Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn — Hippie High — enters middle age

The bare feet and the Frisbees.

Those are things they all remember, the graduates of an improbable Arlington County experiment fondly known as Hippie High.

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It was founded in 1971, by a bearded guy who wrote a manifesto on alternative education during a road trip in his VW bus.

The kids wouldn’t have to go to class, they’d vote on who taught them and how much they’d get paid, craft independent study themes and have no traditional athletic program. Just groovy Frisbee.

If they’re like Hermione, they can take two classes scheduled for the same hour. If they’re like Fred and George, they can skip class altogether. They can paint on the walls, recite poetry in the garden and call all the teachers by their first names.

A recipe for disaster, I would think. What teen wouldn’t get drunk off that kind of freedom and bomb out?

A few of them did, it turns out. But the overwhelming majority didn’t.

Like FedEx, NPR, Amtrak, Disney World, Internet chat rooms, the Nasdaq and other things launched in 1971, H-B Woodlawn Secondary School is still around — and thriving in the age of No Child Left Behind, with its crushing emphasis on test scores and little freedom for students.

H-B hasn’t completely escaped the mania for school reform. Hippie High enters middle age far more conventional than it once was, with many of its students loading up on AP courses and obsessing about their SAT scores and grade-point averages just like their peers at ordinary high schools.

(Last year, during one of their weekly town hall meetings, H-B’s students voted on a measure to stop reporting their academic statistics. Tellingly, the effort to turn their backs on rankings based on AP participation and average SAT scores went down in flames.)

Even so, H-B remains an unique place that often defies the times.

Fresh from hearing about another round of budget-tightening measures in my home district that might eliminate the fantastic, arts-based program my son is enrolled in, I was eager to meet the graduates of Hippie High, who gathered in Arlington earlier this month to celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary.

There were doctors, lawyers, judges, executives, artists, musicians and lots and lots of teachers.

They told me great stories about the way they worked on Capitol Hill for school credit, went on hikes instead of going to class and prowled the hallways without shoes. They booked punk bands to play in the cafeteria and roto-tilled the garden for English credit.

They put together a reunion program that was a bit chaotic — and probably characteristic. The fiddle player insisted on finishing her three songs even when they tried to stop her at two. The audience came and went — shouted, chatted and interrupted.

If this is what school was really like, how did any learning — the book kind — get done?

“We had to take ownership of our time; that was the key,” said Jay Constantz, 57, who was among the first few waves of graduates, along with his two brothers, Joel and Jed. The brothers all went on to college, and they all have good jobs.

“For me and all of us, the segue [to college] was flawless,” said Nathan Lyon, class of 1989.

Lyon, who is a celebrity chef with his own cooking show on PBS, “Lyon in the Kitchen,” said the school didn’t sculpt students into anything they didn’t want to be. Rather, it gave them “the soil, the sunlight and the water to let us grow into what we wanted to become.”

The 40-year experiment relies on the theory that, given enough freedom and respect, kids will rise to the occasion.

And it really isn’t fair to call it an experiment anymore. It has proven itself in its results.

The school was ranked No. 1 locally and No. 3 nationally in this year’s Post High School Challenge, which measures how effectively schools are using AP and IB classes to prepare students for college.

Of the kids who start in sixth grade, 85 percent graduate their senior year, and that includes those who move away as well as those who bomb out and return to traditional school.

Given the amazing results here, how is it that Woodlawn is such a rarity in public education? Why doesn’t every school district use it as a model for an alternative education program?

The concept, argued Ray Anderson, that bearded guy in the VW who wrote the memo and became the school’s principal, would work in any neighborhood, with any population of kids.

But in this environment of rote learning and test score fixation, a school like Hippie High wouldn’t have much chance of winning approval from the sober-minded folks at the Board, not even in funky, liberal Arlington, said Ray (it’s Ray, not Mr. Anderson, thank you).

“We probably couldn’t have done it four years later,” he said. And that’s a shame, because H-B is a wonder to behold.

The school, poetically, is on Vacation Lane. Last week, I wandered around with Principal Frank Haltiwanger, who took over from Anderson several years ago. We saw the futon, couches and foosball table in the cafeteria in full use, as well as a couple of kids running in the hallways — all while class was in session.

“We’ll be making chocolate chip cookies later,” he told each of the students passing us by.

“We help people make decisions about their personal time,” he said as a couple of lanky boys raced down the hall, throwing an empty can at each other. “Some are good decisions, and some, not good decisions.”

We saw kids studying on their own and sketching while sprawled in the hallway.

Outside the school, kids were playing Frisbee.

And in the hallways?

Sure enough, bare feet.

dvorakp@washpost.com

 
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