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The first row for each school provides the percentage of students who earned pass/advanced on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests for 2009-2010 — the equivalent of scoring 90 percent or above. The second row provides the overall SOL pass rate.
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IB students Faraz Rhaman, Alexis Livingston and Yasmin Rafiq
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Teacher Christina Thomas gives students hands-on nursing training as part of Hanover High's career tech program.
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Open High gardening students test the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels of soil used in the school's gardening beds.
Considering the abundance of good public high schools in the Richmond region, we decided to profile 13 that we consider to be among the best. We provide snapshots of these schools based on our own and other publications' considerable reporting.
Since both Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report have been in the business of ranking high schools for many years, we took into consideration their research and conclusions. Newsweek rankings are based on the number of students who take Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or Cambridge tests, and just getting on the list is an accomplishment — it includes only 6 percent (1,600) of all the high schools in the nation. Since U.S. News & World Report tries to measure how well schools educate all students, not just those who are college-bound, the magazine considers math and reading proficiency rates and the number and performance of economically disadvantaged students, as well as AP and IB test scores.
But we also went a step further by digging deep into Standard of Learning skills test scores, and here's why. They are the fulcrums around which much of Virginia's school system revolves. From first to 12th grades, curriculums are based on SOLs because the percentage of students who pass the SOL tests determines whether schools are accredited by the state. Teachers are trained to teach not only SOL content but also testing strategies. And students' SOL scores are an important part of their records, consulted if they're under consideration for magnet schools or gifted and talented programs, and required for graduation.
Standout teachers from around the region
While many high schools chase higher test scores, some unprepared graduates crash and burn when they get to college.
However, the number of students who simply pass the SOLs is not a strong measure of the quality of schools, because students can get a very low score — as low as 50 percent — and still receive what's known as a pass/proficient designation. As a result, many educators say that the percentage of students who get pass/advanced — the equivalent of scoring at least 90 percent — is a far better measure. They say that the pass/advanced percentage demonstrates how many students have mastered the material. So we examined pass/advanced scores for all four high school grades when we chose our top schools. [See above chart.] We picked at least two schools from each of the four metro-area districts for our list, which is not ranked.
HANOVER HIGH SCHOOL (HANOVER)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,326 | 902nd on Newsweek's list | Specialty School (Career and Technical Education)
Attending Hanover High School is a bit like heading off to college. In addition to hosting one of the county's four high school-level IB programs, the school with more than 1,300 students also serves as Hanover County's career and technical education college preparatory school.
Hanover has a rich offering of post-high school programs created in partnership with local colleges such as J. Sargeant Reynolds. The idea is to give students opportunities to educate themselves well beyond their high school curriculums. Participating students may graduate ready to enter the workforce, with one of various industry certifications, including pharmaceutical or dentistry technician certificates. Pre-engineering classes concentrate on computer science networking or programming, architecture and biotechnology. In another program, students can graduate with licensed practical nurse certifications.
"All of these are dual-enrollment," says principal George Sadler, who notes that some students step into professional careers straight out of high school. He says that others use their Hanover experience — and college credits — as stepping stones toward medical, engineering and other degrees.
CLOVER HILL HIGH SCHOOL (CHESTERFIELD)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,651 | Specialty School (Math and Science) | 964 on Newsweek's 2010 America's Best High Schools list
Clover Hill principal Deborah Marks says that one of her main goals is to be able to tell parents that when their children are seniors, every course they take will count as credit in the colleges they attend. The school of about 1,600 students offers more than 30 Advanced Placement (AP) courses, according to Marks. The emphasis on AP classes is probably what puts Clover Hill on Newsweek's list year after year. This year, Clover Hill ranked 964 on Newsweek's list of 1,600 schools. Students also take college courses in math and science that mirror those at John Tyler Community College.
Compared with other Chesterfield County schools, Clover Hill does not produce a high percentage of pass/advanced SOL scores. Less than half the students earned pass/advanced in history and English and less than 20 percent got the same in math and science.
