Garner High wins national “breakthrough” award

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2013 

— Garner Magnet High School pulled in another award as the MetLife Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals selected it as one of nine “Breakthrough Schools” across the country in a Nov. 15 announcement.

The award, which comes with a $5,000 grant, recognizes strong academic success at schools with relatively high school poverty rates. Principal Drew Cook said a group of seven teachers helped put together the application package.

“Obviously we’ve had some really positive results in the last five years,” Cook said regarding test scores. “They were also impressed with the shrinking achievement gaps in different subgroups in our school, our strategies to achieve that, intervention.”

The award evaluated collaborative leadership strategies and implementation at schools, according to NASSP spokeswoman Caroline Hailey. It also considered personalization of instruction to fit student needs, including mentoring and community outreach efforts as well as curriculum and assessment.

To be considered, schools must have at least 40 percent of students receiving free or subsidized meals at their schools. Garner High had 43.5 percent of students qualify. Hailey said high school figures tend to be underreported relative to earlier grade levels, as some students attempt to hide their eligibility.

The award comes on the heels of the release of the 2012-13 test scores. As they did for schools statewide, new and more rigorous tests drove down Garner High’s test scores. Just 44 percent of Garner High students scored proficient, roughly in line with the state average. The previous year saw 85 percent score proficient, also comparable to the state average for that year.

“It’s kind of a reminder for all of us that, yes, we’ve done a lot of great things, but we’re starting a new process and era for assessments,” said Cook.

The school fared better when focusing on student growth – which happens to be where the state is now placing greater emphasis and where the Breakthrough award focused. Students at Garner saw more improvement year-to-year relative to other students in North Carolina, a trend that pleased Cook.

Cook said he has confidence that it would continue to improve now that the bar has been raised.

“We’ve done it once: taken low achievement across the board in different areas, and reset the bar. We have expectations that despite the bar being raised across the state, we’re going to show progress as we have before,” Cook said. “The stakes are higher and the rules of the game are changing. We’re positioning ourselves to adapt accordingly.”

Freshman center

Cook said he doesn’t know exactly how the grant will be spent. The school has applied for some other grants as well, and he hopes to be able to bundle multiple awards for greater leverage. But he knows the area of the school he’d like to spend the money.

“Right now, with our move to the ninth grade center in January, we’re going to be looking at that critical ninth grade year and find(ing) tools to help kids be successful when they come onto our campus,” Cook said.

That center, being built across the street from the high school in a former movie theater and some new temporary class buildings in its parking lot, will alleviate crowding at the school of 2,436. The $5.4 million project will yield 12 learning spaces in the former theater and 22 more in the classroom modules, and Cook expects the vast majority of freshmen to spend most of their day there.

While not a perfect solution, Cook has said, the separation could have a side benefit, allowing freshmen better chances to focus on the transition to high school. Numbers tell Cook that a huge correlation exists between success the first year and the rest of high school, with students who struggle more likely to drop out down the road.

That gives him further incentive to spend the grant money on the class, he said.

The freshman center remains on track to open in January. The school will receive some additional resources from the school system to deal with the 11 new acres of campus and four buildings, though not all details have been ironed out.

A schedule is in place and other planning has been set up though Cook knows the transition might not be perfect.

“There’s going to be some trial and error, some bumps. We’re still working out some issues with transportation,” Cook said. “That will be, to some degree, trial by fire.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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