For the first time since a school's graduation rate was used to measure success, Howard School of Academics and Technology has met its goal.
Based on the number of Howard seniors who graduated in May, preliminary figures show the school's graduation rate is now at 67.4 percent, up from 56.5 percent the previous year.
"We went from one in four graduating (in 2005) to three in four graduating. You can't ask for better than that in six years," said Howard principal Paul Smith. "While we're not satisfied until we're at 100, we're happy with the progress."
The preliminary figures also show that Hamilton County's overall graduation rate jumped from 70.9 percent in 2009 to 78.3 percent in 2010.
As a school continually flagged for state oversight, and one with one of the county's lowest graduation rates, Howard has been under the community microscope for years.
When the federal No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2002, high schools across the nation were given graduation rate targets to reach each year, with the goal of graduating 90 percent of their students by 2014. When a school fails to meet those targets - as Howard has for eight years - they do not meet what education officials call "Adequate Yearly Progress."
This year Howard's graduation rate had to reach 65.5 percent, so administrators said they feel comfortable that their estimate of 67.4 percent, a number they consider conservative, has hit the mark.
Despite the success, Hamilton County schools administrators already know Howard will not make AYP when more detailed results are released this fall, because doing so is based on the graduation rate from 2009. Howard now has a chance to make AYP in 2011.
"Basically this sets the stage for them to keep up their academics and make AYP in 2011," said school system spokeswoman Danielle Clark.
* 2005: 24.6 percent
* 2006: 38 percent
* 2007: 47.4 percent
* 2008: 50.9 percent
* 2009 56.5 percent
* 2010: 67.4 percent*
Source: Hamilton County Schools
* 2008: 898
* 2009: 589
* 2010: 254
* 2008: 81
* 2009: 84
* 2010: 18
At last week's Hamilton County Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Jim Scales released the information on Howard and no other school. Howard must make sufficient academic and graduation-related progress this year, or it will be included in a state-run Achievement School District, paid for with money Tennessee won in the federal Race to the Top competition.
The academic progress could be difficult to make, Scales said, given that Tennessee's public school students took harder tests this last year, and preliminary results show scores across the state have decreased.
"We don't know exactly what the scores are going to be for the high school under the new (state) standards, but ... this should tell the state we're headed in the right direction," he said.
how they did it
Students at the high school agree. They say in the last four years, the culture has changed at Howard, and they like what they see.
"It feels like the teachers really want to be here," said senior Terence King, 17. "If students find someone who is willing to help them, it gives them motivation to help them learn."
And motivation to stick it through until graduation.
"I think Dr. Paul is raising his expectations. He wants us to be the change in the community," sophomore Jeshayla King said of her principal.
Back in 2005, Howard's graduation rate was a dismal 24.6 percent. Senior school counselor Hilary Smith said that in many cases, students just didn't receive the individualized attention they needed.
"I think Howard was ignored for years. Sometimes it's as simple as noticing if a kid doesn't come to school," she said.
Many of the students at Howard have Smith's cell phone number. There are students she picks up for school every day, and ones she tracks down in their neighborhood when they don't show up to class. She works all summer long offering credit recovery and even has driven a student to Nashville to hunt for apartments before their freshman year of college.
While she's happy about the progress Howard's made on its graduation rate, she doesn't want to get too caught up on the numbers that she loses track of individual students.
"I want to know that I got every kid through and didn't let anyone slip through the cracks," she said. "It's not just about graduation, it's about college. We're not here just changing Howard, we're changing the community."
Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli.