How to Fix Struggling High Schools

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; 11:17 AM

Last week, The Washington Post ran two articles by staff writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker that revealed, in a remarkable way, the abject hopelessness of inner-city American high schools. They tell the story of just one D.C. student, Calvin Coolidge Senior High School senior Jonathan Lewis, and his uncertain path to a diploma. But every step on his journey exposed another failure of the educators, parents and students on whom the public school system depends.

Lewis wants to graduate. His mother wants him to graduate. His principal and teachers want him to graduate. But none of them make much progress toward that goal.

Lewis neglects his homework and rarely comes to class. His mother accepts his false account of steady progress and doesn't learn the truth until late in the school year. His history teacher, the best educator in the story, doesn't know Lewis is supposed to be in his class because the student never comes and the school's scheduling and information systems fail to inform the teacher that he is supposed to be there. Lewis worries more about defending his friends against insults from rival groups at school than he does about missing class. Most of his teachers ask little of him, and some are clumsy in their methods. The principal works to turn the school around, but most of his staff lack his passion.

This is a familiar story to many readers of this column, but you need to read Parker's pieces. The links are here and here.

It is time to figure out what we should be doing about this.

I think the people running our high schools, as well we parents, need to stop making compromises that sustain the cycle of failure. Kind and thoughtful educators and parents, such as the ones in Parker's articles, are trying to get through each day without hurting too many feelings or forcing too many confrontations. When the choice is between letting standards continue to slip or making a scene, few people want to be drama queens, which is too bad.

The best inner-city educators begin each day knowing they are going to have to confront apathy again and again. They shove it away as if it were a kidnapper trying to steal their children. To succeed, a high school like Coolidge needs a unified team of such people, who follow the same standards of regular attendance, daily preparation for school, high achievement and attention and decorum in the classroom.

It sounds impossible, but it's not. There are inner-city schools right now, including some charter, religious and private schools that operate that way. It takes strength and intelligence and humor and love for young people, and an abhorrence for the limp compromises that have created such sickly schools as Coolidge.

I asked several expert educators how they would fix schools like that. Michael A. Durso, principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, said: "These problems did not occur overnight and will not be resolved easily or in a short time." Michael Riley, superintendent of the Bellevue, Wash., schools, said: "Anyone who thinks there is a quick fix, that taking a couple of dramatic steps will make this situation better overnight, is kidding himself."

But they have many practical suggestions. Frazier O'Leary, who teachers Advanced Placement English at Cardozo High School in the District, said all staff members must be "like-minded in our quest." He added: "I have been constantly encouraged by how much our kids want to succeed . . . [but] we have to push them to places they have never been."

Durso's ideas included a new paint job and landscaping, meetings with students, more support and training for teachers, a campus health clinic, a focus on reading instruction and publicizing those things the school already does well. Riley called for better information management (so everyone would know that Lewis was skipping class), all adults upholding the same standards, more time to instruct students who need it, and--just as Durso recommended--emphasizing examples of success.

Robert W. Snee, principal of George Mason High School in Falls Church, recommended a school-wide campaign, beginning with a week-long retreat for all staff, a strong effort to rid the school of apathetic teachers, and then timetables, assigned responsibilities, community outreach, student participation and many other ways of getting the whole school moving.

Debra Craig, a California teacher who has organized True Educators Asking Californians for Honest Education Reform, called for fixing the building (including the non-working clocks at Coolidge), hiring more counselors, creating a new curriculum, giving discipline top priority and establishing grading criteria for all teachers.

The Post's Parker said many readers blamed Lewis and his mother for his failures. There is some truth to that, but it won't get us very far. As Parker pointed out, her articleswould never have appeared if Lewis's mother hadn't agreed to cooperate. She said the mother wanted people to learn of her son's struggle so that they "could offer up solutions for others in the same situation."

It takes some courage to expose yourself in that way on the front page of your city's major newspaper. The least we can do is respond to her challenge to come up with realistic ideas for change. Here is my e-mail address: Tell me how you would save a school like Coolidge, and I will summarize your ideas in an upcoming column.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company