"Committed to Mediocrity Would Have Been So Much Easier"

Every year at its national conference, The Education Trust recognizes a few schools that demonstrate the power schools have to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination. Last month, four schools were presented with the Ed Trust Dispelling the Myth Award. This column is about one of them: Pass Christian High School in Mississippi. I'll be writing about the others in future columns.

More than a decade ago the residents of Pass Christian, along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, decided that the town's schools needed to improve.

With an integrated student body -- about 60 percent of the students are white, 30 percent of the students are African American and the rest Asian and Latino -- the schools had big achievement gaps, both among different ethnic groups and between its low-income and non-low income students.
Teachers, administrators, and school board members studied the state's newly adopted academic standards and realized that -- in the words of Meridith Bang, who has spent her career in the district and is now principal of Pass Christian High School -- "we can do this." They could help all students meet those standards.

The school board and district officials adopted the motto, "Committed to Excellence" and from then on, when there was a choice, their commitment to excellence meant that the harder decision would often be made.

"Commitment to mediocrity would have been so much easier," Bang said recently, laughing a bit ruefully.

One of the many ways this plays out is that the district hires teachers for their teaching, not their coaching. This is a daring move in Mississippi, where sports are sometimes considered the most important part of the high school experience. "When our athletes lose, they just say, 'We beat you in academics,'" Bang said. But some parents and community members still grumble that sports aren't given enough due. The superintendent and board are also willing to hire experienced teachers who are more expensive than brand new teachers straight out of college.

To build a culture of excellence, from behavior to instruction, teachers and school leaders began paying careful attention to ensuring that every student was known, felt valued, and was pushed into the most rigorous academic work he or she could handle, with lots of celebrations for every academic milestone met. Suspensions dropped, graduation rates inched up, and Advanced Placement classes had expanded.

That's when Hurricane Katrina hit.

The devastation along Mississippi's Gulf Coast was personalized for millions when Good Morning America's Robin Roberts arrived at her family home to discover that although her family had been spared by the storm, her hometown of Pass Christian had been wiped out. Among places destroyed was the entire first floor of the high school, a fact that is evidenced today by a small sign 18 feet above the floor noting the high-water mark.

"We just set up trailers at the only elementary school that wasn't destroyed and kept working," Bang said. At the time, she was principal of one of the destroyed elementary schools. Reflecting back on that time, she wrote recently in an e-mail:

Coming together as a district after Hurricane Katrina helped us to focus on building common beliefs and on our commitment to excellence. And we were not willing to lose a year of education in the lives of our students -- not on our watch! We braved the challenges and overcame the obstacles by making every decision based on what was best for our kids. We are relentless to this day when it comes to our mission.

Right after the storm hit, Pass Christian High School won the National Blue Ribbon Award, news of which had to be relayed from other educators in Mississippi because no one in Pass Christian had phone service.

Since then, the school has continued to improve.

In a state where only 75 percent of students graduate from high school, 85 percent of Pass Christian High School students do -- not just the white students or the middle-class students, but also the African American students and the students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, who tend to graduate at much lower rates in the state.

Its commitment to excellence means that the students aren't just barely squeaking over the graduation line -- 85 percent of the seniors took the ACT exam in 2011 and the average score was 21.1, well above the state average score.

Not that Bang considers the school's successes as good enough. In fact, she brushes aside questions about how Pass Christian became as successful as it is, saying it would be much easier to talk about how it plans to improve, from full implementation of Common Core State Standards to arranging for her students to take college classes while still in high school.

But in the meantime, the school is changing lives. One junior I met when I visited told me that she had grown up living in poverty, moving frequently in and around Seattle, and not feeling connected to school.

"College was never in my sights," she said, adding she had grown up thinking that all she would ever be able to do was work as a clerk in a store. But at the beginning of high school, she moved near family in Mississippi and enrolled in Pass Christian High School.

Teachers and counselors immediately started talking to her about going to college, but she still thought it was out of reach financially. "I started crying when [school counselor] Ms. Manion told me about the HELP Scholarship," she said, referring to a state scholarship for students who meet income and academic requirements. That was the first time, she said, that she realized "I could do something, maybe travel and get a good job and help my family."

Even though she had to enter a year behind where she thought she should be, she buckled down and began taking college preparatory classes, planning to take calculus in her senior year while working part-time.

That is just one of many stories at Pass Christian, a high school that boasted that its 2013 graduating class of a few more than 100 attracted a total of more than $5 million in scholarship money, 60 percent earning the HELP scholarship.

Pass Christian demonstrates what can be done when schools take seriously a commitment to excellence.

To see a video of Pass Christian High School alumna Robin Roberts congratulating her alma mater on its winning of the Dispelling the Myth Award, click here.