With Limited Resources, High Poverty, Turning Schools Around

Mar 21, 2013
Originally published on March 25, 2013 3:46 pm

How much can you change a school in one academic year? That question threads through the PBS special 180 Days: A Year Inside An American High School. The documentary, which premieres March 25, follows the day-to-day struggles facing the administrators, teachers and students at Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative school in Washington, D.C.

Also known as D.C. Met, the school serves students who are grappling with an array of challenges — poverty, broken homes, homelessness and decaying communities — many of which do not end when the dismissal bell rings.

While 180 Days focuses on D.C. Met, it illustrates many of the challenges educators encounter in environments of concentrated poverty, often in schools with limited resources. At D.C. Met, some students are homeless, are parents themselves or have parents who abuse drugs. Others, like graduate Raven Quattlebaum, who is featured in the film, may have been involved in gang activity.

"I had to worry about a lot of things in my life other than schoolwork," Quattlebaum, now a college student, tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "I had to go home and deal with other things."

Metcalfe County High School in rural Edmonton, Ky., operates in a very different environment, geographically. But Principal Kelly Bell says that some of the challenges at her school are similar. Metcalfe County High serves an area with the state's second-highest unemployment rate and many students travel long distances to reach school each day, Bell tells Headlee. In 2010, Metcalfe County High was ranked 211 out of 230 Kentucky high schools.

Both schools have seen success in improving student performance. At D.C. Met, every student in the school's first graduating class received their diplomas in 2012, says former principal Tanishia Williams-Minor. And in Kentucky, after launching a turnaround effort at Metcalfe County High in 2010, Bell says the school now ranks 50th among the state's high schools.

Williams-Minor says part of that success at D.C. Met is a result of teachers who are highly engaged with their students. Educators there work closely with students to understand their individual challenges inside and outside of school, ensure they're coming to school each day and help students one-on-one to prepare to apply to college.

Metcalfe County High has helped boost student performance, in part, by offering a variety of vocational programs. Students can earn several certifications at school, including certified nurse aide, pharmacy tech and others, says Kelly Bell.

180 Days can only scratch the surface of the personal stories students from difficult environments have to tell, says Williams-Minor. And when people "think of the dropout crisis ... we want them to think of students like Raven," she says. "We had 30 seniors [in 2012]. There are 30 different stories that we could have told about students who overcame something."

180 Days: A Year in the Life of an American High School can be seen, starting March 25, on PBS stations around the country.

In a clip from 180 Days aired on Talk of the Nation, D.C. Public Schools Superintendent for Alternative Schools Terry DeCarbo tells the D.C. Met staff that Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor's contract was not renewed. (Williams-Minor now works for the New York City Department of Education.) When Talk of the Nation asked D.C. Public Schools for a statement in response to the film, they shared the following:

180 Days accurately shows what we've long known at DCPS — many of our students face tremendous barriers well before the school day begins. It's why we work to ensure our schools are not only rigorous academics environments, but also supportive to meet our students' social and emotional needs. Schools like Washington Met, while not typical American high schools, were specifically designed to address these challenges. We believe there is a fascinating story to be told about the lives of students at Washington Met but unfortunately, even given unprecedented access, the movie fails to show the real role that the school plays in educating these students. Rather than focus on teaching and learning, the movie spends a significant amount of time on personnel matters on which DCPS does not comment.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Educational reform has been a subject of debate for years, and it's in the headlines since the deep budget cuts of the recession. In fact, President Obama made schools one of the themes of his most recent State of the Union Address.

Today, though, we want to focus on one particular type of school: high schools serving some of the poorest districts in the country. These schools face their own unique set of challenges, many of which do not end when the kids leave the building.



GARY BARNES: I've dealt with kids that when they left school didn't realize or didn't know whether or not they was going to have a place to stay. They might not be living with their parent because we have a lot of kids who leave here every day that might be staying with a different person than what's on their paperwork. We have a lot of kids that might be taking care of theyselves.

