What Makes a Good High School? How can U.S. high schools do a better job? A new study identifies key characteristics of high schools that work. And at Granger High in Washington state, the principal demands high standards for students and staff.

What Makes a Good High School?

What Makes a Good High School?

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How can U.S. high schools do a better job? A new study identifies key characteristics of high schools that work. And at Granger High in Washington state, the principal demands high standards for students and staff.


There's broad agreement that high schools need an overhaul, especially those that serve poor and minority students, where too many drop out and those that graduate aren't ready for college or even a job. For inspiration, researchers are turning to a small number of schools that prove these students can succeed.

NPR's Elaine Korry visited one such school in Yakima Valley in Washington State.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

You know Richard Esparza(ph) is a different kind of principal the moment you meet him. He's in his officer at Granger High School, sleeves rolled up, wearing a novelty tie covered in greenbacks. And on the floor sits a big black suitcase stuffed with cash--$400,000 in fake bills.

Mr. RICHARD ESPARZA (Principal, Granger High School): Myself, I've never even seen what does 400,000 look like. So this year I actually had it printed up. This is actually 400,000 in $20 bills.

KORRY: That's the difference, he says, in lifetime earnings between a high school dropout and a graduate. Esparza's made sure every student at Granger High knows the dollar value of a diploma. He invites them to come hold the money, even fondle it, and imagine what they could do with 400 grand. Esparza watches the light go and then he knows he has them.

Mr. ESPARZA: To me, I really believe you need to make it relevant. Why are we doing what we do? Why is it important?

(Soundbite of high school hallway)

KORRY: Esparza loves to roam the halls, mixing it up with all 300 students here. They're mostly poor, Latino, from the kind of farm worker families Esparza grew up in himself. He's constantly reminded of how much has changed since he arrived seven years ago. Then, he says, the kids were disillusioned, and even the teachers had given up.

Mr. ESPARZA: Ten percent of the kids were meeting standard in reading. About 100 freshmen normally come in and 36 were graduating.

KORRY: But you'd never know that from Granger's recent test scores.

Ms. KATIE HAYCOCK (Executive Director, Education Trust): In just four years, they moved from fewer than 20 percent of their students reading at the proficient level to 60 percent.

KORRY: Katie Haycock is with the Education Trust in Washington, DC. The nonprofit group studies low-performing, high-poverty schools and recently issued a report profiling Granger as one of a small group that defies the odds and which can serve as a model.

Ms. HAYCOCK: I mean this extraordinary growth, it's possible when a school really focuses.

KORRY: Haycock says the key to growth is no big mystery. Studies show successful schools do remarkably similar things.

Ms. HAYCOCK: What they do with kids who arrive behind in, say, reading is they put them into extra reading instruction. And that, of course, seems like common sense, but when you look at what regular high schools do, typically if students enter high school not being able to read, our response is to put them in courses that don't require them to read.

KORRY: Not so at Granger, where Esparza promotes reading and math all day long, even in gym class.

(Soundbite of students)

KORRY: Students dressed in track shorts surround PE teacher Kris Vickers, grabbing pencils and paper from a box she can barely hold on to. It's fourth period, the time when every student and teacher at Granger High work the same test problem, gym class or not. Today's is a short reading exercise, and Vickers makes solving it a competition.

(Soundbite of gym class)

KORRY: Students who get it right can run easier warm-up laps on the short, central track. Another big change Esparza made at Granger, one that research says is crucial, was to build a strong team. Vickers is one of only five teachers who was here when Esparza arrived. She says not everybody liked his ideas.

Ms. KRIS VICKERS (Teacher, Granger High School): Those that didn't want to get onboard, they got out. And those that did and saw the vision as Mr. Esparza, you know, saw it, then we all, we just banded together, had the same goal in mind.

KORRY: Esparza demanded a lot more accountability from his teachers, who in turn began making more demands on students.

(Soundbite of classroom)

KORRY: Algebra teacher Tony Barcenas has a few 11th graders stay after class to find out why they haven't completed their homework. He's willing to give up his lunch hour to get them back on track.

Mr. TONY BARCENAS (Teacher): I have extra sheets, I can help you get caught up on whatever you didn't finish. So all of you guys that are here, just come in at lunchtime. If you can get it done before then, just turn it into my box.

KORRY: Granger's motto is No C's, No D's. Esparza drums it into students and then works on their parents. And to keep everyone on the same page, he assigned each teacher, counselor, and himself 20 students to advise. Today he's working with his group in the library.

Mr. ESPARZA: Okay, so what do you have to do?

Unidentified Student: Homework.

Mr. ESPARZA: Okay. You guys have any questions? Any questions?

KORRY: Esparza knows these 20 kids like they're his own, and the students respond. Cruz Minorez(sp), one of his kids, is a skinny boy with soulful eyes, baggy black jeans, and a diamond stud in one ear. With the help of his mentor, Principal Esparza, Cruz is mapping his future.

Mr. CRUZ MINOREZ (Student, Granger High School): Hopefully college.

Mr. ESPARZA: You are going to go to college. What are you talking about? You're gonna get it done.

Mr. MINOREZ: Yeah. Nobody else graduated from high school, just my sister. She's the only one. And you know, I have, my other brothers, they're like, two of them are in prison and I don't want to be. I don't want that. You know, I want something different for me. I want to be like the first boy to graduate from high school at least. And it's kind of hard, but, yeah, you deal with it.

KORRY: In the seven years since Richard Esparza arrived here, graduation rates have doubled. How did he do it? Through a tough curriculum for fore-minded teachers, family involvement, and a passionate commitment to success for each student. Simple things like tracking attendance, and homework, and grades, combined with strong leadership, can be the difference between helping kids achieve and simply marking time. Granger High is proof that even the lowest performing students can make the right choice.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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