Marks says some 85 percent to 88 percent of Clover Hill students further their education after they graduate. "Our math and science children go to Yale, Harvard, MIT, Virginia Tech, U.Va.," she says.
This year, Clover Hill, which was located on traffic-clogged Hull Street Road, moved to a new, more tranquil location off Genito Road.
COSBY HIGH SCHOOL (CHESTERFIELD)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 2,058 | 1,075th on Newsweek list | Specialty School (Health Science)
Cosby High School principal Brenda Mayo says the school operates on the assumption that young people need a lot more than a high school diploma to get ahead in the world. "We've been telling kids, ‘Getting a diploma may not be enough to get the lifestyle you want.' We've been asking them, ‘What are you going to do to make the life you want?' "
To that end, she says, Cosby tries to instill a work ethic in students while dispelling any lingering ideas that getting A's may not be cool.
Cosby is one of a handful of schools in Chesterfield County taking part in an Exxon-funded program to get more students into AP classes by identifying those with potential and channeling them into the advanced courses. "We try to establish that doing your best" is not exceptional but expected, Mayo says. It's all about being high-achievers — perhaps over-achievers — because even 16-year-olds know that the U.S. job market is getting more competitive.
With high parental expectations, Cosby students perform well on standardized tests; 54.5 percent earned pass/advanced on English SOLs and 62 percent earned pass/advanced in history. Cosby's magnet school in health sciences accepts about 100 ninth-graders each year.
DEEP RUN HIGH SCHOOL (HENRICO)
Fully Accredited | Student Pop. 1,967 | U.S. News and World Report's Silver Medal | 519th on Newsweek's 2010 America's Best High Schools list | Specialty School (Information Technology)
Henrico County's Deep Run High School is arguably the best of the best. The county's newest (for now) high school is in the heart of Short Pump and reflects the county's commitment to attracting new businesses and retaining old commerce through workforce development. Placement of the county's Information Technology magnet school here was no accident. In addition to being the region's shopping mecca, Short Pump is the location of Henrico's business district.
"But it's not all about technology," says principal Lenny Pritchard, who led the school as it has racked up honors; Deep Run is one of only two schools in the Richmond metro area that made both Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report rankings. (The other is Henrico's Mills E. Godwin High School) "It's about being able to work in groups."
Deep Run's Information Technology curriculum evolves to keep students ahead of the curve, most recently incorporating computer security systems and computer game programming. "We bring in groups of local businesses to talk to them [and ask] what it is our kids need to know, and how can we prepare them to enter the work force," Pritchard says.
The emphasis on taking teaching beyond state requirements appears to have worked. During the 2009-2010 academic year, Deep Run students were the percentage leader in pass/advanced SOL scores in the region.
MIDLOTHIAN HIGH SCHOOL (CHESTERFIELD)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,472 | 350th on Newsweek's 2010 list | Specialty School (International Baccalaureate)
Midlothian is home to one of Chesterfield County's International Baccalaureate (IB) programs — accelerated, internationally recognized academic courses that Newsweek uses in its ranking. Midlothian's 120 IB students, who must apply to the program, are among the brightest in Chesterfield. According to assistant principal Kathryn Whitlow, they go to elite colleges — the College of William and Mary, North Carolina's Duke and Wake Forest universities, and the Ivy League.
But students taking regular courses at Midlothian also appear to be learning, even mastering what they should know before graduating. During the 2009-2010 academic year, 61.5 percent of Midlothian students received pass/advanced on their English SOL tests; 33 percent received pass/advanced in science, 25 percent received pass/advanced in math, and 55.6 percent received pass/advanced in history.
Although 90 percent to 92 percent of Midlothian students go to college, according to Whitlow, students can also take classes that might help them find jobs right out of high school. There are web design courses, and highly ambitious students can try to earn a CISCO certificate, confirming completion of one of the most rigorous information technology training programs in the country. Students can take accounting, marketing and other business courses.
Whitlow says Midlothian students perform well "because we have really devoted faculty and high parent expectations."
