When Noah Rogers took over as principal of Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Va., five years ago, less than a quarter of all students were meeting state proficiency standards. Today, more than 80 percent of the school's 1,500 students are meeting state goals and the gap between white and African-American students in the mostly minority district has narrowed to the point where in some subject areas it is virtually imperceptible.
"We've closed the achievement gap in our core curriculum areas," says Rogers. "It's something we work on every day."
Stephen C. Jones took the helm of Norfolk's public schools in July after an exhaustive search to replace former superintendent John O. Simpson. While Simpson is credited for laying the foundations for the district's success, Jones says there is still work to be done.
"We still have plenty of work to do, but over the last five years, the methodology and esprit de corps among the staff and their can-do attitude is pervasive in the schools. I think that bodes well for us in the future."
Broadly recognized: Lake Taylor is an example of Norfolk's overall success in raising standardized test scores, closing the gap and exceeding federal standards. The district was recognized in September as winner of the coveted Broad Prize, edging out other urban districts in Aldine, (Texas), Boston, New York and San Francisco.
Creating competition: The Broad (pronounced Brode) Prize was established in 2002 by Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad to promote competition among urban districts. Norfolk has been a contender for the $500,000 top prize for the past three years.
Getting validation: This just validated and recognized the hard work we've been doing and the successes we've achieved," says Theresa Whibley, chair of the Norfolk School Board.
A record of improvement: Over the past seven years, the number of students passing Virginia's Standards of Learning test in Norfolk has increased from 12 percent in high school biology to nearly 69 percent in eighth grade history and social studies. At the same time, the disparity between African-American and white students' test scores has shrunk by a mere 1.2 percent in third-grade English to nearly 21 percent for high school world history.
Culture shock: Whibley, who also serves as an obstetrician and gynecologist in the community, joined the school board seven years ago and attributes the district's success to a change in culture that stressed accountability at all levels and the use of data-driven decision making.
Broad new horizons: "Most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, but we're ratcheting up our efforts in other areas," Jones says, noting that more progress can be made in closing the achievement gap, improving special education programs and reforming the city's middle and high schools.
Test, test, test: The nearly 37,000 students spread out in the district's 58 schools are assessed monthly based on academic achievement and attendance. The results are analyzed by district administrators on a quarterly basis and if students are not attaining state benchmarks, special "data teams" of teachers and administrators devise new plans and adjust their instruction.
Constant Pursuit: "We're constantly tracking kids and making sure they're meeting goals and if not, we reassess and reteach," says Lauren Campsen, principal at Norfolk's Ocean View Elementary School. "It's a lot of hard work. You never get a break. You have to be on top of it everyday, but it works. Every child can learn no matter what the circumstances."