Higher Expectations Challenge Teachers and Students to Succeed

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, Atlanta's Henry W Grady High School evoked dual, conflicting images.

"If you were a student in the communications magnet program, you got a pretty good high school education," recalled Gene Bottoms, executive director of High Schools That Work (HSTW). "But if you were one of the other students, you didn't get much."

After almost a decade as an HSTW site, Grady is recognized not only as Atlanta's most successful public high school, but also as a Title I Distinguished School, a Southern Regional Education Board Gold Award winner, and a Georgia School of Excellence. What's more, the school now offers a second magnet program through its Health Science Career Academy.

"They've made some nice improvements," said Bottoms. "They're on a nice journey."


Grady is one of 1,200 high schools and 300 middle schools that have adopted the HSTW school improvement design. HSTW is based on two ptinciples: that students "get smart through effort," and that they're more likely to make that effort "if we get the conditions for learning right," Bottoms said. Those conditions, he said, include a rigorous curriculum that makes sense to students and convincing students that theit teachers believe they are capable of performing at high levels.

Staff development is key to getting staff members at HSTW sites to integrate high expectations into classroom practices and encourage students to apply academic content and skills to real-world problems, Bottoms said.

HSTW staff development, while often site-specific and based on a school's individual needs, also includes a number of common components. The initial step is usually a two-day retreat at which a school's administrators and teachers look critically at the extent to which their practices are aligned with HSTW practices. If necessary, they then decide together on action steps to ensure that the HSTW practices are put into place. HSTW also offers a summer conference to encourage schools to learn from each other and a series of smaller follow-up workshops that focus on shared problems among several HSTW schools.


Grady's path to success, said Principal Vincent Murray, began with raising academic standards for all students and answering the question, "What can we do to make every student successful?" The expectation today, he said, is "that we will not lose a single one." Key to getting there: professional development opportunities that refocused the myriad and typically dispaiate attitudes and goals of a large high school faculty into a common vision of school improvement and gave teachers the knowledge and strategies they needed to improve teaching and learning.

Grady's faculty meetings and planning periods often are devoted to staff development. Murray arranges for substitute teachers to cover classes for teachers to attend HSTW workshops or national conferences, and he earmarked a $5,000 school improvement award from Fordham University for summer staff development. He's also used Title I funds to pay overtime to teachers for working on staff development projects.

The school's staff has a lot to be proud of. Test scores, attendance and graduation rates, and the number of students in AP classes and going on to college have all increased. In fact, a 2004 Southern Regional Education Board case study highlighting the school's improvement efforts describes Grady as "an inner-city school that works for all its constituents."

Grady's accomplishments are all the more significant given the well-documented challenge of improving high schools in general, not to mention tliose plagued with the problems of large, inner-city schools that enroll substantial numbers of students at risk of doing poorly in school.

Bottoms said high school reform is particularly tough because of the "deep-seated belief in the psyche of high school teachers and leaders that a lot of their students cannot learn very much. …