Howard High School's latest honor is not found in a drab educational journal but in the glossy pages of April's Redbook magazine -- the one with Julia Roberts on the cover.
The Ellicott City school is grouped with four others in the magazine's annual list of "America's Best Schools," under the category of "significant improvement."
It's the type of recognition that has become a recurrent source of pride at Howard High. Last month,the school was honored as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. A year earlier it received the state of Maryland's Blue Ribbon School award.
Next month, school representatives will visit the Howard County school board to be recognized for their achievements, to be followed by a visit to the White House in May to see President Clinton.
Those honors are all the more remarkable, school officials say, because of the challenges Howard High has had to face.
Take the oldest high school in Howard County, pack it more than 500 over capacity with students from a wide variety of cultural and economic backgrounds -- then tackle the task of teaching them to be productive after graduation.
Does significant improvement accurately describe Howard's recent history?
"I think it's fair. You can go into statistics: grade-point average, attendance and honor roll," said Eugene L. Streagle, Howard High principal from 1984 until last year and now instructional director of county high schools. "If you took Howard High School and put it in any other county, they'd be near the top."
And Principal Mary J. Day expects Howard to add to those laurels with superlatives in various categories of tests mandated by the state of Maryland.
"We have something to hold on to and something to reach for," she said.
Demographically, Howard High's population -- 71 percent white, 21 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian-American and 2 percent Latino -- is about the same as the countywide high school average.
But in an overcrowded high school with 1,670 students in a facility built for 1,163, the opportunities for conflict increase. Howard High has recently seen signs of gang activity and some fights with racial overtones.
Mr. Streagle called such incidents "the actions of a few and the other 98 percent took the rap."
In accounting for Howard's progress, the former principal cites key programs initiated during his tenure. They remain cornerstones at the school and are spreading to other schools in the county.
They include a four-period day, assistance for ninth-graders, and site-based management -- which offers parents, students and employees participation in school management.
When the Maryland Department of Education increased the number of credits required for graduation, effectively limiting optional classes, Howard High instituted a four-period day that created four 90-minute classes each semester -- for a total of eight classes a year.
That schedule means that students concentrate on four classes a semester instead of six and receive more instruction for each class. Teachers have more time for instruction and planning. And students have more reason to attend each class.
In the 1993-1994 school year, Howard saw a 50 percent increase in students missing fewer than 5 days a year and a similar decrease in students missing more than 20 days. The school's grade-point average rose from 2.4 to 2.6.
Four periods preferred
"It's easier for my students to deal with four periods and four teachers instead of six," said Judy Lerner, who monitors 80 students as part of the Maryland's Tomorrow program at Howard, a ninth-grade assistance program funded by the state.
Simone Valentine, president of the Black Student Achievement Project and a senior who plans to major in psychology and premedicine at the University of Maryland, agrees.
"I definitely like the four-period schedule, because it will help me with my major in college," she said.
Howard High also turned its attention to ninth-graders who were leading the other classes in the wrong categories: highest suspension rates, lowest grade-point averages and highest retention.
In the early 1990s, those ninth-graders were coming from the three middle schools -- Wilde Lake, Ellicott Mills and Patuxent Valley -- with the lowest math and reading scores on the Maryland School Performance Program.
To change that, Howard High started Project Success to help in the transition from middle school to high school. Other schools had similar programs.
Three years later, Howard High went a step further with ninth-grade teaching teams. Teachers spend a half-hour a week discussing students who have been identified with potential problems.
Guidance counselor Eileen Ruppel, coordinator of Project Success, says the first step in the process is an exchange of teaching techniques among teachers about particular students.
"Since we've started, we've seen a drop in the retention rate," Mrs. Ruppel said. "A higher percentage of ninth-graders were promoted last year compared to the previous year before the ninth-grade team."
One result is that now teachers trade strategies for working with students who have learning difficulties. They say such discussions can be crucial to students' success.
Teacher Patricia Davis, one participant in the program, graduated from Howard in 1971 and has taught Latin and Spanish for 19 years -- the past seven at Howard. Her classroom is one of the 11 portable classrooms behind the crowded school.
Through the exchange of information, "we've learned that for one student, you seat him not in the back, but in the front. Or you have to call on him when he raises his hand or he feels rejected," she said.
Teaching style adjusted
She's also learned to adjust her teaching style semester by semester, while still covering what is required in the curriculum.
The next major program was the introduction of site-based management, now in its third year. Howard was one of two Howard County high schools to introduce the program.
Bruce Riegel, co-chairman of the school's site-based management team, describes it as a way to involve administrators, teachers, parents, students and staff members in decisions affecting student performance, rather than have the central administration make all such decisions.
"It allows the people who are most impacted by the decisions that are made within the school to have a role in those decisions," he said.
One example was the drafting of a code of behavior, which drew on suggestions from The school wins praise from students for its academic quality and its diversity.
Jordan Fox, who expects to complete his graduation requirements by the end of his junior year, is helping to develop Howard High's World Wide Web site and will be taking a nontraditional schedule his senior year.
He is pleased by the school's rich mix of racial and ethnic groups, which he views as more representative of American society as a whole than are the more homogenous high schools elsewhere in the county.
"I wouldn't rather be elsewhere," he said.
Pub Date: 3/25/96