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Learning From Success: A North Carolina High School Builds Culture of Excellence

Schools like Jack Britt demonstrate that educators have the power to help all groups of students learn a lot and graduate.
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What should we do when we find an integrated school, where high percentages of white students and black and Latino students meet or exceed state standards and where a slightly higher percentage of black students graduate in four years than white students?

We should honor it -- which is why Jack Britt High School received a 2010 Dispelling The Myth award from The Education Trust. This award goes to schools whose results challenge the notion that schools can't teach all students to high levels.

But, I would argue that we should also learn from it.

A large, comprehensive high school in Fayetteville, N.C., Jack Britt has a lot going on, from pep rallies to Junior ROTC leadership training, volleyball games, and dinner theater. I was there the first day the school began wearing pink in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and many of the staff and students wore pink -- including the football coach and some of his players.

Jack Britt seems to believe in building spirit through T-shirts. Early in the fall, the whole school wore black in support of the football team. One day each year, the school provides every student and staff member with a purple T-shirt to honor student performance on the state end-of-course exams that have earned the school the distinction of being a North Carolina "Honor School of Excellence."

The first year the school distributed the all-school T-shirts, Principal Denise Garison told me, she was convinced that no students would wear them and that it would prove to be a total waste of money and time. After all, few high school students are known for wanting to wear school uniforms. But when the special day arrived, she said, the school was ablaze in purple.

It isn't easy to build the kind of high school community that students want to be part of and where, as many of them told me, they feel their teachers really care whether they learn a lot and graduate ready for college. Nor is it easy to build a high school staff where teachers say they feel pushed and supported to improve and even become great. But when you do, students and teachers feel invested and work hard to ensure success. "I'm in heaven," said one teacher who recently transferred from another high school to work at Jack Britt.

Building that community certainly isn't done with T-shirts alone. It has to be accompanied by close attention to instruction and teamwork to make sure that students' time isn't wasted, but that every day they are expected to learn a lot.

And that's also what I found at Jack Britt.

As a result of its deliberate efforts, students are succeeding in measurable ways:

  • 83 percent of white students graduate in four years, compared to a state average of 80 percent; and
  • 92 percent of black students do so, compared to a state average of 67 percent.

What's more, different groups of students at Jack Britt pass the end-of-course exams given by North Carolina at reasonably similar rates instead of the wildly asymmetric rates posted at other high schools. So, for example, 93 percent of African-American students passed the state end-of-course exams, compared to just 73 percent in the Fayetteville district and 67 percent in the state. More than 95 percent of Jack Britt's Hispanic and white students passed them as well, compared to 89 percent and 74 percent, respectively, statewide.

We need all our students graduating ready for college and the world of work, but, as a nation, we have grown accustomed to seeing huge gaps in achievement and graduation rates between groups of students, whether defined ethnically or economically. Schools like Jack Britt demonstrate that educators have the power to help all groups of students learn a lot and graduate.

The expertise these schools have developed can teach others how.

To learn more about the success strategies employed at Jack Britt, visit