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School's new culture cuts racial achievement gap

When Principal Donald Lilley arrived nine years ago, Annapolis High School operated like two different schools where minority students failed and white students excelled. But innovative changes helped transform the school, creating a community that thrives on mentoring. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

By Rehema Ellis, Education Correspondent, NBC News

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- When Principal Donald Lilley was hired nine years ago to improve Annapolis High School, he discovered what appeared to be two schools under one roof.

“My African-American ninth grade males … I’d say 73 percent, had less than a 2.0 grade point average,” he said.

The white students, however, were taking Advanced Placement classes and getting accepted to college.

Decades ago there were, in fact, two segregated schools, physically divided, until they merged in the 1960s. But it took years before all of its students were treated equally, Lilley said.

Most of the minority students had ended up in “standard” classes because they were not being prepared to do advanced work.

But today, in a school of about 1,700 students, 85 percent of African-Americans and 77 percent of Hispanics are passing math.

Building a community 

Breaking the old pattern that put white students and students of color on two different tracks was no easy task. There was little effort made, Lilley said, to move poor students into advanced courses, honor classes or International Baccalaureate courses.

Minority students weren’t thinking about going to college, he said, because they weren’t in the classrooms where those discussions were going on.

“Teachers were very, very good at teaching content.  I’m not so sure they were prepared to teach kids.  And that was my concern,” said Lilley.

He began by making some radical changes. The superintendent's office called for a reorganization of the school, so Lilley fired everyone and asked them to reapply for their jobs. During the process Lilley was also fired and re-hired.

He insisted that his new teachers were not only competent in their subjects but also willing to build relationships with all students.

“My faculty and staff needed to know how to interact and where all our kids were coming from,” said Lilley.

His teachers and staff took development courses and went to neighborhood barbecues, baseball games, and even block parties.

“I wanted everyone to believe that we were going to be a part of the community and that they were welcome in the school,” he said.

In addition to hiring top-notch teachers, creating a longer school year and providing additional tutoring, Lilley also invited community members to help his students.

One day a week, known as “Help Day,” community role models came to the school to mentor students.

Charles Duckett, an African-American businessman, was among the first -- and he brought others, too. For young people who may not have fathers in their lives, he said, he is someone they can talk to.

“We gotta be the change we want to see.  And so to come here, instead of making comments about it, let’s make a change,” he said. “I try to take all the wisdom I’ve been getting over the years and give it to them in a way they can understand it.”

A 'culture change'

Beyond that, Annapolis High School started pushing minority students to take A.P. classes. And the school set up theme nights for African-American and Hispanic families.

“It has been a culture change,” Lilley said. “A true belief system that all kids can be successful.”

Joshua Mack, an African-American who was failing when he started as a freshman, graduated this spring with good grades in advanced placement classes.  He has been accepted to a community college.

“They knew something was in me, they knew I had potential,” he said of his teachers.

“We have worked hard to give those kids that kind of support,” said Mike Milchovich, Joshua’s A.P. psychology teacher.  “And to recruit the kid who was like Joshua, who was in the standard level class, who you saw could do it.”