HEADLEE: That's Gary Barnes, he's the in-school suspension officer and basketball coach at Washington, D.C.'s Washington Metropolitan High School. People here in the District call it D.C. Met. He made those comments in a new documentary called "180 Days: A Year Inside An American High School." The film airs on PBS stations starting next week. We'll talk to the principal, former principal of D.C. Met in just a few minutes.

But if you attended or worked at a high school like this, tell us the one change you would make. What one change would you make that you think would help? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, also. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, sinkholes. You can email us with your questions now about those holes in the earth, again talk@npr.org. But first, what's it like to teach at a school in a community with concentrated poverty? Joining me now in 3A is Tanishia Williams-Minor, former principal at D.C. Met. She current works at the New York City Department of Education, and she's heavily featured in "180 Days." Tanishia, welcome to the program.

TANISHIA WILLIAMS-MINOR: Thank you so much for having me.

HEADLEE: So first, tell us about the students at D.C. Met.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Sure, well, D.C. Met is in the alternative cluster in DCPS.

HEADLEE: Meaning?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Meaning that we are not a traditional high school. D.C. Met was not part of the traditional schools. Our purpose was to service students who experience some form of disengagement in their education, so be it truancy, be it a parenting teen. We really opened our doors to students who didn't fit the comprehensive high school model.

HEADLEE: But when you're talking about a school like that, a school where I think it's fair to say very high poverty around the kids that you were serving, that brings its own set of challenges, I would think, I would assume, that are separate from most other schools. Is that correct?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: That is absolutely correct. The thing about statistics and the thing about the students who are actually in the building, we deal with and we live those issues and those problems and those obstacles every day. So yes, we should be as equipped as any other school in the nation, but on top of that we have a litany of social-emotional issues that we have to circumvent and combat, and that's just part of the work that we do.

HEADLEE: And we're sitting here talking about schools in the third person, and we have a former student of D.C. Met with us. So I don't - I want to bring you into the conversation just so you won't feel like we're sitting here talking about you. Raven Quattlebaum was part of the very first graduating class of Washington Metropolitan High School. First of all, congratulations.


HEADLEE: A little late, currently a freshman at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, majoring in social work.


HEADLEE: And you are featured in this film.


HEADLEE: And I want to know what you think. Do you agree with Tanishia that there is a unique set of problems for students who are - come from a background in poverty?

QUATTLEBAUM: Yes, I agree with that.

HEADLEE: What kind of things do you think arise for, say, a kid with that background as opposed to an average, middle-class American kid?

QUATTLEBAUM: Basically the things that arise is, like, social skills. Some people that come from an average high school is not as, I can say, not used to different things and a different environment. So when people come to a school like D.C. Met, which was an alternative school, you have different things that arise.

Sometimes you can have different things that happen inside a school building that would not happen in a regular building.


QUATTLEBAUM: Fights. Fights happen - most of the time in D.C. Met we had I could say a couple fights, not too many. But for any other schools, you don't have so many fights that happen or problems that it's in the schools. Some kids come to school with different problems.

HEADLEE: Well, you must be meaning - you're describing them as average, the kids who don't come from concentrated poverty, I guess. You must be now going to classes with them at Bennett College, right?


HEADLEE: So what do you think of as average?

QUATTLEBAUM: The average...

HEADLEE: Yeah, what's the average high school experience?

QUATTLEBAUM: To me the average high school experience is a child that goes to school that basically don't have problems that they have to deal with at home. I mean, everybody has problems, but some problems that other people deal with, other teens don't deal with. Like at school, I have a lot of people that's in my class that came from good backgrounds, that came from a place that they never had to worry about anything, whereas me, I had to worry about a lot of things in my life other than the schoolwork.

I had to go home and deal with other things, but most people don't deal with the same things that an average person deal with.

HEADLEE: I mean in the film, you actually had your, one of your walls of your room decorated with remembrances of your teenage friends who had been killed. Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?


HEADLEE: Death of parents, death of friends, danger, physical danger. Did you sometimes feel in your daily life that you were in physical danger?

QUATTLEBAUM: Not really.

