Donna Wright is talking about her favorite subject--her school.
It's something the aggressively optimistic West High School principal has done almost nonstop for the past four years. At the slightest invitation, she'll launch into a soliloquy about the building, its teachers, and its students, peppered with unapologetic boasts like, "We have the best high school in Knox County, soon to be the best high school in Tennessee."
This particular January morning, Wright is evangelizing in West's mini-auditorium to about 30 visiting teachers and principals from Australia. The group--on a professional exchange program from Toowoomba, in Queensland--is spending nine days touring local schools (and shopping in Pigeon Forge). Today, they want to see an American high school.
But as Wright proudly tells them, the school they glimpse on a quick tour through West's wide, brightly-lit halls is anything but typical.
Not long ago, West was one of the "bad" schools, a crumbling building with a reputation for hallway violence and racial tension. In 1993, when the Knox County school board rezoned hundreds of children to West from prestigious Bearden High School, Wright says, "People went crazy."
School board Chairwoman Margaret Maddox says, "The perception was it was not a good school, did not have good students, was not a good place to go."
But now, the inverted-F-shaped building on a semi-industrial stretch of Sutherland Avenue is bucking all the prevailing trends in public education. It is a city school with a large minority population that is drawing well-off white kids away from prestigious private and suburban schools. A few years ago, parents fought to keep their children out; now, the school has had to tighten its transfer policy to keep students from rushing in.
"It's probably the most diverse school in the state of Tennessee, and I think it proves that those kinds of schools work," says Jim McClain, vice-chairman of the Knox County school board and a former West principal.
The progress has not gone unnoticed. It's hard to tell what the visiting Aussies propped in gray plastic folding seats think of Wright's pep talk, but she's not far wrong when she tells them, "We are the hottest topic in Knox County right now."
That kind of buzz inevitably draws detractors, and there are those who grumble the school is more style than substance, a flashy new building with a good marketing campaign that has yet to prove its academic strength.
West's transformation from ugly stepchild to fresh-faced princess is a tale that says a lot about what makes a good school--a combination of physical appearance, energized teachers, enthusiastic students, and a principal fiercely devoted to making it all work.
All of it has added up to something West's boosters--parents, students, and teachers--say is unquantifiable.
"I cannot define exactly what is happening, but something special exists in that school," says Rosemary Gilliam, assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch in Knoxville and mother of two students who came to West from a private school.
Fall and Rise
To understand how far West has come, you first have to know how far it fell.
During the Eisenhower era, the school had a sterling reputation for educating the best and the brightest, the children of Sequoyah Hills families who went on to local and national prominence. Future business leaders, politicians, and scientific innovators crowded the then-small school's hallways. (It was also home to a pair of brothers named Phil and Don Everly, whose hit single "Bird Dog" was allegedly inspired by West principal R.E.C. "Bird Dog" Love.)
Robert Marquis, a Knoxville lawyer and a 1960 graduate of West, recalls that in 1964, Newsweek magazine ran an article on the 10 American college students most likely to succeed. Two of them were West High grads.
"I always thought that said quite a lot about our school," he says.
By the mid-'60s, things were changing. The Webb School of Knoxville--a private prep school on the western fringes of the county--was gaining steam and attracting children of doctors, lawyers, and UT professors who were zoned to West. The "bright flight," as Wright calls it, deprived West of many top-achieving students.
McClain was a teacher and coach at Webb at the time and remembers the influx of students from the West High zone.
"I know how many busloads came out of Sequoyah Hills," he says "I drove one."
Over the next 25 years, West went into a pattern of decline familiar to city schools in Knoxville and across the country. The building got older and was neither renovated, repaired, nor replaced. More kids transferred to other schools, and more of the ones who stayed came from backgrounds replete with social problems.
By the time the old city school system went out of business in 1987--dropping all its schools, including West, in the county's lap--West's reputation had hit bottom. It was known, Wright says, as a "dumping ground" for children who couldn't cut it anywhere else. Neighbors complained about students who lolled around on the school lawn or hid behind bushes smoking, and stories were rampant about gang violence.
