By Mike Marsee
If you want to see what sets Murray High School apart, you don’t even have to go inside.
Look just outside the front door, where Teresa Speed waits for her students every morning. Rain or shine, the Murray High principal greets every student who gets off a bus or out of a car with a hug and a few kind words.
Some of the arriving students clearly look forward to their greeting one recent morning, smiling as they opened their arms and exchanging small talk about what they’ve been up to or the big game that night. Some of them merely tolerated it, responding with a sleepy smile and a few mumbled words.
But every single one of them walked into the building that morning knowing their principal – and by extension their school – cared about them.
Speed said the morning hug is one of the most important tools she has for building relationships with her students.
“The most important thing we do is build that relationship with the kids that will overcome some of the junk that comes with life,” Speed said.
The latest chapter in Murray High’s success story is its designation as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal education officials declared the school an Exemplary High-Performing School based on student achievement and several other research-based indicators of school quality. Murray was one of four public schools in Kentucky to receive the honor in 2015, and one of only 35 high schools nationwide.
“The expectations are high – for the students for the faculty, for the community,” said Sarah Hultman, a pre-calculus and statistics teacher. “We want everybody to be able to learn, and everybody has a set of expectations that need to be met.”
Murray, part of the Murray Independent district, has been named a School of Distinction for four straight years. The school’s scores ranked third in the state in 2013-14.
Speed said her students are a competitive bunch, constantly measuring themselves against previous classes and against other high-performing schools of similar size. But while she fosters that competitive spirit, Speed also says there is more to measurement.
“Growth is my kids compared to other kids across the state, but I don’t even know who those other kids are,” Speed said. “I just know that every day we’ve got to take care of business, and every day we’ve got to meet the most needs that we can. And at the high school, the needs are usually outside needs.”
So while success at Murray certainly means making the grade academically, it also can mean overcoming other factors outside of the school that can stand in the way of students’ progress. Speed starts working toward that at the front door, where a hug can’t make a student’s problems disappear, but it can make them feel like someone is looking out for them.
“It’s more of a family atmosphere versus strictly business. I feel like we’re a big family,” said Monica Evans, the longtime assistant to Speed. “She sets the tone for that in the mornings, showing kids that, yes, we want them to excel and do good in school, but also letting them know that we’re here for them with everyday life situations that they might be dealing with.”
“That’s why I hug them at the front door,” Speed said. “Building that relationship allows me to delve into their personal issues, to get them back to the place where, ‘OK, you’re here to get an education.’”
Calculus and geometry teacher Wayne Jackson, a member of the Murray faculty since 1994, called Speed the school’s “mother figure.”
“We take a lot of our lead from Ms. Speed. She loves these kids and we do too, and we do pretty much whatever it takes to help them succeed,” Jackson said.
Algebra teacher Justin Scott noted that Speed has taken more than 30 foster children into her home and has adopted several of them.
“We’re the adopted family here. It’s the same mentality here,” Scott said. “She just takes that to a broader stage, and it creates that environment where everybody feels comfortable to work and to be professional.”
Speed said the makeup of Murray has changed in her 13 years as principal. She said the number of students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged is rising, and the school also is taking in students from two group homes. While supplemental supports and services have increased, so has the push for success.
All students are encouraged to enroll in advanced placement or honors courses – there are more honors courses than “regular” courses in the school – and teachers scaffold their instruction within those courses to meet individual needs. Every student is required to take one semester of speech and one semester of computer literacy in addition to standard state requirements, and nearby Murray State University offers enrichment opportunities as well.
Students who need help are offered a powerful incentive to take advantage of the extended tutoring time offered before and after school. If they are carrying a D or F, they get one point added to their average for every hour they spend in tutoring.
Teachers are expected to go the extra mile as well.
“Number one, you’ve got to be prepared to teach bell to bell. You’ve got to buy into the fact that you’re the most important thing in the room,” Speed said. “My faculty knows they are required to do more than teach. They’re required to say, ‘What do you need?’”
Tradition matters, too, at a school that has been a part of its community since 1872. Jackson said he recently ran into a couple of former students who provided a good example of the community’s stake in that tradition.
“They wanted to know, ‘How are things going?’ And they really wanted to know. It’s not just small talk,” he said. “They were glad that their school was still doing well. It mattered to them.”
“I think the tradition is a big factor. Those expectations have been met in the past and will continue to be met, and everybody’s on board with that.”
And Speed said it’s the school’s job to make sure its students continue to succeed long after they leave the school.
“That’s what we’re after,” she said. “Success here is great, but more importantly we’re preparing them for success at the next level.”
MORE INFO …
Teresa Speed firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Hultman email@example.com
Wayne Jackson firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Scott email@example.com