HEADLEE: Not really. OK. Let me go back to you, Tanishia Williams-Minor, former principal at D.C. Met. Talk to me a little bit about what she's, Raven is trying to describe here. What are these experiences that set apart these students from what she calls the average high school student?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Right, so I think Raven knows, it's just it's - maybe it's difficult to articulate because she lived it. But for example, the fact that it took you, Raven, 40 minutes to get to school, and you made a choice to come to D.C. Met; the fact that you lived a life that you are not necessarily proud of, and you made the conscious effort to stop gang-banging, to stop fighting, right? That was all you.

The fact that some of - within the first week of school, we had a moment of silence for one of your classmates who was killed in a car accident; the fact that when I asked folks, do you know of anyone in your family or any of your friends who have dropped out, and every single person in the room raised their hand, right? That when she's asking you about those difficulties, that's really what she's speaking to.

And Raven can't articulate those things because Raven lived those things, but sometimes when you're so immersed in it, it's just the norm. So to ask necessarily, you know, what's an average experience? Raven actually didn't have an average experience. She didn't go into a high school that had a library. She didn't go into a high school that was well-equipped.

She went into a high school with caring adults who told her she could be anything that she wanted to be, but she doesn't know any different. Another thing that I actually thought you would jump in and say was prom, right? And at D.C. Met we went back and forth with whether or not we were going to have a prom because, quite frankly, it was a money issue.

But an average high school experience is having a senior prom, having a senior trip, having a senior class sponsor that's there all year...

HEADLEE: Many, many dances over the course of a year, yeah.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Absolutely. So yes, so when we talk about the types of issues that the students have, everything from death of a parent, death of a relative, I don't think that there was any one student in that building who didn't know someone who passed away, right, within the last year.

HEADLEE: Some of them are homeless.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Absolutely we had homeless students. We had parenting teens. We had students who had to deal with parents who abused drugs. So there were a litany of issues to deal with.

HEADLEE: All right, let me take a call here really quickly. We're talking about high schools in high poverty areas. And we want to get your thoughts on one change that would have made a difference if you either attended a school like that or worked at one. And we have a call here from Greensboro, North Carolina, which is where Raven Quattlebaum goes to school now. Richard(ph), thanks so much for joining us. What one change do you think could be made at a school like this?

RICHARD: Well, she asked me, and I had to hesitate, and finally I said, well, administrators. And I think that's one of the problems. They don't talk to teachers who teach the students, they talk to administrators who...

HEADLEE: Are you talking about a principal like Tanishia who I'm speaking with, or are you talking about, like, school board and supervisors?

RICHARD: Well, I don't know Tanishia. I'm talking about - well, in the case - I worked in New Orleans, Richmond, Virginia, now, and Greensboro, also. And most administrators are in the business of defending the school system somewhat. And teachers actually know the kids. Respect is the big thing, I find, respect and friendliness. And there's a difference between administration and teaching, and very often administrators are defending a bureaucratic system.

HEADLEE: OK, that's Richard, calling from Greensboro, North Carolina. I saw you shaking your head over there, Tanishia. I assume he's talking about supervisors.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Right, I think that - and hello, Richard. I think that he's speaking specifically to this bit of a divide that can sometimes exist in a school building. And I taught. I taught for seven years, right? So I absolutely know what he's talking about. Far too often you have a school building where the folks who are on the frontline, the teachers and the social workers, feel a disconnect from the leadership in the building.

And if you were to ask me that question, what is the one thing that we need to make sure we do, my answer would be to put the right people in the right seats. I pride myself absolutely on not being that guy who was the disconnected administrator who pounded out reforms.

Yes, we followed the rules, we did exactly what we were told to do, but we made sure that everyone was invested in a common goal of improvement for the students, and we had those honest conversations. There weren't any teachers with whom I did not speak. There weren't any teachers who did not know that they could come into my office at any point in the day, from 7 o'clock in the morning most times until 9 o'clock at night. We were there all day. And we worked together to, as we liked to call it, move mountains.

