Defying history and stereotype, the South's schools rise
Hundreds of high schools in the region, many still under desegregation orders, have quietly become public-education powerhouses.
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"An effective school is very easy to define but hard to achieve," says its principal, Mike Satarino. A good school, he says, can be pictured as an equilateral triangle, with vertices representing the student, the teacher, and the home.Skip to next paragraph
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At Jefferson County IBS in Irondale, a student body of 375 includes a diverse and "cliqueless" population whose common trait is a drive to achieve in school, says Ms. Jones, the administrator. A big selection of Advanced Placement classes, small classes, and a keen interest in each student are reasons for its success, she says.
In Florida, Miami-Dade County now has 13 high schools that rank in the top 10 percent in the nation, and the county's Hispanic and black students have some of the highest average achievement scores in the US. "Parent academies" that preach the value of education in churches and community centers have helped raised education's clout in minority neighborhoods. Performance-based pay for teachers and principals is now under debate.
Regional reforms and national mandates "have turned the apple cart upside down" and created opportunity for innovation, says Rudolph "Rudy" Crew, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Schools and author of "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools."
South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi are even leading a national movement toward mandatory career tracks for high-schoolers. South Carolina, for instance, is hiring 550 career counselors to guide freshmen into dozens of specialties such as nursing and preengineering.
But the region should not be patting itself on the back yet, critics say. The poorest areas – such as Alabama's Black Belt region and the Delta area of Mississippi and Arkansas – remain educational backwaters, they say. At South Delta schools in Roaring Forks, Miss., where 97 percent of students are black and nearly as many qualify for subsidized lunch, test scores are slipping steadily, especially as students enter middle and high school.
In some communities, the South's leadership on high-stakes assessment and accountability has backfired, experts say.
"Part of the price we paid for [testing and accountability] is that we have in many of our states a very high failure rate in Grade 9, and we've had a declining high school completion rate that leveled out in 2003," says Mr. Bottoms at the SREB.
Critics also suspect that some districts in the South manipulate the numbers to put their performance in the best light possible. "We need much more in-depth analysis of what's going on before we have a conclusion that we have the miracles that we appear to have," says James Anderson, an education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In many ways, the rise of truly representative Southern high schools began 50 years ago at Central High, when National Guardsmen escorted nine black students over the threshold, says Principal Rousseau. Sixty-one events are planned for this anniversary year, including a commemoration Sept. 25.
Federal court oversight of Central quietly ended last year.