At the Miami high school that President Barack Obama will visit on Friday, neon-colored flyers taped to the walls quiz students on tough vocabulary words.
Three years ago, Miami Central Senior High School _ for five years given an "F" on state reports _ began a transformation. The principal was replaced and in the last two years, nearly 50 percent of the staff.
Students moved in to a new, modern building around the same time.
Scores on state assessments show both progress, but also the difficulty of turning around a persistently low-performing school. Last year, 58 percent of sophomores were rated as proficient in math, up from 17 percent in 2001. But only 12 percent scored at grade level in reading _ up from 5 percent nearly a decade before.
School officials acknowledge that progress is often measured in small steps.
"The way in which the students are receiving instruction, the engagement we see the students in currently _ that will improve and it has improved," said Renina Turner, the school's principal.
Miami Central's story illustrates the challenges faced by public schools that have been rated as "failing" since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed into the law during the Bush administration. Despite frustrating efforts to turn them around, administrators and researchers still haven't reached a consensus over what works.
Many schools have made significant strides in student achievement in short spans of time, but how these solutions can be applied to solve a nationwide problem remains unanswered.
The Obama administration is trying to turn around the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing public schools with a nearly $4 billion infusion to the School Improvement Grant program. Schools awarded grants must choose one of four intervention models: Closure; reopening as a charter; replacing the principal and a majority of the staff; and hiring a new principal while providing further teacher development and learning time.
"The challenge with the four models is there really isn't good evidence to suggest that number one, these are effective, and two, they are effective in the time frame being required," said Thomas Hatch, a professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching.
"Unfortunately, it's not as if there's other approaches that you could say, 'Oh those are definitely more effective,' because I think part of the fundamental problem here is we're trying to do this on a significant scale," he added.
In announcing Obama's planned visit to the school alongside former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Bush picked Miami Central because it "tells an incredible story of the impact successful turnaround strategies and models can have on persistently low-performing schools."
Miami Central is located in the West Little River neighborhood, which is populated with strip malls, gas stations and garden nurseries. For a decade, the school scored no higher than a "D" on Florida's annual school accountability report. The school battled drug and discipline problems.
Ashley Wynche, 18, an aspiring artist and senior at the school, recalls entering her freshmen year and learning the school had been repeatedly given an "F" by the state. Her immediate reaction: Concern that a transcript from Miami Central would taint her college and career aspirations.
"Get me out," she told her mother, the teenager recalled.
As she began her sophomore year, an energetic new principal, David Rodriguez, took the helm. He'd been the state's "Principal of the Year" and had experience turning around low-performing schools. He focused on restoring discipline, and transferred a number of students to alternative and technical programs. He also went about trying to change a culture of low expectations to one where everyone was expected to do well and pass.
Rodriguez recalled that the message he sent to staff and students was, "It was the content of your character and not your zip code that determined whether or not you were going to be successful."
The staff examined test data to determine the academic needs of students, and created an in-house dual enrollment program for students to be able to take college-level classes. Rodriguez said that by the end of his second year, there were 200 students taking college-level courses at Miami Central.
He also helped create a partnership with Teach For America and brought in nearly 40 new teachers.
"Mr. Rodriguez gave no option for failure," said Alex Favela, 17, another senior at the school, who has applied to Ivy League colleges and aspires to become a pastor.
The efforts pulled the school up to a "D" grade on the state's annual school accountability report. The percent of students meeting high standards in math jumped from 38 to 51 percent. Reading performance also improved, though at a smaller scale, from 13 to 17 percent of students meeting high standards.
"I don't think anybody is under the premonition that the work at Central is done," Rodriguez said. "I think what we were able to do in those first two years is get the school rolling in the right direction."
He said part of the challenge is that by high school, achievement gaps are wide, with some children years behind.
"The catch-up gap is so wide that it requires an intense remediation for students," Rodriguez said. "And I think that's why it's so difficult for schools around the country."
Rodriguez left after two years to become the principal of a charter school. He said the new position provided him an opportunity to apply what he'd learned at a larger scale.
"The work can be done," he said. "And I think Central is an example."
For this school year, the school has been awarded $784,700 as part of the School Improvement Grant program. It is one of 831 low-performing schools implementing one of the program's four transformation models.
A Center for Education Policy study released in February found that about 74 percent of schools under the program had chosen to replace the principal and work at improving academic achievement through teacher development, increased learning time and providing the principal with greater flexibility over how the school is run.
Center president Jack Jennings said its review of dozens of schools that had turned around found there wasn't scientific evidence to back up limiting districts to the four options they prescribed.
"You can find individual situations where they do work," he said. "But it's not generalizable."
Many also say that tackling schools alone is insufficient.
"The point here is it has to be a double fight going on," said Joseph Murphy an associate dean at the Peabody College of education and human development at Vanderbilt University. "Society has to take ownership for a big chunk of this and we have to do things as a country to offset the ravages of poverty and those issue."
Turner, who became principal of Miami Central this year, completed the new hiring and staff replacement that Rodriguez had begun. Turner also instituted a number of other changes, including improving teacher development and lesson planning, as well as closely monitoring data to target students who are falling behind.
"They're really encouraging and they have more, I guess, patience," Ivonne Arevalo, 17, said of her new teachers, many of whom are young, which she sees as a benefit. "They understand more."
Turner summarized the results so far as, "structure, consistency and results."
Graduation and dropout rates for the school also give rise for optimism. The graduation climbed to 65.3 percent and the dropout rate went from 8.9 to 4.74 percent from 2008-09 to 2009-10.
Wynche, who was originally hesitant about having Miami Central on her transcript, said she no longer has that concern: She's been accepted at Florida International University.