Sometimes the reaction is a guffaw, sometimes a snort. Either way, it's the disbelieving sound of people learning that an unassuming suburban school called Jefferson County IBS in Irondale, Ala., about as deep in the South as you can get, ranks in the top five high schools in the United States.
"People still have stereotypes of what ... Alabamians are like, and because we talk slower maybe they think we're not on the ball," says Linda Jones, an administrator at the school.
Southern school districts still lag behind the US average on standardized-test scores, and many see their students, especially blacks and Hispanics, drop out. Yet 50 years after the "Little Rock Nine" integrated Central High in Arkansas, hundreds of Southern high schools, many still under desegregation orders, have quietly become educational powerhouses, muscling out California, the Midwest, and New England when it comes to school innovation, excellence, and standard-setting.
"California used to be the educational mecca, but clearly the South has been very progressive in improving its high schools," says Gene Bottoms, a director at the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) in Atlanta. "If you looked at where the South was 20 years ago, there's very little comparison to what exists today."
This year, the top five schools in Newsweek's ranking of US public high schools are below the Mason-Dixon line. While Vermont's homogenous schools are ranked the "smartest," according to Morgan Quitno Press, top-performing schools in the South – from Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C., to Suncoast Community in Riviera Beach, Fla. – have risen against the odds, teaching racially diverse and, often, poor students who, research shows, come to school less prepared than white students.
The South's educational progress is attributed to many things: an influx of middle-class Northerners, weak unions, and leadership from people such as former Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Hundreds of federal integration orders, too, forced mixed-race classrooms and laid the groundwork for reforms that emphasize treating students as individuals, not as groups.
"These Southern schools demonstrate that under adverse conditions ... schools can thrive," says Maris Vinovskis, a history and public policy professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The question now for the nation is: How can we replicate that success in difficult areas?"
At Central High in Little Rock, which today ranks 26th in the country, a student body of 2,400 reflects the diversity of Arkansas to a "T," says Principal Nancy Rousseau. "We try to provide the right atmosphere for everybody," she says.
The top-ranked public high school this year is a multiracial, 211-student school in Dallas. The School for the Talented and Gifted sprang out of the desegregation fight. In 1982, federal Judge Barefoot Sanders ordered the integration of Dallas schools.
"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.
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.