Southern makes honor roll

Harwood high school wins state award for improvement

December 28, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

State-of-the-art digital scoreboards rise above the football field and the basketball arena. In a nook near the entrance of Southern High School, inside the school store, construction is set to begin on a technology-driven college and career resource center. A $150,000 field house for the school's athletes, funded by donations, is planned, too. And there is greenery, palms along the main corridor and pansies in the school colors of blue and yellow, growing just outside the door.

These projects, buoyed by an energized base of parents and community members, coincide with a rise in academic excellence at the Harwood school. The number of students enrolling in Advanced Placement courses and taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test has increased by double-digit percentages, and school officials have seen a nearly 100 percent passage rate on the High School Assessments, which for the first time this school year will be mandated for graduation statewide.

Southern, which state officials called a "dramatically improved school," was named this month a Maryland Blue Ribbon School, a mark of excellence achieved by six schools annually that excel or show significant improvement in statewide reading and math assessments. The distinction also makes it eligible for a National Blue Ribbon School, a feat accomplished by nine county schools.

"Southern's a family, and we all come together to help the students achieve at a high level," said the school's principal, Maryalice Todd, who has led the school for two years and previously worked as a guidance counselor and pupil personnel worker at the school. "In terms of heart and desire to be the best, I'd put us up against anybody."

Southern, the county's smallest comprehensive high school with about 1,200 students in rural Harwood, has made impressive gains in recent years.

Its proficiency scores on the High School Assessments now stand at 95.4 percent in reading and 98.4 percent in math. In the past five years, state officials said, four of the county's teacher of the year winners have come from Southern. Additionally, the school has increased its AP course offerings to 24. And the number of students who took the AP exams, which can qualify a student for college credit, rose from 68 percent to 87 percent from 2007 to 2008. Southern also saw a 22 percent increase in the number of students taking the SAT, the highest percentage increase of any county high school.

Those gains were possible because of the hard work of the teachers and students, Todd said. But some of the success also can be attributed to a strong contingent of parents, local business owners, civic associations and other community members who invest time, effort and money in the school.

"This community is such a hard working, caring community and supportive of education," Todd said. "Certainly this honor was well deserved for the Southern community."

A celebration at the school will likely happen sometime in February, when school officials hope to be joined by State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Todd also gave credit to the school's former principal Jason Dykstra, who while working at the school during the three previous years "encouraged teachers to do all the things they're doing now."

Todd said principals from the four elementary schools - Tracey's, Shadyside, Lothian and Deale - and from Southern Middle, meet monthly, fostering connections between the schools that she sees as integral to the high school students' successes.

And there are also people like David Reilly.

Reilly, a Churchton business owner, started a business advisory board at the school about four years ago with his wife, Amy Reilly, with the goal of mentoring students, helping them write resumes, improve their public speaking and gain internships.

"We're an area where you don't necessarily have all the students going to college," Reilly said. "You have those that go into agriculture, or a trade -- plumbing or something. We wanted to reach out to some of those other children, and say, 'It's OK if you don't want to go to college, but it's not OK to do nothing.' "

The planned college and career resource center, which received approval from the Board of Education, is set to open this spring. Reilly said he raised $16,500 from four local sources - South Anne Arundel Rotary Club, Muddy Creek Animal Hospital, Harwood Civic Association, and his benefit management business, Reilly Benefits Inc. - to complete the project.

Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, acknowledged the school's fundraising abilities in his congratulatory remarks to the school.

"Southern High School is the true definition of a community school, and the entire community is very deserving of this honor," Maxwell said. "The parents, students and staff at Southern are supported by community and business partners that go to incredible lengths to support student achievement."

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