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Staff efforts lead turnabout of Herbert Hoover into School of Excellence

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Herbert Hoover High School, in Clendenin, is out of the way.

It's 30 minutes from Charleston, down a winding road and housed in a building that was built more than 50 years ago. It's well kept, but not the shiny new building that's usually associated with innovation.

And just a few years ago, the students at Herbert Hoover were conforming to that idea. The students were scoring poorly on standardized tests and the teachers felt run down.

"We were in a hole and didn't know how to get out of it," said Kelli Plutro, an English teacher at the school for longer than a decade.

"We didn't have school spirit," said Chandra Dalton, an associate principal there.

But today, the portrait of Herbert Hoover looks different. Student achievement is up, so is morale.

And earlier this month, the school was named a "School of Excellence" by the state Department of Education, a distinction awarded to schools based on their curriculum, innovation, learning environment, leadership, teaching and student achievement. Hoover was the only school in Kanawha County to be designated as a school of excellence this year.

More seniors are taking college entrance tests - nearly 63 percent of students took either the SAT or ACT in 2012, compared with just 59 percent in 2008. And the school's standardized test scores have improved: Last year, 55 percent of students tested proficient in reading. In 2009, just 30 percent of Hoover's students reached that benchmark.

That drastic turnaround has been building over the last several years at Herbert Hoover, with faculty and administrators making deliberate moves forward over the course of years.

Principal Mike Kelley has been at Herbert Hoover for four years now. His first year there he wanted to focus on getting things "under control." He and his staff came up with a list of areas where they were deficient, and then set about correcting those issues.

"You can't fix a problem until you know what it is," he said.

First up was writing - the students at Herbert Hoover had been performing consistently poorly on the state's writing assessment, contributing to the school's low reading and language arts scores.

They instituted a program that had every student in the doing a one-sentence exercise during every period of the day - a small thing, teachers say, that amounts to a lot of extra writing practice over the course of weeks, months and years.

They also put students to work on the state's computer program that prepares them for the standardized writing test, an effort to familiarize students with the test's format as well as having them do more writing practice.

"We just needed to focus on skills," Kelley said.

Next came a new "enrichment program." The school built a schedule that allowed for a 23-minute period each day in which students work on their trouble areas.

All of these solutions came from teachers at Herbert Hoover - a bottom-up approach that Kelley said was key to the plan.

"Sometimes when you get these mandates from somewhere else you don't have the kind of buy-in that you need from teachers and students," he said. "But when the plan was developed by the school by the people who are going to implement it that's not a problem at all."

Even more important, they say, is that they've managed to change the atmosphere at the school in a way that is vital to success, even though it isn't quantifiable.

"We made being smart cool again," said Heather Lyons, a science teacher. "They're excited to find out how well they did. They get really excited about being smart."

That took time. To accomplish it, they worked to make the kids more competitive about their academics - a way to make them care more. And teachers say their own excitement about their students' improvement inevitably rubbed off on the kids.

"When you're not successful it's almost dangerous to try hard because then you're risking failing," Kelley said. "That's kind of the hump we had to get over to get to this point."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.

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