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High Schools That Work

Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; 1:00 PM

Jay Mathews was online to answer questions about top-notch Washington high schools and the results of The Washington Post Magazine's Back Fence Survey.

Read the article:

High Schools That Work (Post Magazine, April 3)

Mathews was online Monday, April 4, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


McLean, Va.: For each high school, your article provides the percentage of seniors who go to four-year colleges. Where do you get your information? I ask, because our experience is that moshigh schoolsls do not really know where their students go on to college -- at best they survey their students but these surveys are notoriously inaccurate. Our association maintains a database of all students attending college and our experience is that college-going rates are far less than the numbers your article provides.

Dan Boehmer
National Student Clearinghouse

Jay Mathews: This is one of the reasons I love doing these online chats. I always learn more than the readers do. We indeed get the information from the schools, and trust them to be honest and accurate. I would love to hear more about your data, how you collect it, and what flaws you find in the schools' estimates of their college-going rates.
I have run into huge discrepancies when checking the college-going rates claimed by low income schools and districts, like DC. I suspect the higher the incomes of the parents in the school, and the smaller the school, the more accurate the numbers. The Georgetown Day School, for instance, will know without any doubt which college each one of its graduates went to, as well as which ones they did NOT get into, and factor that into the strategizing for next year's senior class. Big public schools have many other things to worry about. Tell me more.


Jay Mathews: I am reminded I forgot to introduce this chat. I have been asked to talk about yesterday's 30 Great High Schools piece in the Washington Post magazine, but I will be happy to answer questions on anything else in that issue of the magazine, one of its regular Education Review issues, as well as anything else that is going on.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Jay,
Interesting article, but you didn't even mention the 4 schools most people think are the best privates in the area: Sidwell (well, I guess it got a disparaging mention in reference to Potomac), NCS, St Albans and Maret??? I know, I know, Ivy League placements and SAT scores aren't everything, but really! Especially since GDS and Potomac got plugs. Expect lots of complaints. "There are undoubtedly lots of terrific schools that aren't mentioned here." Indeed.
David Cox

Jay Mathews: I was surprised that I did not receive more e-mails mentioning those schools. This was, as you read in the introduction to the piece, a humble attempt to do with the privates, including the ones you mentioned, have been urging us to do for years: stop rating schools based on college level course participation (figures that they refuse to give us) and instead focus on the intangible qualities of each great school. We did not have space to talk about every school in the area, but thought it would be worthwhile to ask readers to tell us of the intangible qualities of their favorite schools.
I found it very eye-opening, particularly in the messages I received about tiny privates like the New School of Northern Virginia or the GW Community School, the latter of which I had never heard of. Everybody knows about the big 4 you mentioned. My daughter attended one of those. I thought this was a good chance to point the spotlight in directions our readers, not me, thought intriguing.
And you are right. I have already gotten many complaints, and it is only 1:10 pm. Let's see if we get some more in this chat.


Rochester, N.Y.: Do you have any opinion of Bill Gates's description of high schools as outdated and nearly irrelevant organizations designed for the problems of the 50s rather than today?

Jay Mathews: I shutter at the very idea of critiquing Mr. Gates, but I think he went a bit too far. Our high schools, in general, are not working as well as they should. And I love the fact that he is spending billions of dollars to encourage scores of small experimental high schools around the country. But as this magazine piece shows, just in this area alone we have many traditionally organized public schools, some with very large numbers of students from poverty-stricken homes, who are doing a terrific job in teaching and preparing kids for the real world, and for college.


Fairfax County: Do parents and students who apply for Thomas Jefferson High School know it has a cell tower on campus and that students who go there will be exposed to RF radiation for a purely commercial and non-educational purpose?

Please take a look at www.protectschools.org for more background information about cell towers at schools and why the issue should be a concern to parents, students, and staff.

Jay Mathews: This sounds like a good question for my Fairfax EXTRA column, Extra Credit. If you would be willing for me to identify you in the paper, please send it in the form of a question to Extracredit@washpost.com, and I will get an answer for you and print it in the column. Any of you who live in Fairfax or Montgomery Counties should feel free to send school-related questions to that email address. The more the better. This is the first time I have heard anyone raise this issue about TJ.


