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In Schools, Choice Now a Tradition

Transfer Rules Let Students Select Curriculum, Tone

By Christina A. Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page C04

Porter Traditional School, a Prince William school all of two months old, is designing its traditions as it goes along.

When visitors show up at a classroom, a designated greeter is supposed to come to the door and explain the lesson in progress. But one second-grade greeter covers her face in a fit of shyness as Principal Darci Whitehead takes a visitor to her class.

Andy Anderson, a fifth-grade teacher at Porter Traditional School, works with a small reading group. From left are Jennifer Brown, Amrit Kaur, Jayla Collier, Erik Quiroga, Janaye Oliver, Tiana Young, Kealey Cela and Stephen Kelsey. (Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

"I'm scared," she says, giggling but coming no closer.

There are a few rough spots yet to iron out at Porter School, in Woodbridge. The public school, which offers the standard curriculum in first through sixth grades this year, is distinguished by its rigorous atmosphere, including a restrictive student dress code and a volunteer work requirement for students and parents.

It already has developed a strong following; Whitehead said there were waiting lists at every grade level except fifth. Parents still call every day.

The families whose children are enrolled, courtesy of a blind lottery, are paying close attention, Whitehead said. There's pressure to achieve test results similar to Pennington, a similar school in Manassas. Pennington students routinely achieve more than a 90 percent passing rate on the state Standards of Learning tests.

Parents "are watching you," Whitehead said. "But they're also thinking, what can I do to help you?"

Porter, which will add seventh and eighth grades in the next two years and grow to 650 students, is just the newest example of school choice in the county. For the past five years, Prince William has offered students an opportunity to attend out-of-boundary schools at nearly all grade levels.

Prince William gives its students more flexibility in choosing schools than do other area districts. Schools throughout the county offer specialties that focus on such subjects as foreign languages, informational technology, math and science or the arts. Students do not have to take a qualifying test to enroll, as all the programs are provided on a space-available basis.

The numbers of transfer students have steadily increased: This year, 3,209 Prince William students attended out-of-boundary schools, compared with 2,484 last year. Prince William has about 66,000 students countywide.

Anissa Watkins's daughter Jaihna is a two-time pioneer. As a first-grader, she attended Pennington School when it first opened. Now, as a 10-year-old fifth-grader, she has moved to Porter, much closer to home. Watkins says that, as a parent, she loves the school's homework load, the discipline, the dress code and particularly the parent volunteer requirement.

"I love it," said Watkins, who works full time. "I don't feel that it's a burden."

After five years, Superintendent Edward L. Kelly sees specialty programs as an experiment that has worked.

"We've gone past the point where you can say everybody's got to get the same education," he said. "It's almost to the point where high schools are small universities."

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