04/26/2011 12:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2011

In Search of Inspiration

As president of the College Board, I get to do a lot of traveling. Over the last 10 years, I've gone from Ft. Lauderdale to San Francisco, from Beijing to Dubai, and lots of places in between. Along the way I've met many prominent people doing great things to advance the cause of learning and improve global education. But each year, my greatest honor and favorite trip is paying a visit to the winners of the annual College Board Inspiration Awards.

The Inspiration Awards honor schools with underserved students, outstanding college-preparation programs, and fruitful partnerships between teachers, parents and community organizations. By improving their academic environment and creating a college-going culture, these schools have opened the doors of higher education -- and by extension a whole new world of opportunity -- for students facing stringent economic, social and cultural barriers.

This year's winners were Ebbert L. Furr High School in Houston, Texas; Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, Fla.; and PSJA North High School in Pharr, Texas. Each of these schools demonstrated significant and consistent academic growth across its entire student population. The number of students taking rigorous courses shot up, as did the percentage of students accepted to two- or four-year colleges. As a result, the campuses hummed with a palpable feeling of excitement and possibility. The students, teachers and administrators had turned their schools into icons of renewal, and they were justifiably proud of their work.

At Ebbert L. Furr, 75 percent of students take part in the school's Pre-AP® or AP® program, and are asked to sign a contract acknowledging the benefits of participation as well as the consequences of not meeting expectations. Parents are engaged through a variety of large- and small-group meetings, as well as individual conferences. In the more intimate, semi-monthly "Coffee with the Principal" meetings, parents and educators discuss specific goals and review results from benchmark assessments and mock exams.

At Mater Academy, where most students come from families with little to no post-high-school education, more than 90 percent of seniors are accepted to college -- a 15 percent jump in the last two years alone. The majority of the high school students are involved in multiple extracurricular activities while also taking honors, AP and dual enrollment courses. Many students also play an active role in the Hialeah community. A particularly motivated Mater student started a "Jeans for Teens" campaign to help clothe local underprivileged kids and an "Adopt a Family" program in which each club at the school collects holiday gifts for a family in need.

At PSJA North, hallways are decorated with college and university banners. Teachers work with students during the weekends and after school to make sure that they are given every opportunity to succeed. They even set up as a series of small learning communities with college names, including the University of Texas, Rice University and NYU.

"If someone walks into our school, they smell and breathe college readiness," said PSJA North Principal Narciso Garcia.

That's the kind of inspirational leadership we are looking for. It's not an easy quality to define. And it wasn't easy to determine which schools out of so many worthy candidates deserved Inspiration Awards.

We look for students and schools that are beating the odds and achieving at a level above and beyond their peers. And we are proud of every student and every school that improved even a little bit. But the bottom line is, it's not enough to do it on paper.

There has to be passion. There has to be spirit. There has to be a connection that transcends the classroom and inspires students to see the link between how they do in school and how they do in life.

The great teachers and administrators at these schools, from the principals to the librarians, feel this passion. They embody this spirit. Every day these dedicated men and women are inspiring students to do well in school, so that one day they'll have the opportunity to do whatever they want in life.