Not too many years ago, when students growing up in rural Alabama played sports against New Hope High School, fans in their cheering section raised their voices in an all-too-familiar condescending cheer: “No hope for New Hope!” The kids may have thought they were just being funny, but there was a ring of truth to their words. Students at this predominantly white, economically disadvantaged high school were under-performing, graduating at lower-than-average rates, and had some of the lowest reading scores in the district.
But things have changed since those days. Today, more than 70% of New Hope High School’s graduates meet academic content standards, nearly 20% exceed them and 90% of them are proficient in reading and mathematics.
So how does one rural school see such a drastic reversal after decades of under performance?
Community Members Step In
After Tara Furlough moved with her family to Owens Crossroads, Alabama, and built a manufacturing plant there in 1991, she began the process of hiring people from the surrounding community. As she reviewed applications, Tara saw a problem.
“I noticed they didn’t know how to fill them out properly or how to spell properly. A lot of them couldn’t pass a drug test.”
In 2000, the Care Center, an organization looking to reduce poverty in the community, opened its doors. Tara began volunteering at the thrift store.
“They hit all the social aspects of the community, and I really liked what I was seeing. When the Care Center came, they brought God with them,” remembers Tara. Soon, she was serving on the Care Center board.
Staff members and volunteers at the Care Center understood the importance of early intervention and developed a number of assistance programs for students at the elementary and middle schools. Students on free or reduced lunch programs receive meal packs discretely stuffed into their backpacks every Friday, which supplement the students’ often-meager meal options until they return to school on Monday. CARE Packs provide kids with school supplies, while another program provides one-on-one tutoring to students in three different elementary schools.
In her work at the Care Center thrift store, Tara saw for herself that many issues area mothers dealt with were being passed down to their daughters. She knew they had to start something and start it early. And the solution came in the form of community collaboration.
Tara Manufacturing joined with the Care Center and started a summer internship program for girls from New Hope High School.
Tara explains, “We thought if we could get them when they were in the 9th grade and mentor them all the way through high school, we could have an impact. If someone just gives them a little extra help, you’d be surprised how far these girls will go.”
Principal Dreams and Students Step Up
Lindsay Anderson, one of Tara’s former summer interns, was president of 2015’s graduating class. She remembers when New Hope was called “No Hope,” and she wants people to know she and her former classmates don’t accept that moniker these days. Without a doubt, test scores at New Hope High School have greatly improved, and there are a number of contributing factors.
You see, Principal Lavell Everett had a vision to restructure their school around the principles of Sean Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers,” and teachers greatly supported that dream.
Lindsay says it didn’t take too long before the students themselves were on board.
“We have a Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers wall we painted. We went up to the school on our own time, and some of us stayed past midnight every night for a week to get it painted. Now, the whole school is colorful and has positive sayings all over. Since we painted the wall ourselves, we have ownership in it.”
There is also a Lighthouse Team — students whose teachers identified them for the team when they were still in middle school. It’s an honor to be chosen. Because of New Hope’s dramatic turnaround, Lindsay explains that representatives from schools all over the country now visit to see their success for themselves. Lighthouse Team members give them a tour, show them the Seven Habits wall, and explain how they incorporate the principles into their school — how they believe success breeds success.
Believing everyone deserves to be treated with respect, Lindsay says they started an anti-bullying group a few years ago called the Heritage Panel. Students meet to discuss their problems with each other rather than suppress them.
“Eventually it became a thing where a 5-6 member panel of teens goes into the classroom and tells the students what their problems are. That helps them to open up to the class, and they also share.”
Lindsay says their Leader in Me Program has also made a difference. “We learn how to communicate better, how to be better leaders and to take responsibility for our own actions. We know our grades are our responsibility, and I think that’s why our test scores have increased.”
Not too many years ago, New Hope High School students, if they even made it to graduation, stepped straight out into the working world, never realizing there could be more for them. But now they know college is available.
The Care Center offers scholarship opportunities to high school seniors who are the first in their family to attend college. A number of other scholarships are available, and community volunteers stand ready to help students find them.
But Tara says she knows how a high school in rural Alabama could see such a drastic reversal despite the fact that nearly half of them are economically disadvantaged.
“God is the reason for all of this. He’s all over it. For me personally, through my volunteering with the Care Center, He made me aware of the needs of the kids and how I could use what gifts He’s given me to help them.”
So, how did one high school in rural Alabama to go from “No Hope” to real hope?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ” -Margaret Mead