Ranking High Schools, 2006

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006; 4:18 PM

The Challenge Index, my system for rating high schools based on college-level test participation, grew from watching a low-income school in East Los Angeles -- Garfield High -- find ways to challenge average students that most high-income schools never thought of. As The Washington Post unveils its 10th annual Challenge Index rankings of Washington area public schools this week, I want to see how low-income schools in this region are doing.

The Challenge Index rates each school by taking the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests the school gave in 2006 and dividing by the number of seniors who graduated from the school this year. High school educators who have learned, as the teachers at Garfield did, that even average students benefit from AP and IB are more likely to have more students taking those exams and do better on The Post's list. High school educators who stick with what is still the majority view about AP and IB in America -- that the programs are suitable only for top students -- do not do so well.

In many cases, the list defies the conventional wisdom that schools with lots of low-income students are bad and schools with few such students are good. That is not to say that most low-income schools do well on the list. Most do not. Many of their teachers and administrators accept the widespread assumption that their students can't do AP or IB. But the few schools in poor neighborhoods that break out of this mindset are worth studying.

Take a look at the lists at the right of this column. The first shows the top 10 schools in the Washington area who have at least 40 percent low-income students, as indicated by the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

Number one on this list of relatively disadvantaged schools is Wakefield High School in Arlington County. Wakefield is thought of by many people in Arlington as a bad school because 54 percent of its students are low-income and 70 percent are Hispanic or African American.

By contrast, I think Wakefield is one of the best schools in the country, and a $25,000 College Board award this year backs me up. Like Garfield, Wakefield has found new ways to engage students from low-income homes. Its principal Doris Jackson has organized a system for getting more students into challenging courses when they arrive in ninth grade and keeping them focused on learning with study seminars, summer sessions and even social clubs.

Wakefield staff members Al Reid, Delores Bushong and Alan Beitler advise what is called the Cohort, a group of more than 100 male students, about 25 in each grade, who meet each week to deal with the stress and challenges of AP classes. Beitler and Bushong have also started a similar program for junior minority girls.

Wakefield students are groomed for the AP courses they will take. They encounter teachers who are skilled in giving all students the time and encouragement they need to master the material. I have recently received e-mails from Wakefield graduates in college identifying some of these faculty AP stars at their old high school: MaryAnn Bell (English), Colette Fraley (U.S. history), Michael Grill (government and politics), Patrick Kelly (European history) and Michael Lutz (English).

The other schools on this list are also intriguing. Bell Multicultural is a D.C. high school that began years ago as the brainchild of the Bell principal, Maria Tukeva. She thought the rising numbers of low-income Hispanic students in the city, who remind me of the kids at Garfield, could handle a more challenging curriculum.

Wilson is a large school in Northwest Washington that benefits from having a core of middle-class students but works hard to make sure its low-income students are also challenged. Stuart and Annandale are very similar Fairfax County schools that have used the IB program to energize classrooms full of students from low-income and immigrant families. Wheaton has the highest percentage of low-income students in Montgomery County, and it has a commitment to give them the same college preparation that the county's many affluent students receive.

T.C. Williams is Alexandria's only high school. It has lagged behind its Northern Virginia neighbors, Fairfax and Arlington counties, in opening up its AP courses to average students and making sure they all took the final exams. But its school board ordered an upgrade of the AP program two years ago, doubling its Challenge Index rating. This year the district hired Mel Riddile, national principal of the year when he was at Stuart, to run the school.

SEED, Booker T. Washington and Cardozo are all D.C. schools that lack Wilson's core of middle-class students. Cardozo is a national pioneer in introducing AP to very disadvantaged students. It has found ways to build student skills from a very low level so that they can begin to get passing grades on the AP exams. One of its star AP teachers, Frazier O'Leary, has become a frequent speaker around the country. Its longtime principal, Reginald Ballard, was just moved to a job at D.C. school headquarters, and he has been succeeded by his long-time, energetic assistant principal, Barbara Childs.

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