Scores at Norview High are on the rise

NORFOLK — Tori Jacobs turned her Algebra I classroom at Norview High into a monstrous X-Y graph recently, strung a red streamer between two desks and challenged students to calculate the slope of the line.

Then came Jacobs' own calculating: how to steer her students to the answer. There was research behind her every move. Behind her decision to call on students by name.

Behind the length of time between questions. Behind her use of the first 20 minutes each day to introduce new topics, with review later on.

As a Norview teacher, Jacobs knows how students' brains work. And that's one of the reasons educators there believe they've gotten those brains to work so well.

Over the past six years, Norview has steadily scrapped its way up the Standards of Learning ladder, this year surpassing more prominent high schools, such as Maury and Granby, to record Norfolk's highest pass rates in nine of the 11 SOL exams its students took, according to state results released this week. At the same time, Norview's SAT scores have leaped forward, and it is the only high school in the city to make "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I feel like sometimes their horn isn't tooted as much as we toot other schools' horns," said School Board member Alveta Green. "But I'm really proud of them making those strides. ...They're working hard to get those results."

And they don't intend to slow down. Marjorie L. Stealey, principal since 1992, said it's a "journey: I say 'journey' because that means we have not yet arrived."

The attitude that there's always need for improvement saturates the school. Stealey pays substitutes to relieve teachers during the day so small groups can discuss ways to improve teaching.

Veteran teachers conduct seminars, videos showcase top teachers' techniques, and book talks reinforce the fact that some answers must be sought outside the school's walls.

"The material is not a secret," Stealey said.

Curriculum guides spell out what students should know. "The secret is how to present your lessons so your kids learn." It's in these forums where the faculty studied brain research, discovering, for instance, that students are most ready to learn at the beginning of each bell.

Teachers no longer spend the first part of class handing back papers or taking roll.

Student-centered learning also became a priority. The school developed "questioning strategies" so students are constantly engaged. Teachers embrace techniques that are more common in lower grades, like sending students to the blackboard for math problems.

"You would think high school kids wouldn't get into that, but they were very proud and excited when they got a problem right," said Kay Stephenson, chairwoman of the math department at Windsor High in Isle of Wight, who visited Norview recently to learn how it has improved math scores.

Stephenson said she saw students willing to help each other, eager to raise their hands and unafraid to answer, even if they weren't sure.

That approach isn't just for students' benefit, Stealey said.

"Every day when the bell is over, teachers should know where each student is." Rodney Spruill, an algebra teacher, said he also gets help from his peers. All of the Algebra I classes are on the same page each day: just as in U.S. history teachers or biology.

They use the same tests and reviews so it's easier to share strategies, Spruill said. He came from a school that didn't do that, and "it was like you were on your own."

In the front hallway, a graph shows the number of students scoring at least 1,000 on the SAT: up from 14 to 44 during the past decade.

Nearby, students who held summer internships at the Virginia Marine Science Museum and Jefferson Lab are featured. In the cafeteria hang pictures of more than 200 seniors and their goals.

One wants a perfect SAT score, another a 2.8 GPA, and a third to be the first female in her family to attend college. The pictures are diverse — 67 percent of students are black, 28 percent white and 5 percent of other races. Forty-six percent receive lunch subsidies, an indicator of family income, placing Norview in the middle of the city's five high schools. Students can't escape the displays of academic pride.

Each spring, a bulletin board acknowledges college acceptances and scholarship offers. Each fall, the school holds a ribbon day: blue for passing an SOL exam; gold for an advanced score.

"When you make something important, kids will rise," Stealey said. "Kids feel that they are important and they believe that education is important in this building."

Norview is the only Norfolk high school with a student resource coordinator, or student advocate to help in "giving kids a voice and teaching them how to use their voice," said Sandy Knight, the coordinator, who holds a leadership class to encourage involvement in and out of school.

Sam Powers, a junior who's in that class, said students feel like administrators at Norview care about their ideas: whether they're asking about cafeteria food or what the new Norview should look like. Students serve on a committee that's recommending features of the new building, which will open in the fall.

"Being able to help out with the school gives us more pride in our school," he said, and that affects how he approaches academics. "I feel it's kind of a cycle where the school makes us feel good and we kind of make the school look good."

And not just when it comes to SOLs.

Since 1992-93, Stealey's first year, Norview's average SAT score has gone from 754 to 875. College scholarship offers have risen from $715,459 to $1,685,153. School volunteer hours have multiplied from 280 to 3,781. And the dropout rate has sunk from 10.45 to 3.42 percent.

Spruill said students know they're expected to behave. Teachers roam the hallways, and students not in class risk Saturday school. Expectations translate into an atmosphere focused on learning, he said.

"We believe teens are not irresponsible," Stealey said. "They need to be taught how to be responsible, how to set goals and monitor goals."

Every fall, there's a goal day where all students set objectives. The school's SOL goals take center stage, posted in the front hallway all year. When the scores come out, they're posted, too.

"The message is: 'It's not just the results. It's your goal,'" Stealey said. But the results are nice sometimes, too. And Powers said by sharing them, students help make Norview known.

"There are times I mention I go to Norview and people turn up their nose," he said. "But my neighbors and everyone realize Norview is an excellent school because I make sure I remind them."