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.
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.
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.”