"That's what you heard. It was just a rumble school," says senior Robert McKeehan, who was part of the first group rezoned from Bearden.
McClain was named principal at West in 1989, and Wright--who was then a history teacher at Powell High School--came the next year as an assistant principal. She insists the perception of West was never the reality. There were more fights at the school then than there are now, she says, but not to the extent the outside world believed. And despite problems with the building, Wright says the school built a strong, close-knit faculty. She notes many of the teachers at the "new" West were also at the "old" West.
Nevertheless, West had a serious image problem, and school officials knew it. Anticipating the need for a place to send overflow from booming West Knox County schools, the county designated West for a complete overhaul. In 1991, the system began a $12 million renovation and expansion, which Wright says the school desperately needed.
"It was one of the darkest, most dismal buildings that I had ever seen," Wright says. "Even with (the county taking over), I think about all that had been changed was new light bulbs and toilet paper. There was graffiti on window sills that dated back to the '60s. I saw it."
In addition to a total renovation of the existing building, it got new classrooms and offices that doubled its space, along with perks like the pristine mini-auditorium and a state-of-the-art vocational technology lab.
The project took two years to complete. But even as excitement grew within the school, nay-saying continued on the outside.
The 1991 closing of Rule High School, which sent students from public housing in College Homes and College Hills to West, only fueled the skepticism.
"The (comments) started, 'Well, you can put a new dress on, a caterpillar can change into a butterfly, but look at the population of that school.' It wasn't enough," Wright says.
That became painfully clear in 1993, when the school board got ready to fill up the new, sparkling building--with students from Bearden High School.
The idea was to move kids from Bearden to West, so Farragut--which was at 2,300 students and bursting at the seams--could move some of its population to Bearden.
On paper, it made sense. In practice, the proposal to extend West's zone nearly to West Town Mall set off a frenzy of protest.
Maddox, who was in the middle of the fight as a board member representing both Bearden and West, says parents were worried about academics, an area where Bearden had a strong reputation and West didn't. But there were other elements to the resistance.
"There were a lot of problems with race, because Bearden didn't have nearly the black population that West had," Maddox admits. "And there were a lot of problems with socio-economic levels.
"It was sad, it was very sad. It was disheartening...The fear of that change, the horrible fear that was out there that I saw, felt. You could almost taste it at some times the fear was so thick."
That was the situation Wright found herself facing in the fall of 1993, when McClain, having overseen the renovation and rezoning, retired after 34 years in education. (He was elected to the school board the next year, representing South Knoxville.)
Wright was Superintendent Allen Morgan's choice to fill the post, first on an interim basis and then permanently. It was Morgan, as principal at Powell, who had first suggested Wright go into administration, a notion she initially resisted--"I thought he was accusing me of being too bossy," she jokes.
The Wright Stuff
In fact, Wright's administrative style at West has been anything but bossy. Assertive, maybe, and certainly confident, but teachers and students say the 45-year-old principal with UT-orange curls runs the school with an open hand, not a clenched fist.
When she first became principal, she promised the staff she would include them in all major decisions and let their ideas drive the school. It's a promise teachers say she's made good on.
"The [faculty] committees have made a lot of decisions, and we've had the opportunity to try a lot of things," math teacher Sallee Reynolds says. "Donna's got such an open-door policy, you can go to her about anything."
The openness extends to students. One of Wright's first moves was to form a student advisory group called the Principal's Roundtable. Group members gathered before school one morning say their ideas are taken seriously by Wright and the faculty.
"It's like here, teachers really listen to us," says senior Alex Gingrow, between bites of a bagel. "We're not just their little students."
Wright--a self-described Type A personality who used to get reprimanded in school because she couldn't sit still--has been such a persistent and visible advocate for West that students say some people in the community refer to West as "Ms. Wright's high school."
She deflects such comments with protests that the school is a joint effort between staff and students, with her more in the role of manager than leader.
