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Mold-Breaking Schools Can Reach Every Student

(By Julie Zhu -- Montgomery Blair High School)
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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I don't understand why you continue to ignore the high dropout rates of the high schools you highlight as "breaking the mold" ["High Schools That Break the Mold," Jan. 10]. The senior class at Wakefield High School is 60 percent the size of its freshman enrollment. This statistic is 70 percent at Annandale and 75 percent at Stuart. (Note that the Arlington County report on dropouts says the dropout rate at Wakefield is only 1.9 percent!) And the graduation rates are (as a percentage of incoming freshmen) undoubtedly lower.

What might be reasonably said about the best "mold-breaker" schools is that they provide a challenging curriculum and safe learning environment that attracts and retains the middle class and other high-aspiration students in their districts, enabling those who wish to get an excellent education. This is not an insignificant achievement, yet it likely says little about the education received by the other 60 to 75 percent of students.

Joel Kanter

Silver Spring

I haven't been ignoring dropout rates. I wrote about them last month and will do so again this month. My online column last week, at http://www.washingtonpost.com, reported research showing intriguing results from five approaches to raising graduation rates.

But this is, so far, a problem for which we lack a solution available to the high school leaders and teachers whose work I am rating. Only one research-driven approach, breaking high schools into small learning communities, is something high school leaders can do, and we will need more data before policymakers in this area will be willing to adopt that method.

What interests me is that some low-income, high-dropout schools, such as Wakefield, Annandale and Stuart, still try to prepare students for college by getting them into Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and employ terrific teachers whose students do well on the tests. Most schools such as these do not try, and their rates of AP participation and mastery remain low.


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