‘Traditional’ Va. schools find themselves in high demand as they eschew experimentation


Sixth-grade students take a class in world language at Pennington School, one of the most popular magnet schools in Prince William County and one of several popular schools in Northern Virginia that call themselves "traditional." (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

Arlington County has magnet schools for Spanish immersion; science and math; Montessori; and hands-on, nature-based learning. Another popular option is harder to describe: Arlington Traditional School.

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said to a library full of more than 80 parents at an open house this month. The group was straining to understand the concept and the formula of the school’s success.

“Teaching methods change. New principals come along,” Hawthorne said. “We do not swing with that pendulum. We stay right here,” she said, her hand pointing straight out in front of her.

In the freewheeling world of educational philosophies, “traditional” magnet schools hold an unusual place, offering an alternative education that is not intended to be new or different. Many espouse high standards, with a close focus on academics and strict behavior and dress codes.

The model is highly sought after in Northern Virginia, which now has at least three other traditional schools, including one in Alexandria and two in Prince William County.

Arlington Traditional opened in 1978 at the urging of a group of parents who were wary of the experimentation flourishing in public schools, including trends in open-space architecture, multi-grade-level classes and team teaching.

The school promotes self-contained classrooms, where students have one teacher for all their core subjects, as well as daily homework, Friday assemblies and weekly progress reports. All students are expected to begin learning a musical instrument in fourth grade and join the safety patrol in fifth grade. Beyond that, the school offers the same curriculum as other neighborhood schools in Arlington.

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

Traditional magnet schools have opened up across the country with varying attributes and goals, said Scott Thomas, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, an advocacy group.

Some common themes include behavior and dress codes, high academic expectations, a strict focus on the core subjects of math, reading, science and social studies, and a more teacher-directed approach.

Such distinctions are not as extraordinary as they might once have seemed. Standards-based reform and test-based accountability systems have raised expectations and narrowed the academic focus in many schools. Many charter schools and public schools, particularly in the inner city, have adopted uniforms, behavior codes or parent contracts.

The concept resonates with many parents.

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. Many people are simply drawn by the results.

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

Pennington School opened 14 years ago in Manassas as a first- through-eighth-grade magnet school with uniforms, a behavior code, and an emphasis on character education and community service. The concept was so popular that in 2004, Prince William opened Mary G. Porter Traditional School in Woodbridge to serve students on the eastern side of the county.

The county’s school board named both traditional programs “Schools of Excellence” this year for exceeding state testing goals and other performance measures. For the current school year, Pennington had 368 applications for 94 available slots. Porter had well over 600 applications for slightly more seats.

Pennington Principal Joyce Stockton, who has worked at the school since it opened, said her own idea of “traditional” has evolved.

“When we started off, it was paper and pencil; the work sheets; the teacher was the lecturer. But we found the active learning and hands-on learning was more important,” she said.

The school is not averse to learning through repetition and memorization, though. Every morning, first-graders recite a lengthy phonics drill.

On a recent day, the teacher used a wooden stick to point to alphabet cards posted on the wall, and the students stood in their blue and green uniforms, practicing their vowel sounds.

“Umpire. Umpire. Single U says uh. Umpire. Umbrella,” they said in unison.

Stockton said that parents like the structure and discipline. She noted that students are expected to be respectful. They learn to speak in complete sentences and to say, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.”

Darci Whitehead, Porter’s principal, equates the traditional school to the old one-room schoolhouse, which, at least in the movies, was the center of the community and the teacher was revered.

Whitehead said that when she calls a family’s home because a child has misbehaved, “You don’t get, ‘My kid would never do that.’ You get, ‘I am so sorry,’ and they will be down there right away.”

She attributes the school’s academic success largely to the family commitment.

Parents are required only to fill out an application, but research shows that is a big step. Families who go to the trouble of picking a different school for their child are more likely to support their child’s education.

“Someone in that family realizes that education is number one,” Whitehead said.

All of the schools emphasize parent involvement, and some require parents to volunteer.

Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria was created more than a decade ago to boost enrollment and diversity at the school, which was largely made up of poor and minority students.

Lucretia Jackson, then the school’s principal, built her concept partly around what she saw at Arlington Traditional and another traditional school in Prince George’s County. The reinvented academy had a longer school day, small class sizes, school uniforms and parent contracts.

“Right away, right away, right away, parents were totally receptive to it,” Jackson said.

The traditional school started with a lottery, but it was discontinued when neighborhood interest — including among families who had previously opted for private schools — quickly rebounded.

Hawthorne, the principal of Arlington Traditional, said parents can usually feel what is different soon after they walk in the door. And they can tell just as quickly whether they like it.

“Either you think it’s orderly and comfortable and it fits your lifestyle, or you don’t,” she said.

The difference at Arlington Traditional is largely auditory: It’s like a school with the volume turned down.

During the recent open house, parents shuffled quietly in and out of classrooms, watching students writing sentences while classical music played softly in the background and working studiously in pairs writing paragraphs about how to solve a math problem.

“Parents always say, ‘Oh, my child won’t sit and be quiet,’ ” Hawthorne said.

“But they will do it, and they will do it on the first day of school. Because if they don’t, the teachers will say, ‘Boys and girls, let’s do it again.’ ”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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