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The Norcross Experiment

Norcross High School is a microcosm of Atlanta public education. You couldn’t create a better lab for incubating great ideas—and this school has teachers and staff bubbling over with them.

This story originally appeared in our January 2013 issue.

Most schools in metro Atlanta are dominated by one demographic. They’re poor, affluent, white, black, or Hispanic. Their classrooms are filled with fourth-generation Georgians—or refugees who arrived in Atlanta last month. Maybe the hallways swarm with hordes of well-off parents who fund booster clubs, cheer at games, and micromanage their kids’ Advanced Placement schedules—or maybe the PTA can’t even raise a couple hundred bucks because parents work two jobs just to keep the lights on. Some schools steadily churn out HOPE Scholarship–qualifying, SAT-acing, college-bound graduates every May; others are dubbed dropout factories.

Then there’s Norcross High School. Within this 413,000-square-foot complex on Spalding Drive, there is such a diverse mix of kids from such a range of socioeconomic strata that no single demographic dominates. This is really six or eight or a dozen schools in one. It’s a microcosm of public education, with a student body that reflects Atlanta’s population forecasts—and academic successes and struggles that replicate school scorecards across the region.

Norcross High offers a nationally lauded International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a rigorous curriculum that combines university-level coursework with collegiate-style seminars and European-inspired oral examinations. A fifth of the class of 2012 graduated with honors. Norcross ranks twelfth on U.S. News & World Report’s roster of Georgia’s best high schools and made our 2012 register of Atlanta’s top fifty.

But last spring, NHS showed up on another list: the Georgia Department of Education’s roll call of “focus schools,” those that demand attention because of low graduation rates and/or wide gaps between scholastic stars and those at risk of failing or dropping out. When data was recalibrated statewide last year, the school’s graduation percentage dropped from 82 to 65.

January 2013 cover
Social scientists couldn’t engineer a better laboratory to study ways to fix our schools. And luckily NHS has a principal, teachers, and staff committed to innovation, making it an incubator for the kind of ideas that could turn around Georgia’s dismal dropout culture and close the yawning achievement gap. Three programs stand out: a comprehensive effort to help non­native English speakers, a school-wide mandate to boost writing skills, and, most important, an all-out campaign to help freshmen become sophomores. Just as vital—though less easily quantifiable and not bundled under one of those acronyms educators love—is a pervasive spirit of inclusiveness.

Media Center
The first time he heard s’il vous plaît and other frilly-sounding French phrases, one question—the kind that has floated in sullen cartoon thought-bubbles over classrooms for millennia—arose in Joshua White’s mind: “What’s the point?”

“Learning French just didn’t seem that practical,” says Joshua, a freshman who grew up in Gwinnett County. “It was hard to understand and didn’t seem like something I’d ever speak in everyday life.” With his French grade hovering at 70 last fall, Joshua was tapped for STARS (Success Through Academic Rigor and Support), which pairs trained peer-mentors with students who are struggling in school—or show signs they might be.

This year STARS—created by teachers Jay Nebel and Travis Chapman—replaced a program called “mandatory tutoring.” It’s not an exercise in rebranding, but a complete rethinking of who most needs the extra help. Previously all students who failed two or more classes could add tutoring to their schedules. STARS focuses exclusively on freshmen and is designed to help kids before their grades even start to slip.

Like other schools, NHS had a “real problem” with kids failing to complete ninth grade and move on to tenth, says Nebel. That’s a concern; more than one-third of dropouts leave school after falling behind in the ninth grade, and of those kids who do repeat ninth grade, only 10 to 15 percent go on to graduate, according to a 2010 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. (For more, see “The Sophomore Slump” on page 70.) “We decided to intervene earlier and not sit back and wait until the grades roll in,” says Nebel, who was named Gwinnett County’s 2013 Teacher of the Year—beating out 10,300 contenders.

So Nebel and Chapman gave themselves homework. With counselors and administrators, they analyzed data on eighth graders in NHS feeder schools to pinpoint who might need a little help—before the adolescents ever walked through the doors as high schoolers. “It’s a proactive rather than reactive approach,” says Chapman, who teaches AP environmental science and is an associate boys’ basketball coach. “We’re trying to catch them before they have a chance to fail that very first test.”