Bowie, Md.: Since my son went to DeMatha and my daughter goes to Eleanor Roosevelt, I agree with your choices. You should have mentioned the band program at DeMatha which is one of the best in the country. John Mitchell and Jim Roper do a great job with the bands. Mrs. Yarrish is a great math teacher at DeMatha.

Jay Mathews: Thank you. I may not have given the band as much mention as I should have, but we sure had a great photo of a band member Tommy Carney. The photos by Pilar Vergara and Chris Hartlove accompanying that piece are fabulous, much better than the write-ups by me.


Bethesda, Md.: Jay -- Kudos for digging up several hidden gems in your recent article (Field School, New School, etc.) I know your examples were somewhat random, but your choice in private schools in particular was really random, jeopardizing the article's value/credibility. (To illustrate, how can one include GDS but not Sidwell Friends, or Stone Ridge but not Holton-Arms??) Also, your list was heavily skewed toward public schools, and while this may be appropriate and desirable, it seems transparent that many more private schools are in a position to "make a difference" if only for reasons of demographics and financial strength. Mixing up public and private schools on the same list really injects a great deal of confusion as to what you are talking about -- next time, have a public and a separate private category -- they really aren't comparable -- its not a fair comparison, and arguably, not an accurate or complete one as well.

Jay Mathews: I appreciate your good words, but the editors and I are going to be tearing our hair out now (and I don't have much left) trying to figure out what we did wrong that led an intelligent reader to think we did NOT have a separate list for public and private schools. Take another look and you will see that is what we did: 10 publics, 10 privates and then 10 schools, both public and private, that were good with minorities and kids with disabilities. Please email me at mathewsj@washpost.com and tell me how we led you astray.
As for the failure to mention some of the Wisconsin Avenue schools, not enough of their fans wrote us.


Prince William: Among the factors that influenced our choice of high school for our child are two that I have not seen discussed very much: school size and strong academic offerings for students not enrolled in specialty or magnet programs.
The public high schools have enrollments that are way too big to create a true community. Schools with 2,500 to 3,000 or more students become educational factories in which those on the extremes of the range of academic performance receive most of the resources to the detriment of the vast mid-range. With that many kids, sports and extra-curricular involvement is largely confined to those who have been groomed since kindergarten toward particular activities; there's not much room for a kid to try playing an instrument, join a team or write for the school paper for the first time simply because it appeals to them at the time. "Average kids" just get their tickets punched.
Where I live, the "solution" to mega high schools is magnet programs in various academic specialties. Supposedly this gets kids into more advanced classes with better teachers and attention devoted to their academic progress. However, it forces parents to make decisions as early as 4th or 5th grade about courses along the lines of "Susie has to take Spanish or she will not be able to enter the IB program" or "Johnny has to get in the gifted math program if he is ever to qualify for Thomas Jefferson." This so-called solution to improving the quality of the high school experience for your kids comes at great expense to them. Some kids spend middle school as over-programmed robots doing all the right things to get into their parents' choice of magnet course; the extreme pressure to meet expectations have consequences later on. The kids who are "not as mature" or (heaven forbid) have not yet settled on their future academic field at barely age 13 are consigned to the purgatory of "the regular program" with thousands of others.
Your comments?

Jay Mathews: You make a good point, particularly about extracurricular activities, although it has been my experience that many of these big schools have JV teams that let lesser lights like me, Hillsdale High JV cross country 1962, participate. And the service and interest clubs in most cases -- Safe Rides, French Club, Jr Statesmen of America -- are wide open and love to have anybody.
But I think your view of the access to upper level classes is a bit out of date, at least in this area. There are very few districts left around here that do not open Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to all who want to take them. One of the things that makes me happiest about the Challenge Index, which the Post uses to rate schools based on AP and IB participation, is that it has encouraged schools to let everyone who wants to take them do so, so that they will look good on the list. If you know of a high school in Prince William that is still restricting access, email me at mathewsj@washpost.com and I will check out the situation. Schools that do that are essentially saying, we can't keep you from going to college, but we can keep you from taking a course that prepares you for college, and that is educational malpractice in my book. Sadly, outside of this area, the majority of schools still behave as you have described.


Fairfax, Va.: I was disappointed that Robinson did not receive mention in the article. Did you receive any support for our school in the survey?