HEADLEE: Well, I want to read a couple emails here. This is Nick(ph) in Maryland, who wrote: I think schools where kids face many challenges at home need a person at the school whose job is to connect the kids and their families with supports and services. This is just as, if not more, important than having a police officer onsite. And it sounds, Raven, like that's pports athink schools where i


HEADLEE: OK, so clearly you think that's important also. Bob(ph) says: Small populations, get rid of the factory high school. And then we got one from Cressy(ph), who says: Change evaluations. Center evaluation around students evaluating themselves and each other, as well as involving the kids' entire community in the evaluation of their learning, from community members, business owners to parents and also school staff. It's the only way to hold teaching responsible for teaching when the teacher is no longer the evaluator.

And you can call us at 800-989-8255. Or our email address is talk@npr.org. You were raising your hand to say something really quick? We're about to go to a break, but what we're talking about is a specific kind of school. It is a school in a high poverty area. And what specific thing, one thing, choose one change that you would make if you attended one of these or worked at one that you think would make a difference.

Again it's 800-989-8255. Or just email us, it's talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a moment. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the challenges facing schools and students in areas with high rates of poverty. Next week, a new documentary called "180 Days: A Year Inside An American High School" will air on PBS. In one scene in the film, D.C. Public Schools Superintendent for Alternative Schools Terry DeCarbo tells the D.C. Met staff that Principal Minor's contract will not be renewed. And here is the staff's response.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We want to know, when nobody would give us data in this data-driven district, to find out why this is happening. We don't know what to make of it. They're changing a leader and not telling the masses what will make us better? (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Why is there a big mystery? Like why can't we know?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The chancellor makes the decisions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: When you guys look at data, do you look at the kids that come to us that are homeless, the kids that come to us that parents are strung out on drugs? I mean, do you look at all of the traumas that our kids come in with, our kids whose parents are HIV positive, that are dying, how many of our kids whose parents have died in one school year and that they still are expected to come to school and test and do all these other things? Who judges that? Who determines oh, well, you know what these - that doesn't matter? Because if you don't (unintelligible) these kids will not produce. They will not be productive.

HEADLEE: We reached out to D.C. Public Schools to get their response to the film and the fact that Principal Minor's contract was not renewed. In a statement, D.C. Public Schools wrote: In part, we believe there is a fascinating story to be told about the lives of students at Washington Met, but unfortunately even given unprecedented access, the movie fails to show the real role the school plays in educating these students.

Rather than focusing on teaching and learning, the movie spends a significant amount of time on personnel matters on which DCPS does not comment. You can read that full statement at our website, npr.org. And in the interest of full disclosure, this film received funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Diversity and Innovation Fund. NPR is also a recipient of support from that same fund.

Our question for you, if you attended or worked high school like the ones we're talking about, tell us the one change you would make. The number is 800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org. And it looks like we have Jack(ph) calling in from Richmond, and Jack, I guess, has a question for Raven. Jack, thanks so much for (unintelligible).

JACK: Well, actually for both guests and particularly the administrator. But I had an experience in high school where I went to a, quote, "average, normal high school," but I lived in a poor neighborhood. I was always contrasting the two. And one thing I noticed was among the poor families, oftentimes, not always but oftentimes, a lack of structure in daily lives where you didn't develop habits like being on time or following through with a task.

And then as a physical therapist working with parents of preschoolers in the home (unintelligible), people have no parenting skills at all. They don't know how to relate to the kid at a level they understand and positively build the kid. And I'm wondering - but mine was a very different neighborhood than yours geographically. Did you have the same experience? And is it hard for your administrator guest to explain to people who haven't had that how hard it is for kids who do not have that background to acquire those skills?

HEADLEE: OK, well, let me have them answer that directly. Thanks for that call. That's Jack. With me is former principal of D.C. Met, Tanishia Williams-Minor, and former D.C. Met student Raven Quattlebaum. Let me take that straight to you because this seems to be a common I don't want to say stereotype but a common picture of these kids.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Yeah, I think the generalization sometimes will get us in trouble, though, when you speak of a lack of parenting skills. In more cases than not, no, we didn't see 100 percent of our parents at parent-teacher night, and we didn't have a PTA that was overrun with overly excited parents.