But her stamp on the school is indelible--in her insistence, for example, that teachers be constantly aware of their students' need for encouragement.
Marian Moffett, a UT professor of architecture and a West parent, says she been impressed with those efforts.
"We've had teachers who have called us, for example, and said how pleased they were at how well our child has done on a math test," she reports.
In conversation with Wright, it becomes clear her concern stems from genuine affection for a segment of society most adults would prefer not to deal with--teenagers. She loves the energy and enthusiasm of adolescence, and she's also tuned in to its darker moments.
"It's a wonderful age, and I'd never want to go through it again," she says, seated in her office with the door open to the hum of activity at the school's front counter. "You know how people tell teenagers, 'Enjoy this, these are the best years of your life'? That's the greatest lie we have ever told kids, because that's not the best part of their life. It's painful; it's hard for many of them."
When she became principal, Wright made a pledge to learn the name of every student in the school so none would feel overlooked.
"Some of them I scared to death, because I'd go up to shake [their hand] and say, 'I don't believe I know your name,' and they'd say, 'But I haven't done anything wrong.' I said, 'That's right, that's why I want to know your name.'"
Selling a School
She also set out to make sure the rest of Knoxville knew the name of West High School. She busied herself in the influential business and civic groups where word of mouth can make or break a school. Among her targets was the Greater Knoxville Chamber of Commerce's annual BEST awards, which recognize excellence in local education. Five awards are given each year and tend to rotate around the county, but they carry valuable local bragging rights.
Wright's activism--which she unflinchingly calls a "selling job"--ruffled some feathers.
"I was criticized by a large number of people," she says, "that I was selling my soul, that I was becoming a publicist, that I was forgetting my role as an administrator, that it was degrading to have to promote the school."
But she believed in West and saw no reason not to say so. When the school won a 1994 BEST award, she broadcast it on West's streetside marquees--"Got criticized for that too," she says with a laugh.
School officials reached out to the neighborhoods around West, making the building available for community groups, UT evening classes, church services and other activities. Wright says it's now the most-used school in the county.
Wright also targeted local real estate agents, who had traditionally steered families toward schools like Bearden and Farragut. Now, professionals relocating to Knoxville are as likely to hear about the merits of West.
And when parents of prospective students called her, Wright invited them in for a one-on-one version of the sales pitch.
"She's rather persuasive," said Susanne Hassell, who moved her son to West from a private school after meeting with Wright. "We walked out of the office that day and said if she can deliver half of what she says, we'll be pleased. And she's done all that and more."
Hassell's not the only one who has come back to West. In a reversal of the trend that started the school's decline, Wright says 73 private school students have come to West in the past two years, many of them from Webb.
Students and parents who have made the switch say they were drawn by West's academics and diversity, although they may also have been nudged by rising tuition (over $8,000 at Webb this year).
Art Scott, president of Webb School, will say little about West, except to note that many students choose to leave private schools at the break between middle and high school.
"I can only tell you that I want every school to be a great school," Scott says.
Some are less charitable, accusing Wright of blatantly recruiting private school students. She denies the charge, but the accusation itself says a lot about the school's success.
How far along West is to being "the best high school in Knox County" is hard to measure. In objective terms, the school doesn't dramatically differentiate itself from other top local schools. According to school system reports, 80 percent of West graduates go on to college, third-highest in the county behind Farragut and Bearden. West students who took the ACT college entrance exam last year scored about average for the county.
But parents have no complaints about the school's performance.
"Very candidly, I feel as though we are getting private school education at public school prices," Rosemary Gilliam says. She says both of her children have been academically challenged even more at West than at their private school.
Wright calls West's math program "the best in the state," a bold statement for a graduate of math powerhouse Oak Ridge (and one that's hard to prove one way or another). She also proudly points to the first-place finish last year of the school's team in the statewide Science Olympiad competition.
Spencer Hall, a junior who transferred to West from Webb last year, says, "Really, I think I get a better education in science and math courses here than at Webb."