The program started with 100 students and has been expanded to 147—with dramatic results. As of late November, kids assigned to STARS on the first day of school in August were passing 83 percent of their classes; those put into STARS in late September were passing 66 percent.

But not all success can be tracked in percentiles. “Academics come first, of course, but we also emphasize social development and character,” Nebel says. “Many of these kids are very uncomfortable even talking with adults; they might put their heads down on their desks or look at the ground.”

Chapman and Nebel dedicated one STARS tutoring period entirely to practicing greeting and talking to grown-ups: shaking hands firmly, making eye contact, and speaking assertively. There are monthly STARS award ceremonies honoring GPA improvements and attitude adjustments. The ceremonies also teach students how to accept recognition. “Many of these kids have never received an award in their lives,” Chapman says. “You can see the pride.” Notes Nebel, “This, we tell them, is a precursor to when they receive their diploma!”

Another skill: good old-fashioned thank-you notes. Many STARS students “wrote to multiple upperclassmen letting them know of their importance to them,” says Nebel.

STARS sparkles with collaboration at every level. The tutoring component quite literally bridges that so-called achievement gap. Ty Greenberg, a senior who’d been homeschooled before coming to NHS, says, “I’m better in language arts, but I work as a tutor in math because I’m not as intuitively adept at it. Because I’ve struggled with it, I know how to give pointers to other people.”

Then there is Lillian White, a frank and garrulous senior once known for some obstreperous “acting out” before she became a STARS tutor in math, language arts, and Spanish. “Ooh, my discipline record was so bad,” she says. “I’d go AWOL, be tardy, get into verbal confrontations, you name it. My fighting days are way over. I’ve always had a passion for helping others, even if it didn’t show back then, and STARS has totally reinforced it. I changed my actions for the better, and now I’m watching other kids go from failing to passing.”

Case in point: Joshua, who now not only maintains a steady B average in French but also enjoys carrying on basic conversations and mastering those exotic accent marks. “I appreciate it now in ways I never thought I would, and I want to keep going,” he says. He’s uncovered a few answers as to why he’s got to learn this stuff. “In math we connect our discussion of the euro and currency with what we’re doing. The conjugating of verbs goes well with language arts,” he says, adding that now he also wants to travel to visit “some of the restaurants and landmarks” discussed in class.

Principal Bishop’s Office
William Bishop attended Norcross High almost three decades ago. Of course, NHS is nothing like it was when Bishop was a sixteen-year-old band kid—and not just because it relocated from a cramped old building on Beaver Ruin Road to its sleek facilities in 2001. In the late 1980s, the student body was mostly white, middle-class, and suburban. “This was the edge of Atlanta,” he says.

Since then, waves of immigration and a population boom have transformed Gwinnett into the most diverse of Georgia’s 159 counties. Here 32 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, compared with 13 percent statewide; the number of Hispanics is double that of the rest of the state, and the number of Asians more than triple. Meanwhile socioeconomic stratification has been fueled by clusters of high-end development and pockets of cheap housing. Norcross High’s attendance zone includes zip codes 30092—home to the newly minted city of Peachtree Corners, where the median household income is $93,000—and 30071, home to apartments along Buford Highway, and where a fifth of residents live below the poverty level. Gwinnett reflects both Georgia’s growth and its growing diversity. With 165,000 students, Gwinnett County Public Schools is the largest system in the state and the fourteenth-largest in the United States. What happens—or doesn’t—in Gwinnett serves as a lesson for the rest of Georgia.

“Diversity—socioeconomically, racially,” is the biggest change since his days as an NHS student, says Bishop. “It’s an awfully complicated place,” he says of the school today, noting, “What hasn’t changed is the expectation of the community.” The principal’s office—a windowless room with cinder block walls and standard-issue mahogany veneer furnishings—is decorated with framed posters of the 1996 Olympics. In between graduating from Georgia Tech and becoming a teacher, Bishop served as stage manager for the opening and closing ceremonies in Atlanta—a “once in a lifetime” experience that involved wrangling myriad details. But staging a spectacle seen by billions doesn’t compare to dealing with 3,300 teenagers and 275 adults on the NHS campus every day.

