Students arriving at Howard School for the first day of classes Monday were met with welcome news—for the first time in recent years, the institution was no longer on Tennessee's list of failing schools.
"They just erupted in applause," Howard Principal Paul Smith said.
Along with cheers and high fives, Smith said a few of the students began shouting their test scores to one another.
"It gave me the greatest joy that the kids were having conversations about their own academics and their own academic achievements," he said. "I told the faculty and the students that we've come a long way, but we have an even longer way to go."
Improvements in test scores last year were enough to move Howard out of the bottom 5 percent of performing schools in Tennessee. In the state's new three-tiered accountably system, Howard was not listed in either of the "priority" or "focus" school categories, eliminating the possibility of state intervention for at least two years.
Smith said he was pleased, but ultimately unsatisfied.
"We can't breathe a sigh of relief until we're at 100 percent graduation," he said. "I don't care if we're at a 99 percent graduation rate; I don't care if test scores are better than they were last year. We can't be satisfied until we know the scores are the best they can be."
Smith's long-term vision for Howard goes beyond test scores. The principal said his desire is to grow career and technical programs at the school and transform it into a comprehensive, K-12 institution.
In the event that Howard's test scores had been lower and state intervention had become a possibility, the action would have been overseen by Tennessee's year-old Achievement School District, headed by Superintendent Chris Barbic. Since coming to his position last year, Barbic had repeatedly said that Howard had a realistic opportunity to move itself away from the state's watch lists.
On Tuesday, Barbic congratulated the school and echoed Smith's calls for continued improvement. Barbic said that being "off the list" did not necessarily mean Howard had become a superb school.
"As much as we want to applaud the progress, we still have a lot of work to do," he said. "It's a measured response of being proud of the kids and the teachers, and it's one step in the journey of becoming a great school. We're proud of them for what they'd done … We expect to see them move on the trajectory that they're on. And now that they're no longer a priority school, we have no authority over them as a school."
Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith offered a similar comment.
"I'm very proud of Howard," he said. "Just getting off the list is not the goal. Not only do we want them off the list, we don't want to see them anywhere close to it. We're pleased, but there's still a lot of work to do."