Overlooked high school seeking better students

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Last fall, Orr High School administrators set a lofty goal: to persuade top-scoring 8th-graders at nearby elementary schools to stay in the neighborhood and attend Orr.

The goal would not be easy to achieve. Saddled with a bad reputation after years of dwindling enrollment and bottom-of-the-barrel test scores, Orr had been placed on intervention, a sanction imposed on the system’s lowest-performing schools. Orr had been reconstituted with a new principal two years earlier.

“That was a terrible stigma,” says senior-class counselor O. B. Routen, who worked closely with yet another new principal, Leon Hudnall, to recruit new students.

Orr hit the recruiting trail hard, particularly at schools in the neighborhood. Staffing a table at the high school fair. Visiting neighborhood elementary schools. Sending brochures home to parents. Sponsoring parent breakfasts and an open house. Inviting 8th graders to shadow Orr students for a day.

The aggressive strategy worked. This fall, for the first time in five years, Orr’s enrollment is up—1,243 students enrolled compared to 1,146 a year ago. Twenty-seven of this year’s freshmen graduated from Michelle Clark Middle, a school in Austin whose students often set their sights on college preps or magnet high schools.

“I knew Michelle Clark was not one of our regular [feeder] schools, and I knew most of those kids went everywhere but Orr,” says Hudnall, who visited Clark to recruit new students last year. “I decided that these are the kinds of kids I really wanted to get at Orr.”

Until last year, Orr’s TAP reading and math test scores had been inching up. But last year, they slipped a point or two, from 12.5 to 10.7 percent of students reading on grade level and from 16.6 to 15.9 percent in math.

More students at Clark scored at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) compared to some of Orr’s regular feeder schools. Last spring, 23.3 percent of Clark students scored at or above average in reading compared to 13.9 percent at Piccolo . In math, 25.5 percent of Clark students were at or above grade level compared to 18.9 percent at Wright.

Happenstance played a role in the recruiting connection between Orr and Clark. Every year, a number of Clark 8th-graders apply to college prep schools but don’t get in, says Annette Gurley, an assistant principal at Clark. Last spring was no exception—competition was fierce and students who did not get accepted did not know what to do next, she explains.

To help them review options, Clark counselors set up an evening meeting with parents and students and called nearby high schools for information. At Orr, Routen responded to the call by offering to attend, and Hudnall decided to make a personal pitch to parents.

“I was really impressed when the principal himself came over,” says Gurley. “Never before has an administrator come over.”

At the meeting, Hudnall ran down the list of recent physical improvements at Orr: a fresh coat of paint, new windows and landscaping, and a major renovation of the gym facilities.

He also spelled out the school’s academic and career offerings: computer repair, broadcast technology, graphic communications, architectural drafting, carpentry and culinary arts. By fall 2002, Orr plans to add world history, math and science to its current Advanced Placement offerings.

He urged parents not to base their decision on Orr’s old reputation. Instead, he invited them to visit the school and see the changes for themselves. “Once they get here they are pleasantly surprised,” he says.

His pitch was simple: “Why would you get on a bus an hour earlier in the dark when you can get the same thing for a 15 minute walk?”

By the time the meeting ended, some parents were sold, says Gurley. “These people really want our kids there and they are going to take care of them,” she recalls parents telling her.

Orr was not freshman Maurice Person’s first choice for high school. The Clark graduate, who was a top student in his class, had applied but had not been accepted into Northside, Payton and Whitney Young. At first he considered Steinmetz, but had a change of heart.

“I was hearing stuff about how they fixed Orr up and it’s better and got new staff,” says Maurice, whose older brother attends Orr. “They say it’s almost like a new school since they did that stuff.”

His mother, Marguerite, agreed with Maurice’s decision to stay in the neighborhood, but other relatives were not as supportive. “My uncle told me he felt that I’m going to get cheated out of my education for going [to Orr] instead of going to the other schools,” says Maurice, who adds that Orr’s top-rated Junior ROTC program was a factor.

Denise Adkinson also chose Orr after being turned down by a number of selective schools. Last year, when Orr counselors came to Clark to recruit, she filled out an application on the spot. Upon learning she had been accepted, Denise decided to enroll.

“My friends had been asking me to come [to Orr] anyway,” she says. “They were all juniors and seniors and they were doing really good stuff.”

This year’s crop of Clark graduates may help draw more Clark students to Orr. Word of mouth is a powerful influence on students deciding where to go to high school.

And Hudnall is counting on it to attract future Clark graduates.

“There has been a perception that Orr is a bad place to be,” he says. “But now that [Clark students] are here, they can spread the word. Kids are talking to their friends. [My] hope is the word will get out and I won’t have to recruit.”