What does it take for a school to be labeled one of the best in the country? The faculty and students at Merrol Hyde Magnet School think they know the answer. The Hendersonville, Tennessee, school was listed among the best public high schools in the country by U.S. News in its annual ranking of schools.
Merrol Hyde is also ranked number three in Tennessee, joining Nashville’s Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet and Martin Luther King, Jr., Magnet, along with Brentwood High School as the top 4 public schools in Tennessee.
This is the first year Merrol Hyde has ranked that high, reaching the Gold Medal level, according to the principal, Brad Shreiner.
“We received silver distinction a couple of times and we were thrilled with that. But we’re always trying to go from good to great and we looked at what do we need to do to get that gold,” says Shreiner. “It was just a real morale booster!”
According to the U.S. News report, Gold Medal schools are the top 500 in preparing students for college. (The overall rankings also considers student test scores and other factors.) Shreiner believes that criterion sets Merrol Hyde apart: it’s a founding principle of the school, which serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.)
“What we do here is we start talking about college in kindergarten. In the first week or two of school, the announcements are done by seniors. Seniors lead the pledge, they choose a song—but they also mention where they’re going to college and what they’re going to major in,” explains Shreiner. “The little ones hear that; kindergarten and first-grade students hear that. So they say to their first-grade teacher ‘What’s the difference in a college and a university? What’s a major? What’s a minor?’ So we set the tone early on that when you leave here you go to college and we talk about college… We do have 100% college-bound students.
Shreiner says it’s not just the responsibility of the school counselor to discuss college options with students.
“Since we have a very small school – we have 60 graduates or fewer every year—students talk to their history teachers about their best college fit for them, or their math teacher. So we’re all kind of college counselors in the high school level. They’ll talk to the librarian—not just the guidance college,” says Shreiner.
But she also credits how students learn in the years leading up to high school. Merrol Hyde uses the Paideia style of teaching, so classrooms rarely have a conventional lecture-style appearance.
It’s not uncommon to visit a classroom and find students huddled together while one of their classmates gives a lesson—and the teacher looks on.
“When you sit in a circle with your peers and you talk about the different way that something can be solved or you take an open-ended text and you have to pull it apart, I think that develops critical thinking,” says Shreiner. “Students are thinking more critically because they’ve been trained to do so since kindergarten.
“I would say one of the areas where they excel is in their communications skills. They know how to have a civil dialogue, and that prepares them for a job interview, for college, when they can communicate in a civil way with an adult. We’ve given them a skill that a lot of students don’t develop until they get to post-secondary education.”
Lesson learned, according to graduating senior Cam Burrus, who has attended Merrol Hyde since grade school.
“All the seniors that have graduated from here before tell me that they’re really prepared for college when they get here and it’s just an easy transition,” says Burrus.
Another high school student, Henry Holmes, also feels better prepared.
“I feel like our homework is more in-depth and [requires] more writing, really understanding the concept rather than just answering a few questions,” says Holmes.
Besides college preparedness, the U.S. News editors also look at other factors, such as student performance on state proficiency test, stating that “… a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college-bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes…”
Principal Shreiner admits Merrol Hyde serves a select group of students—only those who meet specific academic standards are accepted. But she says the U.S. News ranking shows that even high-achieving students can continue to make gains. She also believes that some of the strategies used at her school can be just as effective elsewhere—over time.
“ I think you have to set up the school as we were able to do, with the end in mind,” says Shreiner. “I don’t think you can just decide one day as the principal of a high school that’s got 15-hundred kids that ‘Now, we’re going to make everyone go to college.’ It doesn’t work that way. We were blessed to be able to start with that founding principle in place.”