Jay Mathews: I got a few e-mails about Robinson, a truly great school, and as my new book Supertest points out, the leading IB school in America. But other public schools got more support in the messages I received. As I said, we could not mention all the great schools, and did not do so.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you have any plans to do a similar article for elementary or middle schools, or are there just too many?

Jay Mathews: It is an interesting idea. But I would tread very carefully into that area. There are many many good schools around here, and we might need a team of reporters to do such a project justice.


Washington, D.C.: Since you seem open to suggestions of other schools to profile, may I recommend The Bullis School of Potomac? My children attend and they're thriving there. It has very rich curriculum with a wide AP course selection, great teachers, a capable administration, many international travel opportunities, strong sports (especially for being a relatively smaller coed school), opportunities for public service, and a beautiful campus. We'd welcome Bill Gates anytime!

Jay Mathews: I have been there, and you are absolutely right on all counts. Thanks for the suggestion.


Good grief . . . : Do you ever get the feeling you're taken a little too seriously? People, it isn't an exhaustive US News and World Report ranking (which, frankly, people also take too seriously). Are the parents of Sidwell Friends really hanging their heads this morning? Are their children less educated than they were yesterday? Why do you think people get so huffy or self-congratulatory over one journalist's take on a few of the schools in the area?

Jay Mathews: My favorite song is the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School". It reflects a basic fact of American life. We get very involved in schools, particularly high schools, and don't like to see our school fail to get the credit it deserves. I agree with you, we tend to go overboard, but I much prefer that reaction to a silent, sluggish apathy.


Rockville, Md.: You've given it plenty of press before, so I am quite surprised that you didn't include Richard Montgomery High in Rockville in your list (yes, here's one of those "why not us?" questions!). In addition to one of the first and still one of the best International Baccalaureate programs (has any other local school ever had two Rhodes Scholars in two years?), the school manages to bring together some of the most diverse groups of students anywhere.

Jay Mathews: RM is one of a handful of American public schools, there are by my count less than ten, who have made a huge success of both their AP and IB programs. I am going to be visiting the campus in May to do a story about the school, in penance for the failure of our readers to send me more e-mails about RM, and because i have always wanted to observe first hand the AP and IB testing weeks at RM, a rare moment in American education.


Fairfax, Va.: I don't see any problem with your not having included places like Sidwell -- everyone knows them already! I'm very happy with your efforts to find and highlight the places that people are talking about that are perhaps less well-known but that really come through for our students.

My bright and creative but shy daughter switched to the New School (NSNVA) in 8th grade after feeling really overwhelmed socially at one of the larger public schools in the area. The academically challenging but socially tolerant atmosphere at NSNVA and the individual attention from teachers and staff there have really enabled her to thrive, and her father and I are very grateful.

Jay Mathews: I am delighted to hear it. The e-mails I received from New School parents like you were extremely interesting and encouraging.


Chantilly, Va.: I went to Centreville High School 6 years ago and felt like a chicken in the late Frank Perdue's farm. At the time, my graduating class was 700 out of a school population of 2700. This is the problem with traditional high schools: How can a person like my brother, who was encouraged to leave Centreville for being a distraction due to his learning disabilities, ever be expected to succeed in this sort of environment?

Jay Mathews: That is a big problem. That is why I am so pleased with Bill Gates' efforts to encourage smaller schools. All the big Fairfax High Schools are struggling with this, but I can tell you they are doing a better job of it than most big high schools in the country. They have the resources and teaching talent to reach lots of kids who would otherwise get lost. But smaller school work better for many students.


Chantilly, Va.: Thankfully, my brother who left Centreville found a home at the New School of Northern Virginia.

Jay Mathews: I am very happy to hear it. Perhaps more schools like that will bloom as a result of the interest our article will generate.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Cell Towers:

In considering the earlier question on that subject, you might want to know that all towers for radio-frequency transmissions and the transmitters for those transmissions, including cellular transmissions, are licensed by the FCC only after they meet requirements designed to protect against any harm from such transmissions. There are many thousands of such towers around the country and no valid evidence of harm to the public from any of them.

Jay Mathews: Thanks very much for your help with this. It is way out of my area of competence, so I can use all the expertise I can find.