When it comes to boosting graduation rates, STARS is key, says Bishop, who stresses that helping freshmen assimilate into high school is as crucial as tutoring them in math or social studies. “If we can get a student to show up at a football game, there’s a better chance that they graduate,” he says. “The students who are here and involved somehow tend to be fine. The kids who are most at risk get here in the morning, go through the motions of being at school, and leave.”

Bishop is a big guy, sturdy and tall with an affable manner and an easy, gap-toothed smile. He gets animated talking about statistics that lead people to make snap judgments about a school’s success or failure. “We need measuring sticks. But there’s more to what goes on in the school,” he says. “We have students who walk in the door and don’t speak English. If you look at a test score, it may not look so good. But if you look at progress the student has made over two or three years, it’s great. Progress is what we’re after—not a particular number.”

When he defines student success, Bishop thinks of what he wants for his own daughters, now five and six. “I want them to have all the opportunities in the world when they get out of school. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I want my kid to be in the “exceeds” category on some assessment.’ We all want our kids to have choices.”

Classroom 206, Language Arts Wing
Slogans and mantras festoon every school, but one you constantly run into at Norcross is indecipherable to outsiders. Posted in social studies, science, and language arts classrooms are posters bearing the letters CDCM, which stand for Concrete Detail and Commentary, a clunky phrase that, perhaps paradoxically, is meant to encourage clear writing. Everyone here takes CDCM for granted, the letters stand for something so ubiquitous—a school-wide program that requires students to write about every class.

Using prompts, kids write observations about class discussions (“commentary,” or CM) supporting those ideas with specifics (“concrete detail” or CD). For instance, after a social studies lesson, a student wrote that “the Justinian Code is important because it will leave a lasting legacy of the Roman Empire,” and backed up that assertion mentioning “the Justinian Code, which lasted 900 years (Concrete Detail No. 1)” and “consisted of 5,000 laws from the Roman Empire” (Concrete Detail No. 2).

The process can seem complicated to those of us who haven’t been in a classroom for decades, but at its core, this “isn’t so much a formula for writing as a framework for structuring ideas,” explains Lydia Bowden, Norcross High’s language arts department chair.

The structured approach particularly helps students who don’t think they can write, says assistant principal Christine Dailey. “If you ask some kids to write a paragraph, they’ll look at you and go, ‘Huh?’ But if you give them a template, it breaks it down.” Dailey, who supports the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, remarks, “Students who were born and grew up here struggle with writing, so you can only imagine the challenge for our English learners.”

Like other Norcross programs, the writing initiative relies on early intervention and family involvement. Bowden taught CDCM in Norcross High’s feeder schools and offered a “Writing 101” class for parents. “Some parents want to help but don’t know how or feel intimidated. We try to make it as easy as possible,” she says. This month, she will be moving to a new role as language arts instruction coach for Gwinnett County Schools, taking what’s worked at Norcross across the entire system.

CDCM techniuqes had been used in IB classes for several years before being taken school-wide in 2010. At first, not all teachers were on board. “As much as I love to read, I suppose my initial reaction was, this is not English—why write? I’d rather put a sharp stick in my eye than teach writing,” says chemistry teacher Alicia Hardy. Now she’s known for giving her students some of the most innovative writing prompts.

In another disruption of teens’ emoticon-punctuated culture, NHS students don’t just convey ideas in writing, they also orate. This is driven partly by the culture of the IB program, and also by teachers’ general frustration with teenaged mumblecore banter.

Every Norcross student participates in IB at varying levels, says Kathy Sanchez, who coordinates the IB and gifted-student programs. Some decide as juniors to apply for the toughest track: IB Diploma, with graduation requirements that include mastering a course called Theory of Knowledge, logging 150 community service and activity hours, and taking oral exams that are recorded and reviewed by an international panel governed by IB edicts set in Geneva, Switzerland. Others opt for the IB Course Candidate track, which lets them focus on areas in which they are strong—just math or science, for example. All students in ninth and tenth grades sprinkle standard-level courses into their schedules as part of the school-wide IB Middle Years curriculum. IB courses add heft to a student’s high school transcript while providing a taste of collegiate seminars.

