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The Back Fence Survey: Help Pick the Best High Schools

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; 8:51 AM

Hollywood is making fun of high school again. The popular film "Mean Girls" and the new television series "Jack and Bobby" expose some of the more ridiculous rituals of secondary education in America, and that is fine.

But I think we ought to pay more attention to how important those four years are in defining us as human beings and members of a democratic society. College gets more credit than high school for creating great lives. Many of us obsess over which institution of higher education we are going to attend, or have attended. Many politicians, industry leaders and celebrities mention their colleges but not their high schools in official biographies and interviews. When I ask where they went to high school, they give me odd looks, as if the question was as irrelevant as where they buy their tires or what day they put out the garbage.

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
Should Colleges Have Quotas for Asian Americans? (washingtonpost.com, Oct 12, 2004)
Six Ways to Be Happy With Your College Choice (washingtonpost.com, Oct 5, 2004)
How to Measure What You Learned in College (washingtonpost.com, Sep 21, 2004)
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Yet many Americans, I suspect, remember more of the history, literature and mathematics they learned in high school than the narrower courses they took in college. It is in high school that we first get an inkling of what it means to be a citizen of this country, and what we think about that. For the majority of Americans who do not have college degrees, high school experiences are even more important. That is where some of our closest friendships originated, and that is the football team we are most likely to root for on Friday nights.

So picking a good high school, for oneself and for one's children, is a big deal. If only we had valid and consistent sources of information that allowed us to do that.

This December, The Washington Post will publish its eighth annual Challenge Index list, a ranking of public high schools in the area based on participation in college-level courses and tests. I have been preparing these local lists for The Post, and similar national lists for Newsweek, since 1997. I think they are a useful way to identify which schools are trying hardest to prepare their students, particularly their average and below-average students, for college.

But it is not enough. Parents and students yearn for a way to figure out which school does best in less tangible ways. Which has the best teachers? The most responsive principal? The most engaging student activities? The warmest spirit? Which schools are most likely to provide for the academic and social needs of minority students or those with disabilities?

There is no easy way of calculating those things. So The Washington Post Magazine is going to try an impractical and admittedly unscientific assessment tool. We want you to tell us which high schools you think are best, and why.

We call this the Back Fence Survey because that is the way information about schools is usually transmitted, from neighbor to neighbor. The only problem with that method is that our neighbors often do not know what they are talking about. In a recent column I wrote about Eileen Kugler, a communications expert based in Fairfax County, who has spent years asking people where they heard the often false things they tell her about her children's school, Annandale High. In virtually every case, she said, the negative comments originate with people who had nothing to do with the school.

So everyone participating in this survey needs to tell me not only what they like about the schools on their list, but how they happen to know about them.

Please send to the survey's e-mail address, backfence@washpost.com, or to my postal address, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, VA 22314, what you think are the best Washington area high schools in three categories, public schools, private schools and schools that are particularly welcome to minority students and students with special needs. You may send me the names of up to 10 schools in each category. That may be more schools than you have good information about, but please try to nominate more than just the school in your neighborhood, otherwise I will think you are trying to stuff the ballot box.

Even if you do not live in the Washington area, you may have done so in the recent past and have insights about some schools here. You may also have Washington area friends to whom you can send this request for school names.

Tell me your source of information on each school you list, such as "friend who works there" or "school parent acquaintance." And be very careful to tell me if you have a direct personal connection to any of the schools -- as parent, student or staffer. We will also need your name, phone number and/or e-mail address.

For each school, add a few words that give me a sense of its strengths. Schwarzenegger High might have a great weight room, good theatricals, imaginative principal. Hemingway High could boast a nice literary magazine, excellent English department, strong Spanish club. Or maybe you like Curie High for its great chem lab and first-rate AP European history teacher. We hope to hear about any schools located in the District, Northern Virginia, or the Maryland suburbs of Washington, including Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick, Howard, Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

This is, in a way, a reputational survey, like the one that U.S. News & World Report sends to higher education administrators for its "America's Best Colleges" list. I plan to contact as many local high school educators as possible and encourage them also to participate. But the voices of education consumers, students and parents, are vital. We will also gather statistical data on the schools you nominate, such as test scores, faculty qualifications and college acceptance rates.

We want to break down barriers that make it difficult for families to find the right school. Public schools, for instance, provide much useful information about themselves, which washingtonpost.com has turned into its detailed School Guide. But private schools are stingy with standardized data and in many cases actively resist efforts like the Challenge Index to quantify what they are doing.

The problem of finding a school with the right social atmosphere is particularly troubling for Washington area families. The idea of a list of good schools that attract minorities was inspired by an e-mail from Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University, who likes to plan ahead. His son is two years old, but he told me he wants to start looking now for the private or public high schools that "have the largest percentage of African American doing well, both in terms of raw numbers and compared to students of other ethnic backgrounds."

Please send this column to anyone you know who might have a well-founded opinion. We will report the results next year.

This is a very unscientific survey, but I think it is useful to hear what is said about schools over the back fence, as long as we talk only about schools we know something about, and tell people where we got our information.

If this works and we are feeling brave, we may even try the same thing someday with elementary and middle schools, which, if you think about it, are even more important than high school in the formation of our characters.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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