Paul Smith picked up plenty of baggage when he walked into Howard School of Academics and Technology as principal in 2007.
He inherited a school where fewer than half of the students graduated. Hundreds of expulsions and suspensions were common during the school year. More than 95 percent of the students were poor.
Howard's new leader was met with six gang fights on his first day.
"It was a bad place," he said, remembering some of Howard's worst days before he arrived.
While many of the students' home circumstances are the same -- or even worse now -- the school's performance and graduation rates are climbing. Some credit the fifth-year principal, while others attribute Howard's turnaround to increased parent involvement and a change in school culture.
Administrators, including Smith, caution that much work remains to be done at Howard.
Last year, state test results show that 88.3 percent of Howard's students graduated -- a 20 percentange point increase from 2010's graduation rate of 68.6 percent. Howard's graduation rate now is higher than eight other Hamilton County high schools, including Soddy-Daisy, Red Bank and Hixson.
Howard also saw double-digit gains in math test scores. While only 24 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in 2010, that number increased to 40 percent last year.
More modest gains were realized in reading and language arts scores. The percent of students scoring in the top two categories increased from 40 percent to 43 percent from 2010 to 2011.
But the gains don't make up for already low scores, which are well below state and Hamilton County averages. The number of students scoring proficient or advanced in math averages 55 percent across the state -- still 15 percent above Howard's score.
STUDENT PROFICIENCY SCORES
Percent of students scoring proficient or advanced
• 2010: 24 percent
• 2011: 40 percent
• 2010: 40 percent
• 2011: 43 percent
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
"We have a lot of room to grow," Smith said. "We're still a school that has a long way to go."
That's perhaps best evidenced by Howard's ACT score, which has seen little movement in recent years.
The average ACT score was 14.3 last spring, down slightly from 14.4 in 2010. In the past five years, the average ACT score never reached higher than 15.1 in 2007.
"It's not where we want it to be," said Kirk Kelley, director of testing and accountability for Hamilton County Schools. "That's still a major challenge for Howard."
The 14.3 score falls short of Hamilton County's 2011 average of 18.8 and the state average score of 19.8.
Since 2007, Smith said he's tried to make connections with students, "personalizing the educational experience." He tries to know each student by name and keep in tune with what's going on in their personal lives.
"I have high expectations of them," Smith said. "I call home a lot."
On a recent day, students came in and out of Smith's office, asking to use his attached restroom or to grab a Coke from his minifridge. In the hallways, students asked about their GPAs, while the principal kindly nudged stragglers back to class. He patrolled the halls, leaping up the stairs two steps at a time. His necktie was missing. He had given his to a boy who forgot his tie, which is required under the school's dress code.
Every three weeks, school counselors compile data on individual students that includes test scores, grades and the status of current courses. Data is tracked meticulously. Smith has a time-lapse Rolodex of test scores, graduation rates and disciplinary actions in his office for quick reference.
Smith said professional development of staff has improved in recent years and that teacher turnover is way down.
"This staff has stabilized," he said.
As student achievement improves, discipline problems at Howard have plummeted.
Data kept by the school district show 81 expulsions in 2008. Last year, only 18 students were expelled. In 2008, 1,352 in-school suspensions were handed down. That number, too, was down last year, with only 591 in-school suspensions. In 2008, 898 out-of-school suspensions were given. Last year, 254 were handed down.
"Students find Howard is a very safe place to be and a place they want to be," said Superintendent Rick Smith, who's daughter, Hilary, is a guidance counselor there.
Students say the number of fights are way down and consequences and expectations are clear.
"They're always on us about discipline," senior Ciara Roshell said. "If we step out of line, they're on it like that."
Dropping out is no longer the norm at Howard. Rather than the exception, graduation is the expectation.
On a recent night, Smith received a text message from a counselor about a student who planned to leave school. It was 9:30 and he was in bed. But he started working immediately, persuading the student to stay.
For Smith, late nights, early mornings and weekends are normal fare. If a student doesn't show up, he hunts him or her down at home. He's pulled students from jobs if they were working during school hours. He's constantly in touch with family and community members.
"I don't let kids drop out anymore," he said.
Those who know Howard say leadership has a lot to do with its recent improvements.
"You've had some continuity in leadership," Superintendent Smith said. "They have obviously done an outstanding job at Howard the last several years."
Students said they appreciate Howard's sports programs and varied offerings like honors and AP courses. But Sandra Smith, an event coordinator for the school, said Smith's leadership is what's responsible for the change in Howard's culture.
"That's what's turned this place around," she said. "It isn't sports or honors classes. It's that we have someone who truly cares about these students."
Dean of Students Jimmy Seymore said he's noticed a change in students' attitudes since Smith's arrival. Seymore has taught at Howard for 37 years. He said recent additions of after-school and tutoring programs have strengthened Howard's academics. Given the extraordinary challenges that students bring with them every day to school, Seymore said the school is doing well.
"Dr. Smith has done well with the cards he was dealt," he said. "I think it's a work in progress."
District 4 Board of Education representative George Ricks, who represents Howard, said parent involvement has a lot to do with improvements. More than 400 parents attended the last parent meeting.
He said some credit should go to schools such as Orchard Knob elementary and middle schools, which feed into Howard.
"Howard is a high school," he said. "It only gets what's fed into it."
Howard's poor performance had put it on a list of the state's worst schools. The school is currently being co-managed by Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District, a separate school district made up of the state's lowest performing schools.
Officials are hopeful that if improvements continue, spring 2012 test scores will take Howard of the list of lowest-performing schools and out of the ASD's jurisdiction.
"The kids deserve to go to a school that isn't in the bottom. It does something to their psyche," Paul Smith said. "We're going to get off that list."
While visiting with parents earlier this month, Barbic said such a goal can't be seen as the finish line for the Howard community.
"I don't think anyone will call that a victory, getting out of the bottom 5 percent," he said.
Superintendent Smith agreed and said now is no time to rest at Howard.
"We need our students at Howard to achieve at a higher level," he said. "Now is certainly not the time to slow down."
Staff writer Andrew Pantazi contributed to this story.