Schools Not Prepping Minorities for College, Report Says

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

A report by a team of activists and students that concluded that the Alexandria school system fails to prepare its black and Hispanic students for college is being criticized by schools officials as a distorted mix of old data, incorrect assumptions and bad methodology.

Despite the criticisms, Tenants and Workers United and the Advancement Project, the groups that sponsored the report, and schools officials said they plan to work together to ensure that minority students are encouraged to take challenging classes and continue their education after high school.

The report, released last week, said that Alexandria has "a two-track school system -- one is a college preparatory track that is available to mostly middle-class White students, and the other is a low-level track that is reserved for mostly poor students of color."

The report said that Alexandria's only high school, T.C. Williams, has a much lower percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses and graduating with advanced studies diplomas compared with neighboring Fairfax and Arlington counties.

In the report, based on a survey last fall of 386 T.C. Williams students, 73 percent of Latino students said they had not spoken with their guidance counselor about the college admissions process and many students "reported feeling unsupported by the staff of T.C. Williams."

Schools officials said they were particularly upset that the report had not noted significant improvements the system has made in encouraging minority students to take more challenging coursework and in counseling low-income students, including the replacement of counselors who were not encouraging students to think about college. Officials of Tenants and Workers United and the Advancement Project said they appreciated the progress being made but still see a large gap in college preparation between white students and their non-white counterparts.

Margaret Walsh, executive director of secondary programs for Alexandria public schools, said she and Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry were "very much taken aback" that the report's authors had not shared their conclusions with school system officials before going public. Walsh said she tried to explain to an Advancement Project official that their information "was significantly out of date." Advancement Project staff attorney James Freeman said the report used the most recent data available.

Walsh noted that minority enrollment in honors and AP courses in grades 6 through 12 has jumped from 23.9 percent in the 2002-03 school year to 35.5 percent this fall. She said that the report's authors ignored advice from Alexandria school statisticians to use nationally validated questions on the survey and that only 19 percent of T.C. Williams students participated. Freeman said the survey used experts who had done work for the school system.

In some cases both sides agreed on the data, but authors of the report emphasized statistics showing Alexandria trailing Fairfax and Arlington while schools officials emphasized statistics showing Alexandria making significant gains in recent years.

Freeman acknowledged that the report failed to say, in comparing the percentage of students in Alexandria receiving advanced studies diplomas with that of counterparts in Fairfax and Arlington, that those districts do not require students to take an AP or community college course to qualify for the diploma, as Alexandria does. Freeman also said that he was unaware that The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index ranking of Washington area schools showed that T.C. Williams' AP testing rate had climbed 138 percent from 2003 to 2006 and that the school is in the top 3 percent of public schools nationally in that category.

Freeman said his organization is working in other districts "that don't even have the money to hire enough teachers or buy enough books." Alexandria has more financial resources than those districts, he said, and ought to be doing a better job in raising minority-student achievement.

The report started as a student project. T.C. Williams students who are members of Alexandria United Teens, a group sponsored by Tenants and Workers United, gathered some data, prepared some survey questions, met with Perry and checked the draft of the report, which was written by George Mason University sociologist Tony Roshan Samara and Advancement Project staff members.

In a written response to the report, Alexandria schools officials applauded the 13 recommendations that the students agreed would help improve their school's college-going culture, including giving struggling students the support they need and making it an official district goal to prepare every student for college.

The recommendations "closely mirror what programs and supports are currently in place and point to the need to learn from students how the school division can increase the effectiveness of communications with them about these opportunities," the school system statement said.

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