Troubled Durham school producing Ivy League students

Posted June 10, 2011 11:36 a.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2011 10:18 a.m. EDT

— 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.