Students who take upper-level IB courses can earn college credit, similar to taking Advanced Placement courses. However, IB grading is based on various forms of testing throughout the year rather than the AP final—“the one day in May,” as Sanchez puts it—that favors students who are good at taking standardized tests. The IB testing philosophy broadens its accessibility.

The way Norcross makes IB classes accessible isn’t just important academically. It helps prevent the physical manifestation of the achievement gap found in many other schools—with all the high-achievers cloistered in a magnet program or AP classes and everyone else in basic on-level courses. In those schools, kids at different ends of the achievement spectrum rarely occupy the same space. Norcross democratically keeps everyone interspersed.

In Darrell Cicchetti’s IB language arts class today, students take the floor and, with varying levels of nervous laughter, filler words, and poetry, talk for fifteen minutes each about life, death, despair, and the “sick and cruel mentality out there,” inspired by George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging.”

“When we see the suffering of others, we realize our lives are not as bad as we think,” says mop-topped junior Spencer McGuire. “We all have observed, too, that as people get older, they grow less happy.” He shrugs eloquently, and the adults in the room snort in affirmation.

Spencer says he welcomes the oratory approach. “What good is what we learn if we can’t communicate it?”

The Parent Resource Center
If you’re over twenty-five, you may have had a lot to worry about in high school, but there’s one headache you were spared: social media. Indeed, conflict at Norcross High invariably starts on a screen someplace away from school. A mean tweet morphs into a mini war which turns into a fight in the hallway or cafeteria. The worst offenders? “Ninth-grade girls,” says Tracey Casey, confirming what everyone else tells us. Girls aren’t just mean; they’re violent. When freshman girls fought at the start of this school year, upperclassmen told them to cut it out; they didn’t want fighting at NHS to trend in the Twitterverse.

Casey is Norcross’s parent-instructor support coordinator. An oversimplification of her job description: She helps parents help their kids. She can’t stop Facebook feuds, but she does just about everything else—hosting school orientation, running college fairs, and organizing workshops on how to help kids with homework. Casey calls the parents of STARS kids with regular check-ins.

Casey’s base of operations is the Parent Resource Center, a cheerful room with windows that open onto a wide central hallway. Two computers on a long table below the windows are for parents to use—Casey has helped them sign up for email addresses, apply for free lunch, and complete work permits for their kids. Brochures—in English and Spanish—fill a rack on the opposite wall; they cover topics like the college application process, careers, and how to steer clear of gangs and drugs. Casey, who doesn’t speak Spanish, has a bilingual clerk who serves as a translator. She’s also pulled in members of the custodial staff to help with a language no one on the teaching staff speaks—Vietnamese, for instance. Casey, who is African American and grew up in a small town outside Greenville, South Carolina, worked at a majority-white school for almost a decade before taking the job at Norcross. She says when she studied the NHS demographics she “thought there would be racial issues,” but hasn’t seen any. “It amazes me—and I’m not just saying that,” she says. Some of the amity can be attributed to social evolution—“this generation is more tolerant than we were growing up,” she says, citing interracial dating as an example—and to school spirit. At football games, for instance: “You don’t see a white section and a black section, but everyone sitting together. Same in the cafeteria.”

When Casey talked to schoolteacher friends about taking the job, some warned her about working at a school with enough poor students—almost two-thirds qualify for free or reduced lunch—to get Title 1 federal funding. “There’s a stigma,” she says. But Title 1 funding does more than pay for a parent coordinator like Casey; it helps with summer school, “credit recovery” tutoring and testing, and transportation to get to those services. “When they hear about the resources, parents break down and cry with joy. I’d be Title 1 every day and all day to see that,” she says.

Christine Dailey bristles at the Title 1 stigma: “Just because they can’t buy lunch doesn’t mean they can’t learn.”

Family and Consumer Sciences Room
Chances are, teenagers who tell you that they show up at school at 6:45 a.m. to study the “habitudes” of success do not need much motivational stoking to begin with, but the six NHS kids tapped by faculty each year for Gwinnett Student Leadership Team argue they can never learn enough about personal growth and creative ways to nudge their peers toward self-improvement.