HEADLEE: Sometimes because parents are working several jobs.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Correct, but the reality of our student population was that we had parents who, too, had issues to deal with. We had parents who had two jobs. We had parents who - you know, during the times when we had conversations with them, they said they would do any and everything that they could, but in some cases they could not.

So there isn't a complete unwillingness to pay attention to your kid or to pay attention to what's going on at school, but in some instances it is difficult. One of our most devout parents, you know, she tried to come to every single cheerleading game, but in some instances she just had to work.


WILLIAMS-MINOR: On the flip side, though, there are some parents who are just not invested and not involved.

HEADLEE: I imagine that's true at any school.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: And I'm sure that's true at any school, but it's incumbent upon the folks in the school building to still work through all of those issues and invest ourselves in that student, make sure they fill out their FAFSA, make sure that they're coming to school on time...

HEADLEE: Because that's the federal application for student aid, yeah.


HEADLEE: Let me bring in Kelly Bell now. Kelly Bell is the principal at Metcalfe County High School in Edmonton, Kentucky. Kelly taught for 23 years and joins us on the phone from her office. Kelly, first of all, welcome.

KELLY BELL: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Tell us a little bit about Metcalfe County and the kids in the school system there.

BELL: Metcalfe County is located in south-central Kentucky. Our high school has 469 students.

HEADLEE: Are they coming - many of them coming from poor areas?

BELL: Yeah, this area is about 34 percent poverty. In 2010, we were second-highest unemployment rate in the state of Kentucky. Right now we're fluctuating between eight and 10 and a half percent unemployment. We've lost a lot of our jobs here in Metcalfe County, and unfortunately we're experiencing negative population growth at the time.

HEADLEE: Meaning that you're losing people. You know, one of the things in the documentary was this issue of truancy and trying to get kids to come to school not just to be counted so you get the funding that you need but to take tests, to be at school and then learn the lessons. Is truancy an issue for your school district, as well?

BELL: Not necessarily. Since, you know, we've been in the turnaround effort now since 2010, and it is something that we address head-on. We take it on an individual student basis because every student is different, so every set of circumstances that promotes their absenteeism is taken into consideration. So I would not say truancy is an issue, but it's always something that we have to stay aware of because one of the first thing that happens to someone who is a potential drop out is someone who is missing a lot of school.


BELL: So we have to call the home, and we have to find out what's going on and see if we can provide any resources to help that child get back to school.

HEADLEE: All right, let me take - go to another call here. This is Michael in Austin, Texas. Michael called us at 800-989-8255. And our question, Michael, is: What one change could we make to help schools like that we're talking about? What's your thoughts?

MICHAEL: Well, hi, Principal Minor. My name is Michael Brick, I'm a former New York Times reporter. I wrote a book about an effort to turn around a high school here in Austin, Texas, Reagan High. One of the things that seemed to be really important at Reagan in that year I spent there was reaching out to the community, connecting to the history of the school. And I wanted to hear your thoughts on how that's worked at D.C. Met.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Well, you know, I think - and I will respond and also somewhat respond to the DCPS statement. I think that we did a great job at D.C. Met of getting some kids invested in their own success. And I think again the greatest thing that we did was we made sure that we had folks in the building who were committed to working through the challenges, working without resources and working tirelessly to help get Raven into college, right, to help make sure that the majority of our seniors graduated, to help make sure that 100 percent of our seniors were accepted into college.

So when you talk about - I think the DCPS statement said that the film focuses more so on personnel as opposed to academics, first and foremost when you have a student who walks into the building, there are so many social and emotional issues that you have to get through that you can't shove a math book in his or her face, right?

But the truth and the data speaks for itself. We did have gains in the D.C. cast. We had numerous intermittent gains on the six-week tests that we took in DCPS. We decreased truancy. So to talk about teaching and learning, yes, teaching and learning is something that should happen in every school building. I am a staunch proponent of that.

