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Each year, Ed Trust highlights a handful of schools that are closing achievement gaps, setting high standards for all students, and supporting teachers with the proper resources to get them there. These success stories dispel the damaging myth that schools can do very little to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination — and so, they are aptly called the “Dispelling the Myth Awards.”

This year, we recognized four schools. They include Pass Christian High School in Mississippi, where the graduation rate exceeds the state average with no gaps between white and black students, nor students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals and those who do not. Here’s how:

The school board and district officials adopted the motto, “Committed to Excellence” and from then on, when there was a choice, their commitment to excellence meant that the harder decision would often be made.

“Commitment to mediocrity would have been so much easier,” [Principal Meridith] Bang said recently, laughing a bit ruefully.

One of the many ways this plays out is that the district hires teachers for their teaching, not their coaching. This is a daring move in Mississippi, where sports are sometimes considered the most important part of the high school experience. “When our athletes lose, they just say, ‘We beat you in academics,'” Bang said. But some parents and community members still grumble that sports aren’t given enough due. The superintendent and board are also willing to hire experienced teachers who are more expensive than brand new teachers straight out of college.

To build a culture of excellence, from behavior to instruction, teachers and school leaders began paying careful attention to ensuring that every student was known, felt valued, and was pushed into the most rigorous academic work he or she could handle, with lots of celebrations for every academic milestone met. Suspensions dropped, graduation rates inched up, and Advanced Placement classes had expanded.

That’s when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Find out how Pass Christian staff and students managed the crisis — and excelled long term — in the full post here.

And also stay tuned for more on all of our 2013 Dispelling the Myth Award winners.

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