Arrayed along one side of a table, panelist- style, they’ve prepared a bullet-point outline on leadership training; each takes a turn relaying key information. This sextet embodies the achievement stratosphere; they’re what Principal Bishop would refer to as the “high-performing subgroup.”

Joseph Wilber is a junior and quarterback for the Blue Devils—2012 Region 7 champs. (As we went to press, Norcross had trounced Camden 34–20 in the state quarter-finals and was preparing to take on Colquitt in the semis.) Chris Willis offhandedly mentions he’s in the 800 Club, a society for those who earn perfect scores in standardized tests. His sister, Nicki, raves excitedly about the $73,000 NHS raised for Relay for Life and the Norcross Care Team, which assists homeless students.

GSLT is sponsored by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. “It was such an honor to be invited to the 1818 Club,” says Chris, alluding to the lair for power lunches. These youths are the larval Rotarians, Jaycees, and senators, whose names, forty years from now, likely will be attached to philanthropic foundations.

The Chamber invites top students from all schools countywide to the program. Unlike many of their peers in other schools, the Norcross kids pay their good fortune forward by running the Norcross Student Leadership Team, which attracts about fifty students to every early-morning meeting. “Some kids just need an extra push to realize their potential for greatness—that they can do and be anything they want—and a lot of them don’t get that at home,” says junior Malcolm Galloway. “That’s where we step in.”

That club doesn’t just hold team-building, affirmation-propelled powwows for its own sake; it also functions as a sort of nerve center for other clubs and gestures of youthful idealism, including canned food drives, school carnivals, and holiday “Jingle Bell” awards that honor favorite teachers.

“We try to reward greatness at every level and show all the kids that leadership and hard work pay off, whether they’re going to the Ivy League, community college, the military, or whatever,” says Chris, who’s weighing MIT versus Stanford. “We believe changing yourself could change your family, and then maybe your country, and eventually the world.”

The Commons
Pat Dudley is a petite coil of energy topped off with an elegantly grayed bob. Today she pairs a chic black suit with a massive leg brace that gives her a bionic air and a lopsided gait. She’s had knee surgery, but it barely slows her down. Dudley, one of NHS’s eleven assistant principals, carries a walkie-talkie that squawks intermittently as we scurry to keep up while she escorts us from class to class. As she walks, Dudley rattles through a list of staff tactics—like the teachers’ Sacred Wednesday sessions, devoted to sharing ideas about what works in class. She breezes through the roster of student organizations—among them anime, robotics, and the Random Acts of Kindness Club—and notes the school’s above-average SAT rankings. All impressive.

But we’re most impressed when she stands at the door of the cafeteria, flourishes toward the tables, and says, “Go. Ask. Hear what they really have to say.”

We crash clutches of lunching students, but keep hearing the same story. School spirit is great. Go Blue Devils! Teachers are tough but they care. Everyone gets along. Are there no malcontents?

They even love the cafeteria food. It’s chicken-and-waffle day. Honor Grant has poured syrup all over hers and picks at her tray while we talk.

Honor and two friends, Adrianna and Miranda, rave about NHS spirit and insist everyone gets along. “The only drama comes from the freshman girls,” says Honor. Yeah, girls fight. Boys don’t—at least not at school. Honor gestures toward a girl wearing plastic gloves and picking up trash from the tables, a sign of being on In-School Suspension. “That girl, she was in a fight.”

Later we rejoin Dudley at another table. And here’s a sign of the kind of candor we ran into repeatedly at NHS. “I’m worried you’re not getting any dirt,” she says, and summons over the girl on ISS.

Her name is Y’Naeah Correa, and she’s a sophomore. She has multicolored fingernails and long ringlets. Dudley asks why she’s in trouble. Y’Naeah explains she is doing penance for “posturing to fight.”

Surely a kid bussing tables as part of an ISS sentence might have a few gripes. But Y’Naeah says she really isn’t holding onto resentment toward the punishing teacher—even though the other girl clearly “started” that contretemps. Y’Naeah plays tennis and is in a club called La Voz, which is technically a club for Hispanic kids, but really everyone can go. “All the races get along and are accepted here,” she says.