Arlington, Va.: My daughter attends H.B. Woodlawn in Arlington. She loves the school and is thriving. It is not the school for everyone however (my teenager who attends Yorktown would be totally lost there). The write-up for the school doesn't describe the school or its atmosphere well. The student MUST be solely responsible for their school work AND their behavior . . . just as college students are responsible. Very little parental involvement is allowed. Some of these aspects of attending H.B. should be in the write-up.

Jay Mathews: Sigh. My fault. I had to describe 30 schools, and to give each of them the space they deserved would have left no space for anything else in the magazine, including the ads, which we MUST have or I don't get paid. Your point is a good one and I wish I had made it.


Arlington, Va.: I am a parent at Washington Lee -- profiled on Sunday. In response to the posting from Prince William about school size, I think what makes W-L a school that works is that although it does have the IB program and strong AP classes, it is important to note that the overall pass test for the VA standardized tests is strong. That's the point. The school is not just doing well by its smartest kids. It serves a diverse student body, demographically -- including many kids with limited English language skills.

Jay Mathews: Very true, and it is my view that schools like W-L that try to get more students into AP and IB will over the long term see their overall achievement rate increase, as everybody starts to play their game at a higher level, including the 9th and 10th grade teachers and students.


Northeast, D.C.: It appears many of the private school parents have the most issues with the list. As a former teacher, former student of one of the listed private schools, and a graduate of a public school not on the list it really seems too many parents are seeking your validation of their private school choices. To the readers, Jay Mathews is not the primary evaluator of every school in this region and I am sure he doesn't misrepresent himself as doing so. Don't feel bad if the school you spend over 10K a year to send your children to is not listed. Are you going to pull them out of the school because their school was left off? Get real. Your education is what you make it and the school your children go to is only as good as the teachers and families who attend the school. Calm down. Can we ask real questions?

Jay Mathews: Whoever you are, bless you.


Washington, D.C.: The people complaining about the Wisconsin Avenue omissions must require constant validation of their choices. Don't worry, we're all still super-impressed that you send your kid to Sidwell.

Jay Mathews: Yeah, well, it wasn't my call. I voted for the very good public school near my house in Maryland, but my wife and child were the majority. Sidwell was very good, but everybody, as you say, knows that. For $20,000 a year, it better be.


Potomac, Md.: I was surprised to see Walter Johnson on your list for special education. My son was there four years ago, and it was a disaster, they had little "special" in their special education. I understand they now have a new administrator, and I hope the new person has improved the program. My son is currently at Rock Terrace, and it is excellent.

Jay Mathews: That is interesting. Email me at mathewsj@washpost.com and tell me more. When was he there and what program was he in? I am only hearing raves about WJ's Academic Support Center from parents.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: I noticed that there are no private schools in Prince George's County listed (I hope I am mistaken). Did they not cooperate, or . . . ?

Jay Mathews: My goodness. Look again. DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville was mentioned by many, many readers. I didn't reveal how many votes each school received, but as a rough rule of thumb, the more words I wrote about the school, the more votes it got. Elizabeth Seton, also in PG County, was also one of the 30 mentioned.


Charlottesville, Va.: It seems interesting to me that Thurgood Marshall in Washington is able to send 100 percent of their student population to a four year institution with such low test scores. While I praise the efforts of the community helping these students achieve the dream of a college education, with an average of only 795 on the SAT and with less than half actually passing the government standards for English and Math, where are these students going to school and once they get there, are they succeeding?

Jay Mathews: It is a good question. We will soon find out. Their graduates are just beginning to reach colleges. If you spend some time with experienced educators at some of our historically black colleges, you will learn a great deal about the ability of students with low SAT scores from non-college families to become fine scholars and very skilled doctors, lawyers and scientists, as long as you give them the time and encouragement they need. That is what Thurgood Marshall is trying to do.


Washington, D.C.: Why did Ackerman want to close Banneker HS in D.C.? Cultural differences?

Jay Mathews: Oh dear no. I don't believe it was Ackerman, who was school superintendent, who was out to get Banneker. The school was a thriving institution by the time she got here. The problem was with some members of the school board in the school's early years.


Washington, D.C.: What about the deaf elementary school, KDES, or the deaf HS, MSSD, at Gallaudet?

Jay Mathews: I received very few, and in some of those cases, no e-mails about them.


