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Northwestern principal maintains high achievement standards

Teaching social studies and coaching three sports at Northwestern High School was enough for James Blake. The last thing he wanted was to be an administrator.

"I was more interested in engaging kids out on the field and in the classroom," Blake said.

Many are glad he changed his mind.

Blake, who beings his ninth year as Northwestern's principal when school opens Monday, has overseen an array of achievements: state championships in marching band, soccer and football; recognitions in extracurricular activities, from swimming and cheerleading to Model UN, chorus and theater.

Northwestern is the only South Carolina school to have more than one instructor named state Teacher of the Year. Engineering teacher Bryan Coburn won in 2009, followed two years later by English teacher Patti Tate.

Perhaps most promising among the accolades are the significant gains students have made on the state exit exam in English, particularly struggling students.

Colleagues credit the school's success in large part to Blake's leadership, which they said is characterized by high standards and a genuine desire to see students excel.

"You'll have a hard time surviving there if you don't strive for excellence," Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody said.

"He's very student-centered," Tate said. "He supports teachers and their ideas."

Blake deflects praise, saying he tries to find talented educators who "put children first.

As he put it, "I hire the right people and get out of the way."

The number of students who passed the exit exam on their first try has grown.

Even more encouraging is the significant increase in the number of struggling students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

For several years, the students performed poorly on the English and math proficiency tests.

Less than half of black and low-income students were scoring "proficient." Between 2003 and 2009, the number of disabled students who hit the mark ranged from 5 to 27 percent.

"We tried a lot of things," Blake said. "Sometimes we do too many things at one time. Sometimes you don't know which is the one that works. We said, 'Let's scrap that stuff that's not working. Let's be more targeted.'"

English teachers Cindi Venables, Jessica Marshall and Lindsay Lett had an idea.

In the weeks before the exam, "you could feel the tension in the air," Venables said.

"We wanted to do something to lighten the mood. We wanted students to take some pride and ownership."

They recruited students to help encourage everyone for the exam. They sold T-shirts and pizza to raise money for a post-test party.

They filmed renditions of popular songs urging classmates to do their best and played them during the morning announcements. "Teach Me How to Dougie" became "Teach Me How to Study." "Pants on the Ground" was "Scores on the Ground" - "Lookin' like a fool with your scores on the ground."

Teachers held study sessions before and after school. Students who attended could win gift certificates to local restaurants.

On test days, the teachers served students breakfast and passed out purple and gold leis. The teachers wore T-shirts bearing "Lei it on the HSAP."

Since they started, the share of students scoring at least "proficient" in English, a level higher than what the state requires to pass, has jumped to from 63 percent to 78 percent.

The number of black students who scored "proficient or advanced" in English jumped to from 40.8 percent to 61.5 percent.

Low-income student scores rose from 46 percent "proficient or advanced" to 61 percent .

Scores among students with disabilities rose from 19 percent to 34 percent "proficient."

Venables said Blake supported her untested idea from the beginning.

"All he says is, 'What can I do to help you?'" she said.

When the teachers needed cash to rent an inflatable bungee run for the celebration, Blake found the money, Venables said.

"By far, Mr. Blake has been the most concerned about the students. If you go in there and say, 'Mr. Blake, do you know how much you're asking me to do?' he'll say, 'But will it help the students?'"

'Bleeding purple'

Blake, who grew up in a family of educators, never intended to work in schools.

At Marion High, his father was his assistant principal and algebra teacher. One of his aunts was a guidance counselor, and another was his home arts teacher.

"Education was not what I was going to do," he said.

After high school, Blake enrolled at Francis Marion University, where he ran track and hoped to become an engineer. His plans changed after a history professor told him his talents were well suited for the classroom.

Blake took his first job in Williston, where he taught seventh-grade social studies and art.

He found his passion.

"I just wanted to be around kids as much as I could be," he said.

In 1984, Northwestern hired him to teach social studies and coach football. He quickly took on coaching wrestling and track.

Barbara Boulware, an assistant principal, encouraged Blake to consider administration.

"Coach Blake, as he was called, was a very good teacher," Boulware said. "Kids responded so well to him. ... He seemed to be someone who had the potential to be a good leader.

"He had a little detective skill too. He helped me crack a few cases."

She convinced him he could affect more students as a leader.

In 1997, Blake was named assistant principal. Six years later, he was principal.

"I think Mr. Blake is that person who had a major contribution to make to education," Boulware said.

As an instructional leader, Blake is still very much a coach.

Student achievement, he said, is "about winning each and every day. How do you win? By preparing each and every day."

Around campus, students still call him "coach."

"He's always interacting with the students," said Garrison Gist, a University of South Carolina freshman who graduated from Northwestern in June.

"At lunch, he would come up and talk to you. During (football and track) practice, he would come out and do a little coaching."

"He supports all athletics, not just football," said Bill Warren, the school's former athletic director. "He attends many of the events. At times, I think he'd still like to be a coach."

Moody, who said being a high school principal is the district's toughest job, said Blake sets high standards and places a lot of faith in his staff.

"There have been times when he's been accused of micro-managing," Moody said. "If that happens, it's probably because they're not hitting the mark. If you're hitting the standards, he's going to give you all the rope in the world. But if you're not, he's going to be in it."

Blake competes hard with other principals, Moody said.

"I'm not sure there's anybody who could love a high school as much as James loves Northwestern," she said. "Talk about bleeding purple."

Since taking charge, Blake said he has tried to keep a well-rounded focus on "academics, arts and athletics."

It's worked. On top of last school year's academic progress, all varsity sports teams reached the playoffs. The jazz band was invited to perform in New Orleans. The marching band, received its 20th consecutive S.C. Outstanding Performance Award.

"I couldn't ask for more support," said Larry Wells, the school's band director for 18 years. "James is a closet musician. He was a drummer in high school. ... And he loves jazz."

Blake has made several changes for the new school year.

Lauren West is the school's new athletic director, replacing Warren.

Blake plans to give teachers more time to share strategies.

More focus will likely be put on math. Despite the English gains, performance on the math portion of the exit exam has not improved as significantly.

That could be tough, given budget cuts' effect on class sizes. As many as 32 students could fill some classes. It's a challenge the principal said his staff will meet.

And he has no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

"I'd like to do this forever," Blake said. "I've got the best seat in the house."

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