But teaching and learning isn't necessarily 3X=9, X=3, right? Teaching and learning is having a student be able to articulate his or her weaknesses and then get themselves prepared to work through those weaknesses. That's what the business of education is.

So to answer your question, Mr. Brick, you know, it's really all about having honest conversations, looking at the data, having students look at their data, having students take responsibility for their strengths and their weaknesses and then work through those things accordingly.

BELL: Absolutely, and I agree when you said teaching and learning, they are synonymous because the one change you make in a school, especially a high school, as you all well know, is the learning occurs when you have a receptive audience. They always say that the teacher arrives when the learner is ready. It begins and ends with the teacher. And at Metcalfe County, that's what we addressed first and foremost in 2010, in the turnaround effort. We were ranked 211th out of 230 high schools in Kentucky. And now, we are ranked 50th.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Congratulations.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that's amazing.

BELL: Oh, it's because you get those teachers with veracity. You go after the best educators you can get. And mind you, we're in an isolated area. Geographically, we're isolated. We have some students traveling 45 and 50 minutes to school.

HEADLEE: That's how long - I don't want to interrupt you. That's Kelly Bell, who's principal in Edmonton, Kentucky. I want to say goodbye here and thank you to Michael in Austin, Texas. Thanks so much for your call, Michael.


HEADLEE: And we have the former principal of D.C. Met with us, Tanishia Williams-Minor, and then also you just heard Kelly Bell. But we keep talking about students here, and we have a former student, Raven Quattlebaum, who is now attending college in North Carolina. First of all, I wanted to read an email, here. Dave says: If I could change one aspect of the current public school model, I'd give the students a real voice in deciding how the school is run, what they learn and how they'll be evaluated.

What do you think about that, Raven? Do you think students don't have enough of a voice?

QUATTLEBAUM: In some cases, yes. I don't think some people want - I think when people come into the school, they hear the teachers' voice. They don't really go to the students, see what's going on with them. They always like blaming it on the teachers, but it's really, like, the students. You have to dig deep into the students to see what's going on with them to fix some of the issues in the school, because some issues happen because of the students.

HEADLEE: Well, look. You could have been a statistic. You could very easily have become a statistic. I mean, you came from a very tough home life, tough growing up. You were involved in gangs and fighting. What made the difference to you? I mean, how did you now end up graduating and going on to college?

QUATTLEBAUM: I have the caring people in my school, the staff in my school actually caring about me and digging into - and digging in deep into my emotions and digging in deep into what's going on with me, what I was thinking. If I didn't have the kind of people that would help me get the application done, that would help me get the FAFSA done, that gave me the tools that I needed to get to actually get to college, I don't know how I would make it.

HEADLEE: I - we have another email, here. This one is from Steve in Oakland, who says: Schools have become a convenient whipping post, as they struggle to handle children who are products of uneducated or undereducated parents, broken homes, abusive situations, devastated neighborhoods and economic hardships, just to name a few. And then, here's one for you. It doesn't say what the name is, but it says: If I could change one thing, I'd have a principal like that. Leadership or the lack of it makes a huge difference. God bless her.

You can call us with your comments at 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. So let's take one more call, here. This is John in San Antonio, another phone call from Texas. John, we've been asking what one change people would make to a school like this one. What do you think?

JOHN: Incorporate vocational education into the learning process. I did it for 34 years, and I had kids that grew up in some of the poorest districts of San Antonio making more money in the end after completing the education process and working in the field, more money than as I a teacher was making.

HEADLEE: That's John in San Antonio. Thank you so much for your call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. So let me bring that to you, Kelly Bell...

BELL: Yes.

HEADLEE: ...in Edmonton, Kentucky. What do you think about that, adding in trade - basically, trade school?

BELL: I'm saying absolutely yes. We have just started with a technology center that we bus our students to. It's 35 minutes bus ride one way in another county, and they've been very receptive. And we've added certifications. They get can get multiple certifications there. That is one of our big focus here. We also offer CNA certifications here in the building.