Fairfax, Va.: I heard your interview on WTOP and your brief discussion of the GW Community School for Divergent Learners. I was very glad to see that school mentioned (I have no affiliation). There is SO little out there for kids who march to the beat of a different drummer. Are there any public schools with similar programs, or is that just asking too much?

Jay Mathews: As you see in the piece, we mention some public schools with good programs for kids like that. Annandale in Fairfax, Wakefield in Arlington, WJ in Montgomery and TC Williams in Alexandria are among them. But they do not have the advantage of very small size. Hopefully the Gates and other efforts will encourage the creation of some public school here that are small and do what the GW school does.


Washington, D.C.: Jay:

I think it is great that you focused your article on high schools as it is difficult to sort out quality in high schools as there are so many indicators to evaluate.

My criticism is that you did not include a single D.C. school in your list of public schools, only under your category of schools for minorities and specials needs as if we have no solid, all purpose high schools in D.C. -- OK, I know that is my interpretation, not necessarily your intention.

I missed your Washington Post Magazine's Back Fence Survey, or I would have chimed in about Wilson Senior High School as the best all round DC public high school for many reasons including an innovative academies within a school system and wide selection of AP courses, among other attributes. Did anyone in your survey lobby for Wilson?

Jay Mathews: There was some mention of Wilson, but not as much as what I heard from fans of the public schools I did list in the public school section. I agree with you entirely about Wilson, and one of the things I like about the Post's annual Challenge Index is that it spotlights Wilson and other DC public schools that are doing a terrific job preparing kids for college, including Banneker, the Math Science Tech academy, the School Without Walls, Cardozo, Ellington and Bell Multicultural.


McLean, Va.: A good cross-section of schools and their influences. I'm curious about the "challenge index." Bishop O'Connell, with which I am familiar, offers a variety of subject levels (honors courses), and other very rigorous classes along with those attuned to average-capacity students. While I believe there are AP and IP courses, the students taking the higher level courses are certainly taking "challenge" material, and often test out of college classes or receive college credit for the material. It seems that O'Connell's CI of 1.7 makes it appear a "dumber" school that it is in fact.

Jay Mathews: I am glad to hear it, and would love to see data that supports what you say. Sadly, after visiting hundreds of high schools around the country over the last 22 years, I have concluded that most "honors" courses do not deliver as much of a challenge as promised. Most schools need something like AP or IB, which provide tests written by outsiders and which cannot be dumbed down without the teacher being caught.


Silver Spring, Md.: Jay, what's your take on the differences in the quality of education between private vs. public schools? For example, I hear in general private schools lag behind public in math and science. Also, do you know whether the revitalization of an area puts more pressure to improve the quality of education? The recent revitalization of downtown Silver Spring comes to mind, where there seem to be a good number of under performing public schools despite high real estate values.

Jay Mathews: It depends on which private and public schools you are talking about. The privates usually have the advantage of more middle class kids and more motivated parents. One reason why I wish the privates would be willing to give reporters like me more data is that we could then make the helpful comparisons that you crave.
In this area, there are three or four dozen public high schools that are in every way just as good as those very expensive Wisconsin Avenue private schools discussed above. But we are very blessed with good public high schools in this area, because we have such a high percentage of well-heeled and well-educated public school parents.
As for Silver Spring, all of the public high schools in that area are scoring very high on the Challenge Index, and the teaching in the elementary and middle schools is also very good. Do not assume that a public school with lots of minority and immigrant kids is a bad school. That may be true for most schools in most of our inner cities, but it is not true in wealthy suburban districts like Montgomery County or Fairfax County that have enough money to find good teachers for even their poorest kids.


Washington, D.C.: How can you with any integrity base only on comments of Post readers what high schools are the best? How can you with any integrity use only readers' views that a high school in one jurisdiction is better than another school in another jurisdiction?
Isn't the study/survey racially slanted?

Commissioner Robert Brannum

Jay Mathews: We told you and all Post readers exactly what we wanted to do when we announced the survey last fall. We told you again exactly what we did in the introduction to yesterday's article in the magazine. We emphasized both times that this was NOT a scientific survey. We assumed that intelligent readers like you would be able to reach your own judgements as to whether we had wasted ours and your time or not. Your good question, and all the other questions I have received today, suggest that we were right to place our confidence in you.