The students who have come in from the old Bearden zone and private schools have provided a larger group of high achievers, enabling West to offer increasing numbers of Advanced Placement courses: AP calculus, AP English, AP biology, AP French, AP chemistry, AP Spanish, AP history.
But more than just the coursework, students and parents say they like the feel of West. They describe a school where cliques are kept to a minimum and there is little friction between different groups, despite the wide socio-economic spectrum.
"There's hardly ever a time when someone from what you would think of as a group doesn't get along with everyone else," says junior Rachel Oberman, a member of the Principal's Roundtable. "It's a very nice environment."
Another Roundtable member, senior Ashley Krieg, adds, "For me, it's been a time that I've had so many opportunities opened to me that I wouldn't have had at any other high school."
Not that West is without problems. Although Wright says her most common discipline infraction is tardiness to class, there are still occasional fights and students more determined to cause problems than get an education. But Wright says discipline is swift and strict, a claim students readily back up.
And despite parental fears, Wright says there is little racial friction-- fights tend to be between students of the same race. As for problems with gangs from some of the low-income neighborhoods that West serves, students say they're all but nonexistent.
"There's still people that are in gangs here, but I've never seen it brought to school," McKeehan says. "They're pretty good at keeping it out."
A Growing Problem?
The biggest threat West faces now is becoming too popular for its own good. This year's freshman class has 459 students, more than twice the size of the 221-member senior class. Wright expects a similarly large ninth grade next year, which would push the school close to its 1,500-student capacity.
To help keep the numbers down, Wright has blocked any new out-of-zone transfers into the school. Still, she acknowledges the rising population will present challenges as teachers have to deal with larger classes and students must walk more crowded hallways--not to mention the increased difficulty of knowing every student's name.
Students worry about the growth, afraid it will jeopardize the rapport with peers and teachers they value at West.
"I think in five years, it'll just be another Bearden," McKeehan predicts gloomily.
There is also speculation about Wright's future. Politically active in Republican circles, the Powell resident recently missed being appointed to the Knox County Election Commission by one vote. The post would have been part-time and wouldn't have interfered with her job, but it signaled her interests might go beyond school grounds.
"I think she's well thought of in a variety of circles, so yeah, I could see her as a political force," says Anne Woodle, a former school board member and president-elect of the East Tennessee Women's Political Caucus.
For her part, Wright says she can't see ever moving beyond her job to Central Office or elsewhere. But she adds as a caveat, "Keep in mind, I never saw myself as a high school principal either."
Learning from it
For the moment, West is in the spotlight and enjoying it.
"It is definitely a success story that should be trumpeted," Maddox says. "It's almost hard to imagine now how hard it was when I think back on it, because it's turned out so well."
What West's success means for other local schools with image problems is debatable. Board member Sam Anderson says any school could benefit from a large infusion of affluent students and active parents, but not many schools can simply move a zone line and capture such a population.
Anderson hopes the school system's magnet programs at Austin-East, Vine Middle, and three elementary schools will eventually meet the same success by drawing suburban students into the city voluntarily. But, he says, "It's going to be tougher, and it's going to be more expensive."
Still, West is instructive in understanding how schools' reputations are formed. Superintendent Morgan says most people who have a negative idea of any particular school have never been in the building.
"If we have a youngster with a weapon at a school today, [people] might assume the whole school is that way," he says. "We could have 999 kids doing the right thing and one or two doing the wrong thing, and that's the message that gets out. So I think administrators have to look at bringing the community into the school."
Woodle, who was on the school board during the West rehabilitation effort, says the experience also shows the importance of appearance.
"I think what has happened with West really demonstrates the value of a building's cosmetic and curb appeal, as well as the value of up-to-date resources, because I think a lot of the programming and the faculty are not remarkably changed," she says.
And then, Wright says, there's the value of simply fighting fire with fire--in this case, bad PR with good PR. Judging from the eyebrows she's raised, it may not be a lesson everyone in public education is comfortable with.
That doesn't deter Wright. As she tells her Australian visitors, "If you keep telling people you're the best, eventually they'll believe it. So we're going to keep telling people."