NEW YORK — Three exceptional high schools have been named 2011 College Board Inspiration Award winners for improving their academic environments and helping underserved students achieve equitable access to higher education, overcoming remarkable obstacles in the process. Each winning school will receive a $25,000 award, and five honorable mention schools will each receive $1,000 to apply toward programs that encourage students to attend college.
“The Inspiration Awards celebrate the extraordinary commitment of educators and communities to their students’ futures,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton. “Despite sometimes overwhelming odds, these outstanding schools are taking remarkable steps to give their students the bright futures they deserve.”
The 2011 Inspiration Award–winning schools are:
- Mater Academy Middle/High School, Hialeah Gardens, Fla.
- PSJA (Pharr-San Juan-Alamo) North High School, Pharr, Texas
- Ebbert L. Furr High School, Houston, Texas
The College Board will honor each of the schools at inspirational assemblies attended by administrators, faculty, students, parents and local dignitaries. On April 21, College Board Senior Vice President Peter Negroni will present a 2011 Inspiration Award to Mater Academy Middle/High School. On May 6, Negroni will present an award to PSJA North High School and on May 11, College Board President Caperton will present an award to Ebbert L. Furr High School.
The Inspiration Awards celebrate schools for their outstanding college-preparation programs and partnerships among teachers, parents and community organizations. Through their dedication and commitment, these school communities have opened doors to higher education for students facing economic, social and cultural barriers by improving their academic environment, creating a college-going culture and helping a significant proportion of students realize the promise of higher education. Winning secondary schools demonstrate significant and consistent growth across the entire student population in the number of students taking rigorous courses and the percentage of students accepted to two- or four-year colleges.
Mater Academy Middle/High School
Mater Academy in the Hialeah Gardens community of Miami is housed in a converted warehouse. More than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on family income, and many are from single-parent homes. It is not uncommon for Mater students to work after-school jobs to contribute to the family income. Most will be the first in their family to attend college, and many describe their school as a family, where they are supported and pushed to challenge themselves academically and socially.
“Every student starting in sixth grade is expected to go to college when they graduate from Mater,” said Principal Judy Marty.
The school offers Parent Academies throughout the year to inform parents about the value of a college education and involve them in the process of preparing their kids for college, from admission to financial aid. Translators, when needed, are provided to foster clear communication. Community involvement is another important component to Mater’s success. Community members support school projects, activities and athletics and take part in an annual career day. Each year, the school takes seniors on a five-day tour of college campuses.
“By addressing the needs of the entire school community, we have been able to develop a philosophy of success with college as its main focus,” said Marty. “Parents are part of the solution, and we work hard to incorporate them and all other stakeholders in the college-preparatory process.”
The majority of the high school students are involved in multiple extracurricular activities while also taking honors, AP® and dual enrollment courses. Many students also play an active role in the Hialeah community. One student, formerly homeless, was nicknamed “Miss Community Service.” She started a “Jeans for Teens” campaign to help clothe local underprivileged kids and an “Adopt a Family” program in which each club at the school adopts a family for Christmas.
The results speak for themselves. Forty percent of Mater students take at least one AP Exam, up from less than 25 percent five years ago, and more than 250 students participate in dual enrollment. Based on participation in AP and dual enrollment, 28 Mater seniors will be graduating concurrently with a high school diploma and an associate degree. The school has a graduation rate of over 90 percent, up from 75 percent five years ago. More than 90 percent of Mater seniors are accepted to college, up from 75 percent five years ago.
Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) North High School
PSJA North has gone from being one of Texas’s most challenged schools to one of its most impressive. Just three years ago, prior to Principal Narciso Garcia’s arrival, the school failed to make adequate yearly progress. Today, the school — which has more than 2,200 students, most of whom are Hispanic — is a Texas Education Agency–recognized school, and has been identified by the agency as a model for effective learning communities.
Every student in the school is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 70 percent of students are considered at-risk. Garcia says his staff has overcome these challenges by establishing high academic expectations. “We will not be satisfied unless every student who walks through these doors goes to college,” said Garcia. “College should not be a dream for a select few students — it should be an expectation for every one of them.”
The culture at PSJA North has changed from simply trying to graduate students to preparing them for college success and completion. The school is set up as a series of small learning communities with college names, including University of Texas, Rice University and even NYU. Hallways are decorated with college and university banners. The school’s “Go Center” features a computer lab with full-time staffers who work with students on college applications, college research, financial aid applications and writing. Teachers work with students during the weekends and after school to make sure that they are given every opportunity to succeed.