Lexington Park, Md.: I don't get it. So being exposed to RF radiation is okay if it's for a purely educational reason?

Fairfax needs to take a break and remove the tin-foil hat. There's RF all around everyone, at every time. Satellites like GPS and the various TV and radio companies. Government towers shooting off RF for planes around our area.

If that tower helps the school pay for needed supplies, good for the school. Especially good if they can use the tower to teach science type things like antennas, electricity, and EM fields.

Jay Mathews: Hmm. I hope somebody sends me a question for Extra Credit. I would like to get into this.


College Park, Md.: Have you had much reaction to the ER's discussion of honor colleges at public universities? I was very interested to read the discussion about UM's program: I'm not entirely sure that the program's benefits outweigh its problems. Certainly, the article down played the sense of entitlement held by a lot of the students in the program: It's a real block to learning at times.

Jay Mathews: This is a reference to another great piece in the magazine by Jeffrey Selingo about big state schools like Maryland creating honors colleges, schools within the school for very motivated and bright undergraduates. I recommend any parents or students facing the college search take a look at it.


Alexandria, Va.: I enjoyed the article this weekend on the best high schools and particularly appreciated the emphasis on special education, which I often find to be neglected.

My brother is autistic and very low functioning. While I hope to never need special education services for my own children, it is important to me that my children go to a school where special education students are well integrated into the student body so that my kids will learn to be comfortable around those who are developmentally disabled -- and by extension, comfortable around their uncle.

How did you go about finding schools with good special education services? Or more to the point, how do I go about finding schools with good special education services? Did you rely on word of mouth, or is there a ranking somewhere? Of course, nearly every public school will say that their special education program is excellent (with the exception of magnet schools such as Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax, I expect), but my experience is that may not always be the case.

Jay Mathews: Sadly, there are no good guides. There are private consultants like Pam Broome, mentioned in my piece. The services in some of our larger districts are pretty good. But the best advice comes from other parents who have already done the search for their kids. I would google the association for disabilities that your child has and ask them for local names.


Alexandria, Va.: What is your source for the information provided in italicized letters for each of the schools presented? How would I obtain this information for public high schools that I am interested in, particularly Hayfield Secondary and Edison High Schools in Fairfax County? Also, how would you rate either of these schools in terms of their ability to provide students with college prep oriented courses?

Jay Mathews: The information is from the schools themselves, and from the Fairfax County schools information office. Every high school in Fairfax County is at the very top of my list of the most challenging schools, the schools that are doing the best to prepare students for college, in the country. They are all in the top 5 percent of US high schools measured that way, and that is very good. Check the Challenge Index page on our website for more information.


Bethesda, Md.: I liked the fact that you overlooked the supposedly four "best" schools in the Washington area. If most of a school's students are from highly affluent, privileged families, where they go to college is more a factor of family connections, wealth, etc. than the school the students attend.

Jay Mathews: That used to be the case, but is less so now. They will all get into great colleges because of their family's money and their good preparation, but getting into the big name brands schools these days is no longer such a predictable process. Even if you have money, you don't always get in. It is like winning the lottery, in many ways.


Washington, D.C.: Jay -- along the same lines as Bill Gates statements, the book "Ready or Not, Here Life Comes" by Me Levine is a strong indictment of how poorly high schools prepare the entire range of students academically to deal with life, let alone college. Most high schools prepare kids to apply to college, not succeed there. The number of kids who are struggling in a global sense (emotionally, academically, maturity wise, etc) is highly underestimated, although alcoholism, drug abuse and eating disorders are skyrocketing. For kids who are drowning in college, for whatever reason, write their HS classmates to tell the truth -- typically "everything is wonderful" at my school; perhaps its pride, cognitive dissonance etc., but Levine points out the value of gap years and transferring in the context of our schools failing to truly prepare kids for college, as opposed to getting into college.

Jay Mathews: I think he is right about that.


Arlington, Va.: Kudos, Jay, on Yorktown High School's conspicuous absence from your list of 30 Great High Schools. I'm not sure why you left them out, but our experience is that they receive high rankings on other lists mainly because they draw from a population of students with high IQs, not because they do anything special to encourage learning. Our experience, which we've heard echoed by other parents, is that students with average IQs or learning differences, do not get served well at Yorktown, in fact they discriminate against LD kids.

