Scores on standardized tests are up, the school newspaper is back in business, the cheerleaders have taken top honors for spirit in countywide contests for three years, and even the losing football team is drawing faithful crowds of supporters.
At the same time, the band, drama club and Student Government Association -- activities that were nearly nonexistent four years ago -- are drawing an increasing number of participants. Students and faculty at Hyattsville's Northwestern High School, where scholastic standing and participation in extracurricular activities declined in the 1970s after a period of racial uneasiness and staff turnover, say these are among the signs that their school is reviving in spirit and academic performance.
After more than a decade of revolving-door administration, the principal has stayed in office for four years, racial tensions have eased as the once predominantly white school enrollment has become predominantly black, and the parent-teacher-student support organization has reorganized and gained membership. These and other factors have helped bring Northwestern back, observers said.
Opened in 1951 and for a time the high school with the best academic reputation in Prince George's County -- upwards of 80 percent of the students were college-bound at one point -- the school and facility at 7000 Adelphi Rd. came to be known as a "tough school," current and past students said.
In recent years, they added, that reputation has begun to fade, and students even have taken to wearing "I Northwestern" buttons.
By many accounts, racial tension began at Northwestern and other Prince George's schools in the early 1970s, when demographic changes began to alter the makeup of the county. Most of the county's 13 high schools experienced unrest, but Northwestern had some of the most publicized racial incidents, including sit-ins and arrests.
Starting in 1973, more than 33,000 Prince George's students were bused out of their neighborhoods to schools elsewhere as the result of a court-ordered desegregation plan. At Northwestern, about 160 students, most of them black, were brought from the Landover area to attend the largely white school; the percentage of black enrollment -- then 15 percent -- began to rise steadily each year as Hyattsville began to change.
"Busing changed Northwestern," said Nancy Suter, a physical education teacher there since 1967. "We had kids who were coming into the school who didn't want to be there and kids who wanted to go to the school and couldn't. There was a lot of frustration."
Racial tensions have diminished at the school, where two-thirds of the 2,238 students are black, and morale has improved, students and faculty said.
Records show that Northwestern's test scores still rate near the bottom in comparison with other county high schools, but students within the school are making progress over previous years.
Maryland Functional Reading Test scores released last week showed that Northwestern had the second-highest increase in the county in the percentage of students who passed the test during their sophomore year.
In 1983, 85 percent of the freshman passed the reading test, which is required for graduation. This school year, 96 percent of that class, now sophomores, have passed the test.
Northwestern students also are making progress on the Maryland Functional Math Test, records show. In 1983, 45 percent of the school's freshmen passed the math test; this year, 67 percent of that class passed. The 22 percentile point improvement over last year compares with a 20 percentile point improvement countywide.
"I have no doubt that Northwestern is making a turn for the best," said county school board member Catherine Burch.
"The kids at Northwestern are just as good as any others in the county. I just think for a couple of years they got a bum rap."
Earlier this month the school ran into a detour on the road to revival when 47 percent of the students failed to earn a minimum 2.0 grade-point average, now required by the county school administration for participation in extracurricular activities. Some activities lost participants, but students say morale has remained high.
In the percentage of students disqualified from activities, Northwestern stood third among the county's 20 high schools. More than 1,000 Northwestern pupils were banned from after-school programs as a result.
"We're not there yet," Principal Luther W. Fennell acknowledged after the figures were released. But, he said, "that statistic is not going under the rug in this school."
Northwestern staff said that about 10 of 60 students on winter-sport athletic teams no longer are eligible to play. But Fennell said that even more athletes would have been declared ineligible last year if the rule had been in effect.
"What I like most about this school is that we're trying and trying and trying to make things better," said Fennell, who has headed the school for four years, the longest stay of any principal since 1970.
The principal said he is looking at the relationship between grade-point averages, attendance, behavior and standardized test scores to develop programs to help bring up grades.
"Slowly but surely students here are becoming more serious about the educational opportunities that exist for them. They want their school to be good," Fennell said.
"When I was a freshman, it wasn't cool to be active in anything, said senior Laura Jarvis, 17. "Now we all want to be in groups. Everybody wants to bring the school's reputation up."
This year, the school has a new journalism class, which has revived the newspaper that ceased regular publication during the 1981-82 school year. And the band, which Fennell was determined to reorganize, is back in force.
"Northwestern used to have the reputation as having one of the finest bands around," the principal said. "When I arrived in 1981 the band was defunct. I made it a priority that I wanted to get the band back on the map."
Now the school has an orchestra, a concert band and a jazz ensemble. Fennell said next year he hopes to add a large marching band to the music program.
A drama club called "Backstage" got under way four years ago and has grown in number of students and sophistication of plays performed, the principal said. He said the Student Government Association has become stronger recently and more involved in county issues.
Last school year, a group of Northwestern students who appeared on the local "It's Academic" television quiz show placed highest among the Prince George's County high schools participating.
The administration has begun holding an "honor roll" assembly to recognize students who have made a 3.0 average or better for the semester. Last year there were 405 students on the honor roll during the second grading period. This year the number of honor roll students had risen to 455.
Students say a large number of spectators turned out to support the school's varsity football team this season, despite few wins. And students still talk excitedly about the team's 17-0 victory last October over rival High Point, a school Northwestern had not beaten in years.
"People are willing to get out in the cold and watch the football team play," said senior Marie Kelly, 17. "Sometimes we had more people at away games than the home team. We wanted to be supportive and show we care."
Robert Wagner, who graduated from Northwestern in 1965 and began teaching math there in 1970, said the school was one of the top ones in the country when he was a student. When its reputation began to crumble, it was widely broadcast, he said.
"Northwestern always had everything first -- drug problems, racial problems -- it happened at other schools later, but by then it was old news, so no one heard about it," Wagner said.
"There were incidents at other schools, but the reputation didn't stick with other schools like it did at Northwestern," school board member Burch recalled.
Northwestern's enrollment today is diverse, fed by a number of neighborhoods, ranging from the middle-class area of University Park -- where County Executive Paris Glendening lives -- to the working-class towns of Mount Rainier and Brentwood. Included in the minority enrollment are 177 Asian and 117 Hispanic students.
Students say the racial mix at the school enhances individuality rather than create the kind of tension it did more than a decade ago.
"I wasn't treated any differently here because of the color of my skin," said Princess Gunter, a black 17-year-old senior. "The teachers and students in the school care about you as an individual."
Fennell said he believes that some of the increased student enthusiasm is the result of a more competitive college and career market that students must face.
At the same time, a revitalized support group at the school has been busy working on the facility. It has about 250 parent members, 50 of whom are on active committees, organizers said. Last year, the PTA had 190 dues-paying members, very few active members and little teacher representation, they said.
The group helped redecorate the school and its grounds and held banquets for custodians and teachers. The group also is setting up a tutoring program to help students who did not make a 2.0 average.
"I remember three years ago, when my brothers went to school here, said junior Lilace Mellin, 16. "There was a lot of talk like, 'You don't want to go there.' Now none of that's true. I'm proud of my school.