ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Over the weekend, familiar music played at Northwestern High School in Baltimore.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: Two hundred seniors walked across the stage on the football field and received their diplomas.
All year long, NPR has been tracking effort to improve achievement at this low-performing urban high school. After a challenging year at Northwestern, graduation was a time to celebrate and breath a sigh of relief.
NPR's Larry Abramson was there.
LARRY ABRAMSON: For seniors there is nothing quite like that feeling of getting out of high school.
Ms. JESSICA INGRAM(ph) (Graduating Student, Northwestern High School): My name is Jessica Ingram. I'm a graduating senior. I just want to give fair shouts to my daughter Iyana(ph) and my best friend Tyrone. I'm graduating Friday and I start college Monday. Yes.
ABRAMSON: Where are you going?
Ms. INGRAM: I'm going to be (unintelligible) for two years then Towson for my next two for business, marketing and management, and I want to open a store when I get out of school.
ABRAMSON: Standing just up the school hallway, that best friend, Tyrone Branch says he also has his dreams all laid out. He's going to college and then plans to be a celebrity stylist to the stars. For now, he's living at home.
Mr. TYRONE BRANCH (Graduating Student, Northwestern High School): Temporarily, but I plan on moving out after I start making my six figures after graduating college. That's what I'm going to start with, but I'll end with millions and millions of dollars.
Ms. MARLENE HARRIS (Mother of a graduating student): Okay, who does not have a ticket? I'm passing the envelope around. Here.
ABRAMSON: Outside the stadium, Marlene Harris was organizing an army of family members who came to watch her daughter, Brittany, graduate with honors. Marlene had been running around all morning, trying to get ready for a huge party. She had to run home again because she forgot the balloons.
Ms. HARRIS: I'm like numb from the neck down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HARRIS: Excited, exuberant, exhausted, all rolled into one. Need a program, tickets? Okay. Thank you.
ABRAMSON: Inside, hundreds of families sweated under a broiling sun for Northwestern's 40th graduation ceremony.
Ms. TAJAH GROSS (Principal, Northwestern High School, Baltimore): I pledge elegance to the flag of the United States of America.
ABRAMSON: Principal Tajah Gross was clearly enjoying her moment in the sun. This has been her first year at the helm of this school. She has tried to tighten discipline, to institute a uniform policy that is much disliked by students and she has faced tension with her staff — many have no idea whether they will be invited back next year, because the school is being reorganized.
Ms. GROSS: As you know, I love each and every one of you. I wish each and every one of you much success, happiness and love to you and your families on today.
ABRAMSON: The school's official graduation rate stands at about 82 percent -not where principal Gross wants it to be, but a vast improvement over the 27 percent who graduated in 1999.
Unidentified Man: Brittany Howard(ph), April Bevance(ph).
ABRAMSON: The students filed by to pick up their diplomas.
(Soundbite of cheering)
ABRAMSON: Parents fanned themselves furiously in the heat and screamed as students walked across the stage. A girl sashays before the crowd, her diploma held high; a boy jumped straight up and down in celebration about a dozen times.
These students are not going to Ivy League colleges, but many are going on to good local two- and four-year schools. The parents and extended family who showed up were mostly just happy that their kids were moving on.
Pat Miner graduated form Northwestern in 1972 when this was a strong school. She says her daughter, Amber(ph), had a very different experience.
Ms. PAT MINER (Alumni, Northwestern High School): It was hard. Going there, you have students in class that don't want to learn and they're interrupting the class as the teacher's trying to teach. And she admitted that it's hard and she would be glad when the year was over. So, now we've gotten there. And I'm happy. I'm truly happy.
ABRAMSON: It took a long time to distribute those diplomas - some were out of order. And before they could leave the school, students have to swear their loyalty to the alumni association.
Unidentified Man: This is the most important part.
Unidentified Group: This is the most important part.
Unidentified Man: And I do this with love.
Unidentified Group: And I do this with love.
Unidentified Man: I do this with faith.
Unidentified Group: I do this with faith.
Unidentified Man: I do this with no rules.
Unidentified Group: I do this with no rules.
Unidentified Man: And most of all.
Unidentified Group: And most of all.
Unidentified Man: I will pay my dues.
Unidentified Group: I will pay my dues.
ABRAMSON: And then, it was it. Hats flew up in the air, people went inside to get out of the heat and to get some cake.
Two hundred or so seniors became graduates and went on to take their chances outside the walls of Northwestern High School.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
Ms. GROSS: Will all graduates at this time turn your tassel from the right side of your cap to the left. Again, we want to applaud the graduates of the class of 2007.
SIEGEL: And you can hear more stories in our series in on Northwestern High School at npr.org.
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