Y’Naeah attended Duluth before transferring to NHS. “There is more school spirit here than any place,” she notes before asking to be excused. She’s got to get back to clearing those tables.

Classroom 107, ESOL Wing
For most of her life, Yaneli Santoyo moved with her family between Mexico and the United States every couple of years. “In Mexico I couldn’t get on the Internet, and there were no social clubs at school, and students could bribe teachers to buy grades,” she says. “Here there are so many resources and encouraging tutors.” In fact Yaneli excelled in ESOL and now, as a senior, is taking calculus and forensic science. “I will be the first in my family to finish college,” she says with a shy smile. “My parents want me to have more than they do—my mother cleans houses and my father repairs walls. They taught me that if I want to become someone and not lose everything if I get sick, I need an education.”

The number of ESOL students at NHS has fluctuated. After Georgia passed a tough immigration law in 2011, ESOL enrollment declined; from a high of 224, it’s now 150, and the number of teachers dropped from twenty-four to five. Following President Obama’s declaration of support for granting children of illegal immigrants amnesty, numbers are inching back up. Kids applying for amnesty have to prove residency, and school records are crucial. The registrar at Norcross has received 393 requests for needed transcripts—292 from currently enrolled students.

At the moment, students at NHS report birthplaces from seventy-nine countries. Bonaventure Junior Tchuenkam, a sophomore, immigrated to the United States from Cameroon a year ago. “I had the choice of going here or Meadowcreek, but my relatives said Norcross High School has the best reputation for diversity with no discrimination or bullying,” says Bonaventure, who plans to eventually become a surgeon or an engineer. In the short term, he hopes to raise $200 by May for Relay for Life.

“In Africa, teachers could beat students to make them work harder,” Bonaventure says. “The strategy is the opposite here. They keep discipline by helping you be the best you can be. Very different.”

The Front Portico
“The Armpit” is what teachers call that rambunctious zone where students disembark and board the school buses. Forty-seven yellow vehicles are in formation, and Dudley squares her stance, takes a deep breath, and braces for the torrent of adolescence that surges outside as if through the sluice gates of a dam. The scene crackles and pops—giggling, squealing, strutting, and general showing off, with a few shy, doelike glances swapped by quiet types. The Armpit lives up to its glandular nickname.

One girl, especially, swivels heads in double takes and draws a crowd of loose-limbed hangers-on. Nia Harris’s hair is artfully braided and colored in alternating strands of fluorescent pink and yellow. Her languid eyes are fringed in false lashes, and she wears lipstick the color of blueberries. Her oval face is punctuated with a nose stud. Asked if Nia, a junior, is involved in the drama department, Dudley rolls her eyes and says affectionately, “She is drama.”

The buses need only minutes to load, vacuum-seal their doors with that recognizable wheeze, crank up, and roll out. That they manage to collect and seat all of these restless bodies pinging off each other like charged ions still strikes even the old-hand adult observers as miraculous.

“Looks like seven minutes,” a coach says.

“My watch says six,” Dudley argues, and they watch the timeless, disciplined choreography as those buses pull out, one by one.

Administration Office
English teacher Lydia Bowden and science instructor Alicia Hardy are decompressing in Pat Dudley’s office. Teachers at NHS still earnestly quote and nod at the truth of the African proverb, trailing off at the end: “It takes a village . . .” But as Dudley notes, there’s no single definition of what “village” means here. “We take each kid as he or she comes,” she says. “They don’t come to you with equal opportunity and equal background, and each one has a story.”

Says Bowden, “We have kids from the extremes of both sides of the socioeconomic tracks—from Peachtree Corners kids and the ones who live in big houses on the river, to the children of immigrants who live on Buford Highway. In some cases, children don’t have a home at all. I just found out one of mine has lived in three motels this year.”

Adds Hardy, “I wish for what all teachers wish for—more parental involvement. Better attendance at Parents Nights, more input from them to help us help their kids.”

Bowden continues, “It’s overwhelming. You think: How can I save all of these kids? Well, you start with one kid in front of you and go from there.”