High Schools That Break the Mold

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Amonth ago, the Extra ran the Challenge Index, my annual rankings of Washington area high schools. One of the points I failed to make about the rankings was the rise of what I call the Surprise Schools. These are public high schools that have very large numbers of low-income students and that are doing as well as many affluent public schools in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test participation, and even more surprisingly, in the scores their students are getting on these college-level tests.

I think these schools deserve a special look because their success is so at odds with the low expectations people might have for them. I am also interested in hearing from parents, teachers and students at these schools, found in six districts, who might enlighten us on what is going on.

The Challenge Index, published Dec. 13, uses a number called the Equity and Excellence percentage to measure school success on college-level tests. It is the portion of all graduating seniors who had at least one passing score (3 or higher on the 5-point tests) on at least one AP exam. I have augmented this number to include any graduating seniors who had at least one passing score (4 or higher on the 7-point tests) on an IB exam and ranked the 10 top local schools that have at least 40 percent low-income students.

The average U.S. high school has about a 15 percent passing rate for all seniors on AP and IB tests. Eight low-income schools (see chart) in this area are beating that percentage, some by a lot. Even the two that do not beat the average are exceeding expectations because most such schools in the country have no or very few AP or IB courses.

The two top schools, Stuart and Annandale in Fairfax County, have many students from immigrant families. Their principals, Pamela A. Jones at Stuart and John Ponton at Annandale, have provided a rare combination of strong participation and significant mastery in these challenging programs. Wakefield High's principal, Doris B. Jackson, has been widely recognized as a national leader in raising AP achievement for low-income minorities. She just won one of The Washington Post's annual Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards.

Wilson has long had a strong AP program under Principal Stephen Tarason, who retired last year. Wheaton's principal is Kevin Lowndes. The school had previously been led by George P. Arlotto, also a recognized leader in AP and now the chief school performance officer of the Anne Arundel County schools.

T.C. Williams educators have been working to involve more low-income minority students in its AP program. Principal Mel Riddile arrived a year ago after having been named national High School Principal of the Year for his work at Stuart, where he made Jones and Ponton assistant principals. SEED is a D.C. charter school that graduated just 12 seniors in 2007. It is the only public boarding school for low-income students in the country. It also has a new head of school, Charles Adams, taking advantage of the groundbreaking work of the school's founders, Eric S. Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota. Northwestern, whose principal is Jerome Thomas, and High Point, whose principal is Scott Smith, are leading an effort in Prince George's County to make AP and IB the cornerstones of an upsurge in academic performance.

Maria Tukeva, principal of Bell Multicultural, and her faculty have done something I had never seen at an inner-city public school. Often schools such as Bell will get a big boost on the Challenge Index from many students taking AP Spanish language. Some critics think that is cheating, almost, for students raised in Spanish-speaking homes. I don't agree, but that is a topic for another day. In any case, only 22 Bell students took the AP Spanish language test, with 17 receiving passing scores in 2007.

The reason for their big jump was something very different, indeed the opposite of having students take AP Spanish. Tukeva and her faculty made AP English literature a required course. That is not a misprint -- English lit. For many of these students, it was probably the most difficult course they have ever taken. But Tukeva said that was the point. She wanted them to wrestle with their country's national language at the highest possible level. She wanted to prepare them for college. How could she do that if she was letting them get by on the pablum that usually passes for high school English in cities such as hers?

So 226 of the 311 AP tests given at Bell in May were in English lit. They had three scores of 3. There were 31 scores of 2 and 192 scores of 1. (You cannot, by the way, get a 1 on an AP test by just turning in a blank answer sheet. There is a different designation for tests that show no work. It is possible to get many questions right and still get a 1.) This year, those who took AP English literature as juniors are seniors who are getting a second challenging dose of reading and writing in their required AP English and composition course. The AP exam will be given in May. Tukeva said Bell's teachers are looking for ways to raise the level of instruction, particularly in the ninth- and 10th-grade courses that precede AP.

That is also what has been happening at the schools above Bell on this list. It will be interesting to see how they do next year. I expect many more surprises.

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