Alexander named one of the top schools in the nation by Newsweek

Alexander Principal Nathan Hand, Assistant Principal Stephen Beatty stand with Kimberly Laver's AP Biology class Thursday. Alexander was recently recognized by Newsweek magazine as one of the top high schools in the nation because of its graduation rate, college-bound students, ACT and SAT scores and AP classes. (Ron Daniel / Douglas County Sentinel)

Alexander High School’s mantra since Nathan Hand arrived as principal five years has been simple: Make it personal.

It may seem simple, but the idea of of teachers communicating with students on both an academic and personal level is paying big dividends.

A few weeks ago, Alexander landed a big-time national honor in large part because, as Hand puts it, “We know our kids.” Newsweek magazine named Alexander to its list of America’s Best High Schools for 2013.

Alexander is ranked among the top 10 percent of schools in the country in Newsweek’s rankings, coming in at No. 1803 out of over 20,000 schools. A total of 50 high schools from Georgia made the magazine’s rankings and Alexander was 45th in the state.

“It’s put us on the map,” Hand said. “That’s good company when you just look at the Georgia schools.”

Hand said there was no official letter from Newsweek letting him know his school made the list. A teacher at the school saw it online and news started spreading through group emails among staff members and then it took off on social media.

“It was definitely trending between Twitter and Facebook,” said Stephen Beatty, Alexander’s assistant principal in charge of instruction and curriculum.

The ranking takes into account graduation rate, the percentage of college-bound students, ACT and SAT scores, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Hand said three stats stand out to him that helped propel Alexander to national recognition – graduation rate, the percentage of students who were accepted to college and Alexander’s SAT average.

Newsweek lists Alexander’s graduation rate as 87 percent, which was figured under the old “leaver” method with 2011 numbers. That number is just over 81 percent now using the new four-year “cohort” method.

A total of 86 percent of Alexander’s students were accepted to either a two- or four-year colleges the fall after graduation for 2011, and Alexander’s average SAT score was a 1418.

While it was numbers that put Alexander on the map, Hand said the students at Alexander are more than just a number to the administration and staff.

“The whole idea of making it personal was just going beyond the scope of what’s being done academically,” Hand said. “Just making sure we care about these kids and that we understand that everyone of these kids bring something different to the school. Everyone of them is carrying some kind of weight from the outside.”

Valli Robinson is the AP coordinator and media specialist at Alexander and a 1991 graduate of the school.

Robinson said a big part of making it personal at Alexander is recognizing that every student has areas where excel. She said it used to be that AP courses were for only students deemed “exceptional.” But nowadays, she said Alexander looks for students that may be average in certain subjects but really strong in others. Alexander encourages all of its students to take AP classes in subjects where they excel, even if it’s just one or two classes.

Alexander has increased its AP course offerings from 10 when Hand arrived to 15 currently. More impressively, the number of students taking AP classes has jumped from around 200 to nearly 500 over that time period.

“I guess part of it is teachers have embraced the idea that there are many types of kids that can succeed in an AP type of environment,” said Robinson. “And because of our whole “make it personal” kind of campaign around here, we’re doing a better job of identifying a child who might be successful in one area that might have slipped through before.”

Another sort of micro-level thing Alexander does to help buoy success is making sure every student has an Individual Graduation Plan (IGP), where each student works with a teacher on a post-secondary plan, whether it be joining the military or attending a two- or four-year college.

Alexander also identifies students that might be having trouble or considered “at-risk.” Teachers then make an effort to get to know a particular student and serve as a sort of safe-haven when the student they're working with has a problem, whether it be academic or personal. Hand said in a sense, every staff member at Alexander is like a guidance counselor. The result, Hand said, is that less students fall through the cracks and they’re more likely to graduate high school and be successful in life.

“We’ve really tried to make our philosophy one that is not simply about what the kid is doing in class and are they following the rules,” Hand said. “We want to get beyond that scope. We want to be an inviting school. Something where the kids are smiling in the hallway and they’re happy to be here. I think the only way you make that happen is by being more personal and hands on with the kids in gaining their trust. And in turn, obviously, they’re going to want to make you proud.”

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