MILLS. E. GODWIN HIGH SCHOOL (HENRICO)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,849 | 1161st on Newsweek's list | U.S. News & World Report's Silver Medal Specialty School (Math, Science and Technology)
Even as Henrico opens newer and shinier high schools, Godwin remains a leader. It is one of only two schools in the Richmond region to make both Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report lists. (The other is Henrico's Deep Run.) The western Henrico school also ranked second in this magazine's comparison of pass/advanced SOL scores. Only Deep Run scored higher. Principal Beth Armbruster says that testing well is a priority at Godwin. Students who earn pass/advanced scores are rewarded with certificates of honor that are distributed during a schoolwide October assembly. "It's great when we're passing," Armbruster says. But a high pass/advanced percentage is a more ambitious goal, she says. "We're striving for the next thing."
MONACAN HIGH SCHOOL (CHESTERFIELD)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,478 | 1053rd on Newsweek's list | Specialty School (Center for the Humanities)
Principal William Broyles says Monacan's magnet program, the Center for Humanities, shapes the rest of the school's identity and its teaching. Many of the center's teachers also teach regular courses, bringing a classical liberal arts approach to those classes. "Teachers use the Socratic method, which requires students to interact," Broyles says. "We find that our students are very comfortable [with group engagements and work] because of that setting." Teachers also integrate humanities into math and the sciences. For example, students learning algebra might also learn where and when the concepts originated.
All of this is part of a program that emphasizes "building respect through relationships" — a message, Broyles says, that he hopes students will carry with them as they go out into the world.
Although Monacan is ranked above Cosby High on Newsweek's list, its SOL scores are slightly lower than most in our list. In the English SOL test, 52 percent of the students achieved pass/advanced while 41 percent earned that level in history. Only about 11 percent of the students earned pass/advanced in their science and math SOLs.
OPEN HIGH SCHOOL (CITY OF RICHMOND)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 191 | U.S. News & World Report's Bronze Medal
This year, Richmond's Open High was once again included in U.S. News & World Report's list of best high schools. A magnet school of less than 200 students, it takes about 20 percent to 25 percent of those who apply. Open High was awarded the magazine's Bronze Medal, notable because the publication considered more than 27,000 schools before compiling its top schools list.
Principal Candace Veney-Chaplin says Open High uses relationships and relevance to help students perform well. "Sometimes students achieve for a teacher because they know they're valued as people," she says. Teachers focus on putting course content in a "real-world context" so that students understand the point of learning it, she says. For example, a statistics teacher uses the numbers from real political polls. She says that a history instructor teaches from the 20th century backward, so students can more easily relate the contemporary world to the past. The philosophy has been the cornerstone of the school since it was formed in 1972 through the impetus of parents who petitioned the Richmond School Board.
Open High also uses experience in the community to teach. A student who wants to be a veterinarian might work for the SPCA, while a student who wants to be a dentist might work as an assistant in a nearby practice. Students are motivated because they're learning about what they dream of doing, Chaplin says. Virtually all students go on to some form of higher education after they graduate — 80 percent to 85 percent attend four-year universities and most of the rest attend community colleges.
JAMES RIVER HIGH SCHOOL (CHESTERFIELD)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 2,065 | 322nd on Newsweek's list | Specialty School (Leadership and International Relations)
James River High School says its specialty program teaches students about leadership and the importance of international relations in an era of globalization, meaning it attracts young people who want to help run the world by working in diplomacy, intelligence, foreign policy and international aid. The rest of James River's more than 2,000 students are drawn from an unusually diverse population: The school is the county's English as a Second Language (ESL) center. "We have kids who speak Farsi and Urdu," as well as Spanish and other languages, says principal John Titus. James River's attendance boundary includes areas where refugee families have been resettled, so the school also has "kids whose parents have been shot by the Taliban," Titus says.
A solid 50.5 percent of James River students earned pass/advanced in English; 47.3 percent earned pass/advanced in history; 20 percent earned pass advanced in math, and 16.7 percent in science. Some 83 to 85 percent of James River students go to college, and those who expect to be in the job market can earn industry certificates in varied fields — information technology, computer programming, cosmetology and auto mechanics, among others.
