Troubled Durham school producing Ivy League students

Posted June 10, 2011
Updated June 14, 2011

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— Almost 80 percent of the students graduating from a Durham high school that a judge once threatened to shut down because of poor performance have been accepted to four-year colleges this year, including one who is heading to Harvard University.

Hillside High School has struggled over the years with a reputation of violence and poor academics, but Principal Hans Lassiter says there is much to celebrate at the school these days.

"We instill a sense of doing something next," Lassiter said, noting that administrators post the average grades and SAT scores for admitted freshmen at numerous universities to show students how high they need to aim.

Hillside High's test scores have risen over the past few years along with its graduation rate. About 55 percent of students passed end-of-course testing last year, which are the most recent scores available.

"This is not a flash in the pan. This, again, is indicative of the level of work that is put in here at Hillside," Lassiter said.

Crystal Johnson put in plenty of work during her years at the school. She will graduate as valedictorian of her class and plans to attend Harvard in the fall, where she will study to become a doctor.

"I probably read (my acceptance letter) way over 20 times. I was, like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it. I got into Harvard,'" she said.

Cassandra Johnson said she knew her daughter was driven to earn a degree.

"Even as a small child, if you would give her a dollar, she'd say, 'This is for college,'" Johnson said of her daughter.

Still, she said, she knew her daughter faced tough competition to make the cut in the Ivy League.

"I'm overwhelmed right now with joy," she said. "I don't know how high I jumped."

A 1975 Hillside High graduate, Cassandra Johnson credits the school as playing a big part of her daughter's success.

"I love this school, and I love the faculty and the parents. They have been that village (needed to raise a child)," she said..

Although the state has designated Hillside High as in need of a turnaround, a graduate from the school has either been accepted to or later transferred into an Ivy League school for four straight years.

Crystal Johnson said she was inspired by another graduate already attending Harvard, and other students are already asking her about how to get into Harvard.

"I think it should just let them know that it's possible, and it doesn't matter where you come from," she said.


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  • Raptor06 Jun 10, 2011

    "This was not accomplished by shoveling money into a failing school, but by threatening to cut it off"...wayneboyd

    I would say it's more evidence of a parent's expectations and involvement in their child's education. We truly are products of our environments. Some amount of money probably was a factor in creating that school's environment.

  • BigUNCFan Jun 10, 2011

    Great turnaround. Now build on the success.

  • GetRight Jun 10, 2011

    Congratulations Crystal! While your teachers played a vital role in your education, YOU made the decision to succeed; YOU put forth the effort to do exemplary work and to get it done on time; YOU denied yourself many pleasures that your contemporaries (and perhaps many of your teachers) indulged themselves in because you held a prize in your vision that begged to be put aside in favor of future rewards. You still have a quite a way to go but you know what to do. Keep your eye on the prize and continue in diligence. Trust God when you think you are out of strength and He will carry you.

    We (I am) are very proud of you. This did not "just happen". You are NOT going to Harvard University because you were born smart. There are many "smarter" and more talented than you who are failing (and will continue to fail) in life because they trusted in talent. YOU made this happen. You have what it takes to succeed in life. You are a winner!

  • Candlelove Jun 10, 2011

    I think it's great that this Principal is letting the public know the good things that are happening at a school with a bad reputation. "It's a sad frog who won't praise his own pond." The ratings may not look good to some of you, but to those who are there succeeding I'm sure they are just as proud. Congratulations to them all.

  • anne53ozzy Jun 10, 2011

    Hooray for these kids and the staff that support them!!!!!

  • wayneboyd Jun 10, 2011

    This was not accomplished by shoveling money into a failing school, but by threatening to cut it off.

  • westernwake1 Jun 10, 2011

    The Hillside Graduation rate went from 52.4% in 2009 to 67.3% in 2010. The graduation rate figures for 2011 are expected out shortly and should be similar to 2010. Hillside has over 80% black students. The average state-wide graduation rate for black students is under 55%.

    Clearly the educational experience at Hillside has improved over the last couple of years. The adminstration and teachers should be given credit for making this happen.

  • djcgriffin Jun 10, 2011

    The numbers may not look great to some of the comments here, but it is a great improvement to what they used to be or could be. Kudos to the students and administration for the upward trend...keep up the good work!

  • mrduffin Jun 10, 2011

    80% of 55% is not that great. If the senior class was 500 students before dropouts got it down to 275...220 are going to college.

  • americangirl Jun 10, 2011

    That is wonderful, she is an awesome example you can do anything you put your mind to. She has a bright future and I wish her the best.