Jay Mathews: I very strongly disagree. As I said in the article, all four Arlington schools got rave reviews from parents, some a few more than others. I know that school very well and the quality of the teaching, and the quality of the principal, Ray Pasi, is first rate. I would be very grateful, though, for any firsthand information you have that would show otherwise. I am at mathewsj@washpost.com.


Winchester, Va.: Jay:

Very informative article!

Do the 30 Great High Schools have required Physical Education/Health curriculums for their students?

Jay Mathews: Ooops. I do not know. We did not ask that question. That says something, doesn't it. In fact, we should do a story on PE and health requirements. Thanks for the idea.


Potomac, Md.: What criteria did you use for selecting schools for your article? How many schools were considered? Our school, Holy Child in Potomac, more than fits the profile of supportive, excellent institutions.

Jay Mathews: We asked readers to tell us which high schools they thought were best. We told them they could nominate up to 10 schools in each of the three categories. Then I counted the e-mails received about each school.


Arlington, Va.: So, three out of four Arlington high schools made the list. Yorktown didn't because it's overwhelmingly white?

Jay Mathews: See the answer above. We had lots of majority white schools on the list. Yorktown just did not get as many mentions from readers as some other schools.


20th & Pennsylvania, NW: I was very happy to see Bishop O'Connell as one of your High Schools that work in yesterday's Magazine. As the parent of a senior and an 8th grader that will attend DJO in the fall, it sometimes seems to me that the school doesn't get the recognition it deserves and is still thought of primarily as a jock school for kids that didn't get into Gonzaga or Visitation.

My daughter received a top notch education from dedicated teachers and has been accepted at a top-flight group of colleges. She was challenged and made to think in her classes, which is all I can ask for.

The school still has some work to do in terms of its physical plant to match what its competitors have to offer and I know the administration is aware of these needs and working on plans to address them. Also, until recently communications with parents was a problem, but Dr. Breen has brought a whole new attitude there.

Lastly, if my daughter's circle of friends and classmates is any indication, I think your estimates of diversity are somewhat understated; an additional benefit.

Thanks again for the well-deserved recognition.

Jay Mathews: You are most welcome.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a bit confused. You put Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt on your list, but they have a challenge index of a hair over 1, while on the same list, you also have Springbrook in Silver Spring, and their challenge index is easily over 2.5. Are you somehow listing apples and oranges on the same list?

Jay Mathews: See answers above. This is not a Challenge Index list. We give you that every year in December. This is a list of schools that readers said they liked, and why they liked them.


Washington, D.C.: Do you know of any similar reviews like yours done for elementary schools in the Washington, D.C. metro area?

Jay Mathews: There are none. It would be very very difficult to get qualitative reactions to all of the elementary schools. Some regional newspapers rank all of their elementary schools by test scores, but that turns out to be just a measure of relative parental income in most places.


Alexandria, Va.: I enjoyed the article very much, but as usual, Alexandria's only public high school is not among those considered good. My kid is a long way off from attending high school, but I would be interested in finding out more information about the school and its problems and maybe helping to solve them -- using some of the schools included in your list as models. Might you do an article at some point about what makes certain schools not make the cut and how they are or are not improving? Do you have any suggestions for finding out such information and getting involved? It always seems that if your kid isn't a student at a particular school it is next to impossible to find this stuff out.

Jay Mathews: Oh dear. You are making the editors and me feel bad again. Please read to the end of the article. TC Williams is one of the 30 great schools, as it should be.


Annandale, Va.: I did not see any mention of the Northern Virginia "gang problem" either at Annandale or Woodson high schools. Is the "gang problem" less of an issue at these schools in general or was it just not mentioned by Back Fence participants?

Jay Mathews: It was not mentioned in any of the e-mails to me about either of those schools. I know there are gangs there, but no educators at either school have suggested to me, yet, that they are getting in the way of the great teaching that is going on there.


Boulder, Co.: Jay, if I may point out a couple quibbles in your otherwise fine review of D.C. area high schools . . . When you mention Blair, it should be noted that anyone may take newspaper journalism -- not just Communication Arts students. Diversity is encouraged across the board, and many non-CAP students are responsible for publishing Silver Chips, Blair's award-winning paper (and nurturer of such talented people as Eric Shansby, now employed as an illustrator by your paper). This newspaper, hailed by you as "probably the region's best," is among the strongest in the country.

