Rowdy from lunchtime, Richfield High School students rush to class, filling the hallways with the sound of laughter and chatter. Before they can brush past Richfield Principal Latanya Daniels, she calls out to the seniors by name and pulls them aside to check in.

With graduation looming, Daniels wants to be there to greet each senior with a high-five and a hug. She wants them to be there, too.

In her two years as principal, Daniels has narrowed the achievement gap by breaking down barriers to success for students of color and challenging all her students to surpass expectations.

Daniels' efforts have boosted the school's graduation rate by 5.5 percentage points and reduced the number of failing students by more than 40 percent.

"She is transforming our high school," said Steven Unowsky, district superintendent.

Daniels has a knack for that. She was principal at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis when it was recognized as the third best high school in the state by U.S. News and World Report in 2015. Daniels oversaw the launch of International Baccalaureate courses, increased the number of students taking advanced courses and shifted the school to a seven-period day.

Daniels' colleagues credit her attention to detail — and data — as the driving force behind her transformations. Data showed Daniels that black males at Patrick Henry were overrepresented in special education courses, discipline and suspensions but underrepresented in advanced classes. She worked with a leadership team to focus on those students, assign them mentors, place them in a class taught by black male teachers and create a support group.

"She is a visionary and has high expectations for both students and staff," Marisa Zimmerman, social worker at the high school, said in an e-mail.

Closing the gap

Daniels has carried over some of the same practices to Richfield, and so far the changes are fruitful, her superiors say.

When she arrived at Richfield, Daniels said she noticed that the school had two different tracks for students — one for the high-flying students and one for everybody else. She wanted to give all students a chance to soar.

Last year, Daniels directed staff to overhaul how students sign up for classes. Before, students had to ask staff to register for advanced courses. Now all courses are listed on the registration form to show students what is available, regardless of rigor. The school increased entry-level honors courses for ninth- and 10th-grade students, developed a marketing campaign to nudge students to sign up for courses and hosted sessions for parents to learn more.

The changes appear to be working. Daniels said the number of students in advanced courses increased. The number of students of color in advanced courses has climbed, too, by 160 in a year.

As a black woman, Daniels understands the barriers students of color can face, so she is working to eliminate anything that might get in their way.

"I want all of my students to know how to navigate the systems or the unspoken rules of society and win," Daniels said.

The work continues. Next school year, Richfield High will add a class period and 20 minutes to the school day. Students will then start school later. Daniels pushed for the extra period to give students more time to take an extra class or catch up on college credit courses.

"We really want to advance our offerings around dual-credit enrollment, where students can earn high school credit and simultaneously college credit," she said.

A new start

Changing schools is a challenge for principals as well as students. While Daniels said the first-ring west-metro community welcomed her, she didn't get off to the best start with students.

She started the 2015 school year by launching strict cellphone and hallway policies. Students felt like Daniels had flipped their world upside down.

Ask them then what they thought of their new principal, and most of them might have called her strict. A year later, those same students consider Daniels someone they can relate to.

"She interacts really well with students," said Cecilia Martinez, an 18-year-old senior.

Daniels is finding her challenges are different from what they were in Minneapolis. While black students made up more than 40 percent of her students at Patrick Henry, Richfield's student body is composed of 40 percent Hispanic students.

Her data dive showed that in her group of seniors struggling to graduate, the majority were Hispanic males, many of whom were working long hours along with studying. Daniels hopes to target help to that population next year.

On Friday, about 225 Richfield students are expected to graduate at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the most the school has seen in recent years, said Daniels.

Alexander Olivares-Guzman came close to missing it. The 17-year-old senior had a rough start to high school but he's made a comeback, he said. Earlier in the spring, he started meeting with Daniels to talk about how he could get back on track to graduate.

As graduation neared, Olivares-Guzman was struggling to meet a deadline to make up missed credits, so he met with Daniels again. She decided to give him a second chance and extend his deadline. She will be waiting for him Friday with her hug and high-five.

Olivares-Guzman held back his tears as he heard the news.

"She said, 'Repeat after me: I will graduate and I will walk,' " Olivares-Guzman said.

Beatrice Dupuy • 612-673-1707