At Woodlawn High School, long known for overcrowding and underachievement, Principal C. Anthony Thompson recently gathered some seniors in his office and gushed about how proud he was of their leadership.
This was a few days after he had talked about bolstering school pride - "The Woodlawn Way" - and honoring students for good attendance.
It might seem odd that the tenor has turned warm and fuzzy at Woodlawn High, which audits by state and Baltimore County educators two years ago described as a dirty place where loud, rude students showed "disrespect for authority" and could barely be controlled in the halls by teachers who displayed "minimal effectiveness."
But Thompson says students won't achieve if they lack self-confidence.
"Catch them being successful," he says, "because once you do that, it's amazing how they will work harder, and you can build off that success."
As urban schools throughout the country struggle with achievement gaps between whites and minorities, many educators are looking to the New Age-sounding approach favored by Thompson. The tough-talking, bat-wielding principal lionized in the 1990s is being replaced by a positive-thinking facilitator who focuses on student self-esteem while emphasizing discipline and academic rigor.
"The research is unequivocal," says Kati Haycock, director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes the approach. "If you expect more, you get more."
Putting theory into practice is more difficult than it seems. In Baltimore County, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has made raising student expectations one prong in his plan for reducing the minority achievement gap.
"A lot of what we've come to understand with children and their performance revolves around confidence," he says. "If a child is operating from a lack of confidence and self-worth, they can't achieve much."
If there is a school in the county where the superintendent's strategy faces a tough test, it is 1,975-student Woodlawn High, which is 90 percent African-American.
In 2000, separate audits described a building where too few students passed their final exams and too many teachers transferred out. Parents have begged the school board for up-to-date textbooks and working toilets.
When a new principal was sought last year, Thompson was the only candidate.
Starting his second year at the school, Thompson, who during the 1980s and 1990s worked with Hairston in Prince George's County, catalogs a number of efforts designed to turn the corner.
They include an awards program that honors students every month for good attendance and improved schoolwork. And there's constant talk about "The Woodlawn Way," intended to instill school pride and higher aspirations among students.
Students hear about graduates who have become astronauts, successful business people and professional athletes. They learn about scholarships that their predecessors won to prestigious universities.
And they are told that they, too, can attain such heights.
"It is an up-and-coming school," says Dominique Vaughn, a senior who leads 100 Strong Male Role Models, a group of upperclassmen who are trying to reinforce positive lessons for younger students.
Leaders of the PTSA have taken the message to heart, trying to spread the good word about Woodlawn High's distinguished graduates, engineering magnet program and new initiatives.
"You hear so much about the troubling things that a few students do," PTSA President Van Ross said while giving a tour of the school's new $11.2 million, 71,300-square-foot addition. "We have a lot of positive things."
The idea of raising student expectations was developed in the 1960s and spread to urban schools during the next two decades. But it didn't help.
Teachers didn't know how to identify learning styles, so they couldn't pass along the knowledge that students needed to meet higher expectations. Students grew frustrated and disappointed.
"Where most systems have made a mistake in the past is trying to motivate people by raising expectations," says Richard Elmore, an education professor at Harvard University, "but they haven't taken as seriously what they need to know."
Now, experts emphasize giving teachers the skills to diagnose the needs of each of their students. They tell principals and curriculum staff to keep watch over classrooms to make sure the teachers know their material and are getting it across to every student.
Elmore says schools face obstacles in doing this. He says many principals, promoted for reasons other than being outstanding teachers, lack the wherewithal to monitor instruction, and teachers often ignore them.
At Woodlawn High, teachers are, in general, trying to tailor instruction to the needs of their students, students say.
"As a general rule, teachers will, depending upon your skill level, adjust how much work they give you," says Kito Mallya, a senior who is vice president of the National Honor Society chapter and 100 Strong Male Role Models.
Last school year, graduates won scholarships to Brown University, Cornell University and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The average combined SAT score rose to 860 overall, a 29-point jump. But the scores remain below the county average of 1037, and the school must deal with a population that includes an estimated 60 gang members and 200 students from group homes, many of whom have discipline problems.
Woodlawn High loses 100 of its top students each year to magnet programs at other schools, while its engineering magnet program, established to attract talented students from elsewhere, is undersubscribed.
Nikki Balderama, a Woodlawn High senior who is president of the National Honor Society chapter, said some teachers grow discouraged by inattentive students and stop pushing them to achieve - which is wrong.
"If our teachers don't push us to grasp more material, do more homework, take tougher classes, then we're going to fail," she says. "Because that's inspiration. That's going to college. That's aspiring to better jobs and getting paid more."