When your school dates back to 1952, it's an understatement to say it has tradition. Blanche Ely High School oozes tradition and pride, from a gym that looks like the set of the movie "Hoosiers," to its back-to-back state championship basketball team, to its superior-rated jazz band, to the distinction of having one of Broward County's first-ever magnet programs.
All of that provides a great foundation, but the principal is aiming higher.
"I think Blanche Ely High School will be one of the top schools in the country over the next four to five years," said Dr. Karlton Johnson, who has led the school for the past nine years.
Johnson said from the day he arrived on campus, his mission has been to raise the academic standards and accomplishments at Ely. The school already had two magnet programs, one in science and engineering and one in medical sciences. The graduates from those programs go on to some of the nation's best colleges.
"Our focus really is on college and career readiness, so we work very closely with our students when they come in, starting day one in 9th grade. We create a four-year plan for them, establish what their interests are, and we continue to monitor them," said magnet coordinator Kathy Weathers.
The practical nursing course allows students to graduate high school with LPN certification. In fact, 95 percent of the magnet program's graduates go on to a four-year university. That's evidence to Dr. Johnson that his plan to emphasize academics is working, and people are noticing.
"I have to reprogram these conversations and re-channel the way we think here, to tell the community now, I just don't want a first-generation high school graduate. We want to have first generation of bachelor's degrees, masters degrees and doctor degrees, so the community has embraced this school," Dr. Johnson said.
That doesn't mean he's turning his back on athletics. During his years at the school, Ely has won four boys basketball state titles. This year's team performance was a metaphor for life. They came out on top, but only after struggling early in the season.
"I think they sent a strong message that you can be successful if you just stay the course and be patient and continue to work hard," said coach Melvin Randall, who has won five state championships at Ely and two at his previous school, Ely's arch-rival, Deerfield Beach High School.
Dr. Johnson said he will continue to pursue unique offerings at Ely, including a new initiative to start an aviation program. Money from the county's Smart Bond plan, passed by voters last year, is paying for an infusion of technology. As Dr. Johnson puts it, success on the court or on the field can be fleeting. Academic investment pays off in the long run.
"I tell students the game will last one day but the race will last a lifetime," Dr. Johnson said.