement plummeted — the result of urban flight and a host of other problems related to Baltimore's overall decline.

By 1996, the graduation rate was at 30 percent; attendance was at 60 percent. The school became eligible for "reconstitution" — an educational makeover. Even though Northwestern made progress in the following years, it had lost so much ground that it was labeled a failing school when No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002.

In 2004, a new administration was assigned to the school. Scores and attendance are climbing, but the numbers are still well below what the state and federal governments require.

While Northwestern struggled, the city of Baltimore broke up most of its high schools into smaller, student-friendly academies. Southern High School, for example, was renovated and reborn as Digital Harbor, which focuses on training students for hi-tech jobs. The Gates Foundation spent millions to rehab the old Southern High building and outfit it with the best computer technology.

Northwestern has also created four "academies" within its walls, to help students graduate with a better chance of getting into demanding colleges. But in many ways, Northwestern is part of a dying breed: the large, comprehensive high school that tries to give students a general education.

In 2006, the Maryland Department of Education moved to take over several failing schools, including Northwestern. Baltimore city officials fought that plan and won a reprieve.

That same year, Tajah Gross moved from assistant principal to the principal's office at Northwestern. She has been overseeing a plan to reorganize Northwestern along the lines of a charter school, under the aegis of a governing board. Northwestern's official plan is to model itself on Digital Harbor. The city has approved that plan, and now the state must sign off.

While these larger policy decisions slowly transform the school, teachers and administrators do the best they can in an extremely challenging environment.

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