BELL: CNA is certified nurse aide. And we offer phlebotomy tech, pharmacy tech. We have Cisco here in the building, because we realize that. And we have teachers who are really multiple - they're certified as a classroom teacher, but they also can offer certifications...

HEADLEE: Well...

BELL: ...and then they can get electrician. I agree with the caller. You can - I mean the sky is the limit anymore for these technological services.

HEADLEE: What do you think, Tanishia?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: I agree. I think the sky is the limit. Unfortunately, in a school such as D.C. Met, we do not have endless access to those resources. So we had to rely on helping students figure out what it is they wanted to do, right, when you don't have a school that has 10 different vocational programs, or even two different vocational programs. You really drill down and help...

HEADLEE: Because of cost.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Because of cost. You really drill down and figure out what it is the student wants to do, and then you try to outsource the best way you can. Right? You never tell a student no, and you never want to tell the student no. But the harsh reality is that every school is not equipped the same, so every school cannot institute a full-on vocational program. So I would say to that, yes, I agree. But much further, I would say the importance is making sure that you build a community and build a culture in your school where the students are put first, and then you research to get what those students need.

HEADLEE: So, you know, it was very enlightening for me to watch this documentary, "180 Days," and it's certainly not my high school experience. I imagine it's not everybody's. What do you hope people take away from watching this?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: So I think when we were first broached with the idea, you know, all of us had our ego, and we were like, oh, no. We don't always speak the Queen's English, and we do not want cameras following us around. This is not the real world. But we actually felt like we had an opportunity to provide an opportunity for folks to see what it looks like day in and day out in a high school, in a high school...

HEADLEE: To what end?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: ..that's not typical. To what end...

HEADLEE: To what end? What's the benefit of them seeing that?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: So the point is that I think that when you look at all the movies such as "Waiting for Superman" and "The Lottery," you hear a lot of statistics, and you hear a lot of data, but you don't really get to see what's going on in the student's life, right? So when we speak of personal issues or personnel issues or culture issues, that's really the stuff that exists in a building that leaders and teachers and partners have to sift through in order to get to the teaching and learning in order to make sure that the students are successful.

So we want people to think of the dropout crisis, and we want people to think of students like Raven. We want people to think of students like Rufus. We want people to think of students like Tiara, who are all success stories in their own right. And we had 30 seniors. There are 30 different stories that we could have told about students who overcame something.

HEADLEE: And, first of all, let's just get this clear: How many people graduated out of the first graduating class?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: So we started out with 33 seniors, and 30 of them graduated with us...

HEADLEE: That is amazing.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: ...the first of June, but the remaining three finished in summer school. So essentially...

HEADLEE: One hundred percent.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Essentially, 100 percent of our seniors graduated.

HEADLEE: That's amazing.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: It's the work that we do.


WILLIAMS-MINOR: So, you know, it's really about knowing that it's your charge and investing yourself tirelessly until you get to the end of your goal.

BELL: Absolutely. I was thinking that the stark difference between Washington, D.C., and Edmonton, Kentucky, we're so different geographically, but what it comes down to it, it's all the same, isn't it?

WILLIAMS-MINOR: Yes. Absolutely.

BELL: It's the relationship.

WILLIAMS-MINOR: That's what we're trying to get through.

BELL: Every student has to know they have someone who cares about them in that building every day.

HEADLEE: And that - you just heard the voice of Kelly Bell. She's principal at Metcalf County High School in Edmonton, Kentucky. Thank you so much for joining us. Tanishia Williams-Minor is the former principal at D.C. Met. She currently works for the New York City Department of Education. And superstar, amazing young lady, Raven Quattlebaum was part of D.C. Met's first graduating class, currently a freshman at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. They're both featured in "180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School." It's a two-part PBS documentary airing next week. Thanks to all three of you.

Up next, what's the deal with all the sinkholes? We'll talk to a sinkhole expert ahead of their annual conference. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.