Jay Mathews: Good point. I was trying to convey the notion that they may have an advantage because they draw kids with that particular focus. But you are right. It is not a paper just for the magnet kids.


Laurel, Md.: Jay, this isn't the stated topic, but can I bring up the rhetorical question you asked in an Op-Ed a couple of week ago, "Who's afraid of intelligent design?" For readers: NOT that you advocated teaching it, but allowing the debate about it into the classroom.

Here's why I fear intelligent design in the classroom: the normal terms of debate go out the window when the subject is religion. Schools bend over backwards to accommodate any baseless belief like reincarnation, transubstantiation, or personal demons if it is a child's religion. Lack of evidence is not part of the discussion.

If we allow discussion of debate about intelligent design, the school would of necessity have to conclude that there is no basis for it, and that it's held principally due to equally unproveable religious beliefs.

Then how many parents sue the school board for teaching their kids that religious beliefs have no basis?

Jay Mathews: Good point. Check out my online column Class Struggle on this website tomorrow for more on the reaction to that piece.


Washington D.C.: I'm relatively new in D.C. and noticed that none of the high schools mentioned were in D.C. proper. Could you comment on why and which D.C. high schools deserve special mention? Thanks.

Jay Mathews: See above for my list of some great DC schools, and please note that DC school Banneker High is on the list, as is DC charter high school (which is also a free public school) Thurgood Marshall.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Mathews,

I read your article and kept wondering where the high poverty schools were. I was dismayed to find a section at the end that included minorities and disabled students, segregated and relegated to the end.

The public schools in the first section had low levels of student poverty and not too many of the "hard to teach kids." They are doing a great job with the students they have. Well, duh! Of course! They should be.

Good high schools do a good job with all kids, including minorities, English language learners, poor kids and kids with disabilities.

Maybe some other survey will include some of these?

Jay Mathews: We DID include them. You mentioned that yourself. They probably did not get as many votes because their parents are less likely to be Post subscribers. That is why we created that special category.


Washington, D.C.: Why did not Benjamin Banneker H.S. make the list? I think your categorizing it simply as a school that serves "minorities" is an insult. "Minority" is somewhat of a marginalizing term come to be synonymous with Blacks. You seem to also insinuate that "minorities" are essentially less intelligent students with "special needs" by grouping "minorities" in the same category with students with "special needs." I do think that Banneker is a good school. I am an alumnus - I did not really like it half of the time while I was there because of the old building, the strictness, and the very traditional curriculum which I did not think was as good as schools such as Thomas Jefferson. However, it is true that many of the students there excelled and are as smart as students anywhere else. Despite our dilapidated facilities and other challenges, we spawned a student who scored a perfect score on the PSAT and our It's Academic Team beat many of the schools you've listed as simply "great schools," including private schools with more resources, such as Sidwell Friends. Bigots of all colors tend to want to hide this side of Black America and would rather you think that Black Americans are inferior and only have attained anything because they "unrightfully" gained it through "affirmative action."

The day when the Benjamin Bannekers will get as much funding and support as the Thomas Jeffersons of the world, will be a new day indeed.

Jay Mathews: See answer above. It was a list based on reader responses. If Banneker had gotten as many responses as the other public schools in that list of ten, I would have included it in that part of the list.
Several of our minority readers have asked me to recommend schools where minority students serious about their studies might thrive. That inspired that third list of ten, which, if you read the items, does not seem like an insult to me. I am interested in your reaction, though, and will make sure my editors read it also.


Alexandria, Va.: I would like to know more specifics about how you chose to highlight just these particular schools. To a parent not familiar with the schools your article gives them the impression that these are the area's top schools. I am very familiar with private schools in the area and know that, given the schools you highlighted, this is in part a false impression.

Jay Mathews: See answers above, and check out our Challenge Index list on this website, which is a much more comprehensive rating of all public schools. Many of the privates, unfortunately, refuse to participate.


Jay Mathews: Thanks very much for the excellent questions. If anybody wants to tell me something more privately, I can always be reached at mathewsj@washpost.com.


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