Oct. 1, 2012 02:15 PM

A dramatic change in atmosphere at Northside High School continues as a picture tells a thousand words and local businesses step up to help.

A dramatic change in atmosphere at Northside High School continues as a picture tells a thousand words and local businesses step up to help.

Monday, Oct. 1, 2012
Photos by Heather Miller

NHS freshmen show off the caps and gowns their principal,
Melinda Voorhies (below right), hopes to see them wearing
four years from now.

Take a walk around the Northside High School campus in between classes on any given school day, and you'll hear the sounds of Gnarles Barkley, zydeco favorite Keith Frank or other songs of students' choosing blasting through the school speakers. When the music starts, some students dance - and almost everyone picks up their pace as they head to their next class.

The music, says Northside Principal Melinda Voorhies, is a signal for students that they have one minute left to get to class before the tardy bell sounds. It's been a simple, yet effective measure in drastically decreasing the number of tardies reported at NHS.

For Voorhies, who was pulled out of retirement in February at the request of Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper to lead Northside's unprecedented turnaround effort, a little bit of outside-the-box thinking goes a long way when coupled with the data-driven instructional models and professional development for educators now under way at Lafayette's poorest performing high school.

"As long as it's all about kids, you can't go wrong," Voorhies says.

A former basketball coach with a clear, commanding voice, Voorhies has a vision, and she'll stop at nothing to see it through. And when she speaks, people listen.

Case in point: When Voorhies began reviewing Northside's historically low graduation and high dropout rates over the summer, she had an idea on how to improve the dismal numbers.

Voorhies contacted IND Monthly the afternoon of Sept. 17 hoping to share her idea and explain why she believes it will be a significant factor in her students finishing high school. But first, she said, "I need pictures of all my freshmen wearing caps and gowns and I need the pictures hung on the wall at school."

Two days later, two IND Monthly staffers (and a few lively Northside administrators) began a two-day photo shoot on Northside's campus, capturing individual images of roughly 250 freshmen donning graduation caps and gowns. The students had no idea what was taking place until they were called to the front of the school. It wasn't long, however, before the students started catching on to the task at hand.

"The young people came up and they started asking why we were doing this," Voorhies recalls. "Some of them were saying they didn't want to do it, but after they put it on and took their pictures they were like, Wow.' Kids told me it gave them chills and made them feel completely different. The attitude they walked up with was very different than when they walked away. It showed them what it's going to feel like to graduate. If they think it, feel it and see it, they walk by and remember that they want to graduate."

With the generous help of Sir Speedy Printing and Marketing Services, which did not hesitate to offer pro-bono printing services for the Northside freshmen, the roughly 250 photos were delivered to the school Oct. 2.

The immediate commitment from IND Monthly and Sir Speedy to lend a helping hand is illustrative of how much volunteerism has played a role in increasing the vigor and improving the overall school climate at Northside. From the formation of a PTO to an alumni association in the works and the latest endorsement of Northside's turnaround plan by the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council, Voorhies notes that "the tentacles are forming, and people are branching out."

"The community has followed through in a huge way," Voorhies says. "Once it became known that good things were going on here, people wanted to be a part of it."

One shining example of the rise in community ownership of Northside is the recent donation of 168 boxes of law books, along with the shelving to house them, to help NHS' Legal Academy. The donation came from the son of deceased Lafayette attorney J. Minos Simon.
As noted by IND Monthly in its March cover story, "Viking Pride," before Voorhies joined Cooper's turnaround team the school had not published a yearbook since 2008. That, too, has changed since Voorhies' arrival, as the school now has a yearbook committee in place and a "tech squad" that published its first school newsletter in September.  

Other changes at NHS include a Viking Wall, where students with no Ds, Fs, behavioral referrals or outstanding school fines will find their pictures hanging in the hallway. Once a student's picture makes it to the Viking Wall, each student is eligible to earn up to two stickers each week, one for good behavior and one for academics. The more stickers students have, Voorhies explains, the more times their names are placed into a hat for a monthly drawing that offers $25 or $50 gift cards to the winning Viking Wall students. A party or celebration of sorts will take place at the end of each month for all students whose pictures made their way to the Viking Wall.  
"I think [incoming freshmen] have to adjust to the level of discipline that is expected here. But we try to show them that we really care about them and we'll do whatever it takes to make them successful," Voorhies says. "The climate has completely changed. I think it's much more positive. Teachers are very enthusiastic, very driven. Teachers have embraced what we're doing from an academic standpoint and a behavioral standpoint. It's about the kids and making them successful.

Also in the works at Northside is a Wall of Fame that will house pictures of NHS grads who have been successful in their post-Northside life.

"There are a lot of definitions of success, so with their pictures there will be a short bio, and hopefully those people will come and speak to our students," Voorhies says. "Our students can see the people who have graduated from Northside and what they've accomplished, and that can become a reality for them as well."

And as for the school's mock trial team that Voorhies has been touting since her arrival, the NHS mock trial students are traveling to New York for an international mock trial competition set for Oct. 25-28. Only 36 teams from across the globe were invited to participate, and Voorhies says the Vikings have already scheduled a scrimmage against a team from South Korea.

"Once you show these kids it's about ownership, the sky's the limit," Voorhies says. "I fell in love with the students on Day 2 and Day 3. I'm a Viking."