ATLEE HIGH SCHOOL (HANOVER)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,585 | 1022nd on Newsweek's list
Principal Jennifer Cohodas sees Atlee High School as a blend of the "Hanover Way." All four of the county's high schools offer the same programs, with the exception of the highly specialized career prep center offered at Hanover High School. But, says Cohodas, that doesn't stop each high school from being tailor-fit to the community it serves. In Atlee's case, that community is the affluent central region of the county. "The community … expects our students to go to college and … expects our children to become leaders," Cohodas says. "We have an entire wall dedicated to the pillars of leadership."
Cohodas points out that Atlee has 57 clubs and activities, many of them student-driven and community-outreach focused. "[The] whole philosophy of learning is tailored around developing the individual," she says. Atlee also offers International Baccalaureate and Cambridge exams, meeting Newsweek's criteria.
DOUGLAS S. FREEMAN HIGH SCHOOL (HENRICO)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,689 | 1028th on Newsweek's list | Specialty School (Center for Leadership, Government and Global Economics)
In the heart of western Henrico County, Douglas S. Freeman High School is a thriving hub of community cohesiveness, even though the area gives way to Short Pump, which increasingly is getting a reputation for being the best place to live and get an education. Even though the population is moving westward, Freeman continues to be among the best schools in the Richmond region.
Principal Anne Poates says teachers work to maintain the rigor of the academic program. "I feel like people choose to be here for a lot of the right reasons — because of the success we've enjoyed as a school," she says.
Freeman hosts Henrico's Center for Leadership, Government and Global Economics. Its SOL scores are high. Pass/advanced rates exceed those at nearly all other schools in the region; only Henrico's Deep Run and Godwin surpassed them in all categories.
HENRICO HIGH SCHOOL (HENRICO)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 1,985 | 1029th on Newsweek's list | Specialty Schools (International Baccalaureate and Center for the Arts)
Henrico High School is included in Newsweek's most recent list of top U.S. high school, but that appears to reflect students in the school's prestigious IB program, a key criterion for Newsweek. The IB program draws some of the county's brightest students, who must apply to the advanced studies program. It also includes a second specialty school, the Center for the Arts, which likewise draws top students.
However, SOL scores for the entire student body don't reflect high overall performance. Of the schools in our list, Henrico had the lowest SOL pass/advanced. During the 2008-2009 academic year, Henrico reported more dropouts — 98 of them — than any other school in the Richmond metro region.
While drawing top students to its specialty programs, Henrico also serves many of the county's most economically challenged students. Forty-six percent of Henrico students are at or below poverty level. The percentage increased after the recent adoption of school attendance boundaries that drew more poor neighborhoods into Henrico High's area.
"We reach beyond the regular instruction day," principal Ron Rodriguez says, with tutoring programs and Saturday school. "If we extend the day for our students, we're going to get them where they need to be."
RICHMOND COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL (CITY OF RICHMOND)
Fully Accredited | Student pop. 243 | U.S. News & World Report's Silver Medal
Principal J. Austin Brown believes that Richmond Community High has received U.S. News & World Report's Silver medal for three years in a row because the school has an unusually challenging curriculum. All of the school's 243 students — 60 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-fee lunches — must take the school's advanced study program. From ninth grade on, they take nothing but honors or AP classes. They're also strongly encouraged to take at least one college course in the field they hope to enter.
Brown, who has worked at schools with more standard curriculums, says the question at Community High is "how is to get the child to achieve at an even higher level and how to raise more scholarship money."
The school was founded in the 1970s as a full-time, four-year, public high school for academically talented students primarily from minority and low-income families. The school began with a grant from Richmond businessman-philanthropist Andrew J. Asch, Jr., perhaps best known as the developer of downtown Richmond's Shockoe Slip.
Students must apply to Community High, which admits 25 to 30 percent of applicants. Virtually all of its graduates go on to college.