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Principal's Acid Test: 'Hippie High'

Casual is the word as Principal Frank Haltiwanger talks with Andrea Rivera, 18, a senior at H-B Woodlawn Secondary school in Arlington.
Casual is the word as Principal Frank Haltiwanger talks with Andrea Rivera, 18, a senior at H-B Woodlawn Secondary school in Arlington. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

That has not changed much. Most decisions at H-B, including teacher hires and the principal search, are made by committees that include students and rely on consensus and grass-roots democracy. Students think up new classes, design their own diplomas and sometimes spend the night at school.

As it happens, their unorthodox methods have been a success: The school regularly ranks high on Newsweek's "America's Best High Schools" top 100 list. In the most recent one, released last month, H-B was No. 5 in the nation and No. 1 in the Washington area.

Students from across the county apply for admission, with each elementary school allotted a certain number of slots depending on its size, and a few more spaces are available for incoming ninth-graders. If more students apply, which usually happens, they are chosen by lottery. The system started three years ago, and it has made the school more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.

The 525-student school does not offer as many courses and activities as larger comprehensive high schools -- it has no shop or home economics classes and no sports teams except an Ultimate Frisbee team (students wishing to play other sports can join their "home" high schools' teams). Still, it has a waiting list of students clamoring to attend.

When Anderson announced his retirement, anxiety washed over the school. Incoming seniors in particular, who had been with Anderson for five years, felt abandoned.

"I was pretty angry," said Greg Doyle, 18, who sat recently on one of the cafeteria couches, tossing a Frisbee to a friend. "Ray was just the coolest principal ever. He was like what defined H-B." He added, "I heard something about Frank being a stickler and kind of a jerk."

Some teachers, too, worried that a newcomer would upset the balance of laid-back openness and serious academics. To avert that, they collaborated last year to write a constitution to cement the school's particular brand of lawlessness into law.

"There's always this fear of the Ed Center," or the school system office, said Soles, the chemistry teacher (and a 1992 H-B graduate), who helped draft the constitution. "That they would want to turn us into a normal school, in terms of kids calling teachers by their last names, of taking attendance, of not having an open-campus policy, of town meetings not being a viable decision-making policy."

Soles, 31, who has a moppy Mohawk and long sideburns, said he, too, had heard Haltiwanger was a disciplinarian.

But the constitution faded as it became clear the new guy was not out to change things. Far from it, Haltiwanger speaks with reverence about the school's unusual qualities -- for example, the faith that adults place in students.

"We trust kids," he said. "We teach them about choice . . . and making judgments about themselves that are beneficial to them." As they spend time at the school, he said, they begin to hold themselves to the expectation that they will be trustworthy; that is why optional attendance works. "There's a real positive peer culture here to get there on time," he said. "They want to be with their group."

Walking past a senior wall, Haltiwanger pointed at the school motto, which someone had painted. " Verbum Sap Sat ," he said, grinning. "A word to the wise is sufficient, and that's the theme -- that they should be developing their own internal compass and not depending on external rewards and corrections to do the right thing."

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