For two years, Rock Hill High School was deemed "unsatisfactory."
The label, appearing on the front of state report cards sent to parents and dozens of media organizations, meant the school wasn't meeting expectations or adequately improving.
That's no longer the case.
According to state report cards released today, Rock Hill High is one of a few area schools to make a dramatic turnaround.
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Rock Hill High's rating jumped to "average." The school's improvement rating: "Excellent."
"When we were on the low end, we felt like eyes were on us -- like we were a bad school," said Rock Hill High Principal Judy Mobley. "This year ... we feel we've made a tremendous improvement."
Other schools that made similar leaps:
-- Finley Road Elementary's improvement rating jumped from "unsatisfactory" to "good."
-- Clover High School's "unsatisfactory" rating, like Rock Hill High's, vaulted to "excellent."
South Carolina's Education Department annually issues report cards that rate schools and districts statewide. The eight-page reports, available online, include a wealth of data -- school profiles, student test scores, whether federal standards were met and results to teacher, parent and student surveys.
The intent is to keep parents in the loop and spotlight both high performers and those "at-risk." The cards, however, can send mixed signals.
Orchard Park Elementary in Fort Mill, for example, has an absolute rating of "excellent" and growth is "good." But flip to page five of the report and you'll see the school failed to meet federal achievement standards.
The cards also are unclear about what the ratings mean exactly, S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said.
"It's a crude instrument compared to what it will probably look like in 10 to 15 years," Rex said. "I think the (rating) systems all need to be refined and perfected."
Anatomy of a turnaround
Rock Hill High's turnaround push started in late 2007, Mobley said, when the school received the state's lowest rating. Using state money available to schools named "at-risk," Mobley and her staff devised a plan.
"There's a feeling among staff members that we're a better school than the numbers showed," she said.
That led to a unified effort that appears to have worked.
Rock Hill High boosted its scores in all four areas that contribute to the state's ratings. High schools are scored on graduation rate, students' first-time pass rate on the High School Assessment Program test, exit exam pass rates and end-of-course test scores.
This is how educators said they achieved it:
Math and science push
The school ramped up its focus on math and science. Poor scores in those areas on standardized tests brought down student achievement.
To spark student engagement, teachers added hands-on science labs. Mobley sent teachers to workshops on how to better align lessons to state tests. The school bought more graphing calculators to use in science class.
It also bought about 25 digital white boards. Educators tout the chalkboard-sized, digital touch screens' ability to stream online videos and create more engaging lessons.
Christie Caveny leads the schools "credit and content recovery" program.
Students who have failed a course with a score between 60 and 69 can pay $25 to, in their free time, drop by and partially retake it on a computer. No matter how well they do, the highest grade they get is a "D."
That helps boost the graduation and student pass rates.
"The point isn't to raise the grade to something immaculate," Caveny said. "It's to get them credit for the course."
For junior Michael Gallo, it made all the difference.
The 17-year-old missed too many days in biology class and failed. So he signed up for credit recovery and, working during lunch, study hall, after school and at home, he made up the course.
"I was able to focus better and learn at my own pace," he said. "Because of that, I'll be able to graduate."
Part of the problem with Rock Hill High's graduation rate was poor recordkeeping, Mobley said.
"We had some areas where we didn't keep up with the paperwork the way we should have," she said.
The school now keeps better tabs on students. When a student misses 10 days, someone from school calls the family to check in and discuss how to make up missed work.
The school's graduation rate in a year jumped from 58.7 percent to 67.8 percent.
Mentor and mother
Phyllis Holley was hired in August as a ninth-grade academic coach. Her efforts are one of several whose results won't be seen until state report cards are released in November.
But her job is key, Mobley said.
Holley works with students who fail ninth grade. The goal is to keep them on the right track, Holley said.
"Sometimes, it's hard getting through to them," she said. "Sometimes they fall slack, and I have to push them."
"She's a mentor, drill sergeant and mother to students," Mobley said.
Barbara Addison runs the school's learning lab, a place where students who failed the state's High School Assessment Program test come to learn how to take it. Addison focuses on math.
She has students work on old HSAP tests.
"We just drill," she said. "I teach them how to use calculators," which students are allowed to use when taking the HSAP.
It can be tough, she said: "Some kids really think it's a joke. And some know this is what they need to get their diploma."
Mobley said she hopes to build on the effort's momentum. But future cuts in state funding could prove daunting.
Still, she remains optimistic.
"If we can keep class sizes the way they are ... and not lay off teachers ... I think we can keep this going."
About the ratings
Usually released in November, school report cards were delayed three months after the state's Education Department said a testing vendor miscalculated scores for some 9,000 students.
Schools and districts receive one of five ratings -- excellent, good, average, below average or at-risk, which this year replaced unsatisfactory -- in two categories:
• Absolute rating: This year's rating is based on how students performed on state tests during the 2007-2008 school year. High school scores also account for the graduation rate.
•Growth rating: Gauges how much student achievement improved from one year to the next.
School report cards by district
Click on the school districts below for more information and each school's report: Chester school district
Clover school district
Fort Mill school district
Lancaster school district
Rock Hill school district
York school district