Garner High among 10 schools in U.S. honored by national principals orgnanization

kjahner@newsobserver.comApril 1, 2014 

Parents and students walk the halls during the open house for the new Ninth Grade Center at Garner Magnet High School.

KYLE JAHNER — kjahner@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Organizations that grant schools awards and distinctions can seem to multiply each year. But Garner Magnet High School nevertheless will take this one happily.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals named Garner High among 10 middle and high schools nationwide as 2014 “Breakthrough Schools,” which along with a fancy title includes a trade magazine feature and a $5,000 grant.

“This one is a little bit different in that regard,” the school’s principal Drew Cook said of the award compared to other distinctions. “I think this one’s pretty competitive.

The school found out about the NASSP named it a finalist in September and a team from Washington, D.C., visited in October – during homecoming week, as it worked out. In November the school learned it had won the honor, Cook was flown to Dallas for a national conference last month, and the school will be featured in an article in the May 2014 edition of Principal Leadership magazine, which is published by NASSP.

The selection criteria for the award included collaborative leadership, personalization, curriculum, instruction and assessment. Applicant schools needed to have at least 40 percent of students at the school receiving free or reduced price lunch. Demographic data, testing data and other application materials determined whether an applicant school would be a finalist and receive a visit.

Need breeds ingenuity

One element of the school that Cook said generated some attention was the new Ninth Grade Center, which was being prepared when the award was granted.

While the project to build the center into an old movie theater started out of need for space, Cook early on promoted the benefits of separating freshmen. He says data indicates that first year of high school proves critical for students and is an indicator of whether they’ll succeed later on, and that separation from upperclassmen frees them of a number of distractions.

Cook said a side article in the magazine feature will focus on the Ninth Grade Center, and will include statistics and trends similar to what Cook has noticed.

“I’ve had phone calls from principals asking about how we set up the Ninth Grade Center,” Cook said.

Garner High will move into the brand new South Garner High School for a year in 2016 for a year as Garner High is rebuilt. While the new facility, along with South Garner High itself, will eliminate the need for the separate center, Cook said he’s looking to build such a separation model into the new school. He said having designated floors in a multi-story building or part of a multi-story cafeteria could be ways to create similar effects.

“We’re asking designers what we can do, and what kind of flexibility we might have to set up those learning spaces,” Cook said. “Hopefully we’ll have some real data to back up our desire and energy to want to do that,” Cook said.

But more than any one element of the school Cook said that the award reflected on the talent of his staff, the work of the students, and a community feel he said was rare in such a large urban school. He also noted an emphasis not just on helping students falling behind, but also pushing the ones doing well.

“Having the high standard is key, and relating a culture where leaders on down to the students in the desks that everybody can learn and grow,” Cook said. “We've got to keep raising the bar to make sure we're meeting the needs of these kids. In the economic times we're in, with limited resources, that's not a small task.”

Cook thanked his teachers and staff in an email after the school learned of the award.

“The honor is yet another example of the amazing work that you are doing every day,” Cook wrote.

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

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