Hundreds of high schools in the region, many still under desegregation orders, have quietly become public-education powerhouses.
Sometimes the reaction is a guffaw, sometimes a snort. Either way, it's the disbelieving sound of people learning that an unassuming suburban school called Jefferson County IBS in Irondale, Ala., about as deep in the South as you can get, ranks in the top five high schools in the United States.
"People still have stereotypes of what ... Alabamians are like, and because we talk slower maybe they think we're not on the ball," says Linda Jones, an administrator at the school.
Southern school districts still lag behind the US average on standardized-test scores, and many see their students, especially blacks and Hispanics, drop out. Yet 50 years after the "Little Rock Nine" integrated Central High in Arkansas, hundreds of Southern high schools, many still under desegregation orders, have quietly become educational powerhouses, muscling out California, the Midwest, and New England when it comes to school innovation, excellence, and standard-setting.
"California used to be the educational mecca, but clearly the South has been very progressive in improving its high schools," says Gene Bottoms, a director at the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) in Atlanta. "If you looked at where the South was 20 years ago, there's very little comparison to what exists today."
This year, the top five schools in Newsweek's ranking of US public high schools are below the Mason-Dixon line. While Vermont's homogenous schools are ranked the "smartest," according to Morgan Quitno Press, top-performing schools in the South – from Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C., to Suncoast Community in Riviera Beach, Fla. – have risen against the odds, teaching racially diverse and, often, poor students who, research shows, come to school less prepared than white students.
The South's educational progress is attributed to many things: an influx of middle-class Northerners, weak unions, and leadership from people such as former Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Hundreds of federal integration orders, too, forced mixed-race classrooms and laid the groundwork for reforms that emphasize treating students as individuals, not as groups.