About Ridgeland High School
Teachers: 91 full time, nine part time
Support staff: Seven full time, six part time
Graduation rate: 64.7 percent in 2009-10, up more than 5 percentage points from the previous year
Testing results: 32 percent of students did not meet minimum standards on the math portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test last school year and 14 percent did not meet minimum standards on the reading portion of the test.
A year ago, Josh Hurst's engineering and video production lab at Ridgeland High School contained a mish-mash of outdated computers, some approaching 10 years old.
The antiquated hard drives sputtered and spun endlessly as students tried to perform work with memory-intensive design programs.
"A lot of the kids would say, 'Why work on this at school when I've got a better computer at home?'" Hurst said.
Twelve months and roughly $2 million later, Ridgeland boasts some of the most up-to-date technology in the region: 480 laptops, 42 in-class computer test-taking devices and digital blackboards, as well as a number of Apple iPods and iPads.
It's a remarkable turnaround for a school that a year ago had only 40 computers for general student use spread over two labs.
And that's only part of an education revolution under way at the underperforming school, where the graduation rate last year was less than 65 percent.
The school has brought on 11 part-time "coaches," mostly retired teachers or graduate students, who tutor students in math, reading and writing. Five full-time employees oversee the program and work with students who are at risk for dropping out of school.
The changes have been made possible by a variety of grants, including the first installment of a three-year, $3.6 million federal grant intended to spur improvements in education. The Walker County school system applied to the state for the grants, but the money comes from the U.S. Department of Education.
"The goal was to have an extreme school makeover at Ridgeland," said Michael Tipton, Walker County's school improvement specialist. "Now, after all the changes, we're hoping to realize our full potential."
The cash infusion comes with strings, however. The school's goal is to improve its Georgia High School Graduation Test scores by 5 points in English and 10 points in math, and the school's graduation rate must increase by 10 points-all within the first year.
If the school succeeds, it will get the next chunk of funding and then must show further improvement to get the third installment.
Officials acknowledge the challenge ahead, coming on the heels of two consecutive years in which the school did not reach its testing benchmarks, or make "adequate yearly progress."
But they are going to lengths to achieve the goals, even reaching out to students who may have dropped out several years before to coax them back into school.
"Yes, I think we can do it," Tipton said. "But it's going to be close. The realization is that we have to backtrack on a number of students we have already lost, but I would be shocked if we didn't improve after all we've done."
among a select group
What's happening at Ridgeland is being replicated on some scale at schools across the country. An infusion of federal stimulus dollars helped schools hire their dream staffs, then fill classrooms with the latest technology.
Georgia has been promised $52 million in similar grants, and Tennessee has been allocated $47.9 million. Hamilton County has been allocated $5.4 million over the next three years out of Tennessee's total.
In all, President Barack Obama allocated $3.5 billion to states to fund the School Improvement Grants.
Ridgeland was one of 730 schools in the nation to get the money, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Part of the grants' purpose was to spur upgrades in education and to stimulate the economy.
Ridgeland received an improvement grant worth $3.6 million over three years and a science, technology, engineering and math grant worth $675,000, but that grant is shared with Rossville Middle School and other Walker schools.
Only Muscogee County and Peach County got more improvement grant money than Walker.
Such grants favor Title I, or high-poverty schools, such as Ridgeland High because those institutions overwhelmingly serve students from poor families and because poverty puts the children at greater risk of failure. Nearly 60 percent of the students at Ridgeland High are from low-income families, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Education.
The grants don't finance just equipment purchases. The 11 coaches hired with the money are part-time teachers who work with students in groups and in small settings to coach them through academic problems.
Among Ridgeland's additional staff are six math coaches, four English coaches and one writing coach, as well as a designated staff member to prevent dropouts, a staff member to work in the community and a technical coordinator to make sure all the technology is used properly.
Those positions are meant to prop up students who have fallen behind and those at risk for dropping out and to spur higher test scores among all students.
It's not just about getting better scores so the system keeps getting money, school leaders say.
"Our focus is on student achievement," Tipton said. "We've got to do what's best for kids. That's why we brought in the different levels of support."
Ridgeland hasn't met federal standards on standardized tests for the past two years and ranks in the bottom half of Georgia schools in terms of academic achievement, according to the Governor's Office of Student Achievement.
The school's 64.7 percent graduation rate in 2009-10 was an improvement from previous years, but it was still 31/2 points behind the state average and 10 points behind the national average.
EYES ON IMPROVEMENT
In a conference room in the school's administrative wing, dozens of charts and graphs map student performance on pretests. Academic coach Brent Webb, whose job was funded with improvement grant money, is in charge of monitoring student achievement.
"We've been pretesting and keeping a very close eye on the progress," said Webb. "We have 13 coaches for the students that work with them one on one and in small groups."
Leaders are shooting for their stated goals, but they aren't sure whether they will have to hit the mark dead-on.
"We are supposed to reach those goals, but as long as we are showing good growth, we may continue to get funding," Webb said.
Already the school looks much different, students and administrators say. There are new employees and fancy computers around every corner.
"The idea was for us to imagine the best school we could possibly be and go for it," Tipton said.
The millions in grant dollars allowed the school to set up its ideal scenario for success: enough teachers to form a safety net that keeps students engaged and enough technology to give them modern-day skills for college or the work force.
The changes came so quickly, the school had to postpone distributing many of its computers until its Internet connection was upgraded. Even now, the school hasn't handed out most of its 40 iPads because officials worry that many more Internet users may slow the whole network.
In Hurst's computer lab, students build house plans and edit videos on huge computer screens while using the latest software.
Down the hall, students use Mac laptops to complete French lessons while their teacher monitors their progress with an iPad.
A few classrooms over, a history teacher uses a state-of-the-art digital blackboard to illustrate the points of ancient history.
In Sandy Langston's classroom, students make up failed classes in an online credit-recovery class. Her computer lab and her salary were paid for with the improvement grant.
"Before, the students did this work after school or at home, but they weren't as motivated to get it done as they are now," said Langston, who supervises up to 15 students who are learning multiple subjects all at once with new computers.
Some students say the technology is changing their performance.
Dakota Currie, 18, said she tried doing schoolwork at home, but "I would go between Facebook and iTunes and then to my work."
"Doing it from here is a lot easier."
The computers have changed traditional classes like French by making the lessons less about the written language and more about speaking. The computers allow students to hear native speakers use the language, said Nancy Edwards, who has taught French for 19 years.
"Now they can listen to native French speakers use the language, and, unlike with me, they can play, stop and rewind them as much as they want," Edwards said. "Before, the classes were much more focused on writing. Now with the technology, it's more about speaking and I can hear them speak the language more often."
Keeping up with technology is hard, and staying ahead of the curve is nearly impossible, school leaders concede.
"I think before, we were 10 to 20 steps behind the latest technology; now we're just maybe two steps behind," said James Cunningham, the school's technology coach. "We are way ahead of any school in the area, though ... I don't know that you can ever be ahead of technology, but we are evolving."
Though the school could receive another $2 million in grant money, keeping up after the money runs out will be a challenge, school leaders admit. But they think they have adequate plans. After all, those new computers will be outdated in just a matter of years.
"Part of the grant says we have to consider sustainability, so we hope we can look at our Title I funding and use that to upgrade what we have bit by bit," said Webb.
School leaders hope the continual decline in technology prices will help and, if the school shows results, asking for more help may be easier.
"We hope that we can go to our board and ask for assistance," said Ridgeland Principal Robert Smith. "I don't think they are going to let us go back to where we were. The future is to have technology-centered learning."