“If someone walks into our school, they smell and breathe college readiness,” said Principal Garcia. “Students step up to the level of expectations when they are provided with the opportunity to be enrolled in Pre-AP and AP courses.”
Parents, the community and local elected officials are engaged in several ways. Staff and administrators visit the community and inform parents about AP and dual credit opportunities. The school hosts college and financial aid nights and movie nights with presentations on colleges and financial aid. The school also makes announcements through the district’s TV station to reach parents and the broader community of Pharr. The community has listened: Several local businesses offer internship experiences for students.
Years ago, the school offered nine AP courses; today that number has more than doubled. The number of students taking at least one AP class has skyrocketed — from under 10 percent in 2005 to more than half of all students today. More than 90 percent of students graduate from PSJA North, and more than 70 percent are accepted to colleges and universities.
Ebbert L. Furr High School
Furr High School is a vital and successful academic oasis situated in an industrial area near the Houston ship channel, dominated by refineries, warehouses and chemical plants. It is an impoverished and geographically isolated area where gang activity is prevalent.
Principal Bertie Simmons came out of retirement to turn Furr around by holding students and teachers to a high standard, and engaging parents in the process of preparing their kids for college. She replaced three-quarters of the staff in the past four years, creating an academic leadership team with unified goals and expectations.
Furr has 851 students, three-quarters of whom are Hispanic and one-quarter of whom are African American. Despite a student body with many parents who lack a high school education and an average family income ranking among the lowest in Texas, the vast majority of Furr students are on a path toward a college education.
All students who are on grade level are recruited to take part in the school’s Pre-AP® or AP program, and are asked to sign a contract acknowledging the benefits of participation as well as the consequences for not meeting expectations. An incredible 75 percent of students are taking AP or Pre-AP classes. Saturday school for AP is required for freshmen who are not meeting expectations.
Parents are engaged through a variety of large- and small-group meetings, as well as individual conferences. In large-group meetings, teachers and administrators explain the benefits of participation in rigorous courses and provide information about the road to college. In more intimate, semimonthly “Coffee with the Principal” meetings, the educational team and parents discuss specific goals and focus, speak about the importance and value of homework, and review results of benchmark assessments and mock exams.
Furr has achieved Recognized Status, the second-highest academic ranking in the state of Texas accountability system, for the past two years. More than 85 percent of Furr students are engaged in a college-preparatory core curriculum, and nearly 80 percent of seniors will take an AP Exam this year, up dramatically from less than 10 percent five years ago. The graduation rate is at almost 75 percent, and this year 97 percent of graduating seniors are accepted to a college or university.
Awards Reflect Importance of Access to Higher Education
“The 2011 Inspiration Award winners offer vivid proof that school innovation can help close the achievement gap,” said Caperton. “Through their example, many more students will graduate ready to participate in a competitive global economy.”
A distinguished panel of Inspiration Award judges selected this year’s winners based on the schools’ success in increasing the number of students (from all school demographic groups) being prepared for college.
The 2011 Inspiration Award judges included:
- Brian Cashman, general manager, New York Yankees
- Edwidge Danticat, award-winning author and professor
- Mike Marriner, founder, Roadtrip Nation
- Roy Romer, former Colorado governor and former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District
College-preparedness gains are measured based on a variety of factors, including the percentage of students taking college-preparatory core curriculum courses; the percentage of students accepted into two- or four-year colleges; and the growth in student participation in rigorous classes such as AP. Beyond meeting basic eligibility requirements, the Inspiration Award–winning schools were selected for their innovative ability to inspire student success.
The following schools are recipients of the College Board 2011 Inspiration Award Honorable Mention Awards, including a $1,000 stipend:
- Henry W. Grady High School, Atlanta, Ga.
- Johnny Economedes High School, Edinburg, Texas
- Klein Forest High School, Houston, Texas
- R.L. Turner High School, Carrollton, Texas
- South Webster Junior/Senior High School, South Webster, Ohio
Photos are available upon request.
More information about the College Board Inspiration Awards is available at www.collegeboard.org/inspirationawards.
The College Board
The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of more than 5,900 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT® and the Advanced Placement Program®. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools. For further information, visit www.collegeboard.org.
Jennifer Topiel, The College Board, 212-713-8052, firstname.lastname@example.org