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Mold-Breaking Schools Can Reach Every Student

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.

I would also argue that the mold-breaking schools do reach the other 60 to 75 percent of students, particularly those freshmen and sophomores. They are getting much better at preparing them for AP and IB.

Dear Extra Credit:

As a parent of a J.E.B. Stuart High sophomore, I'd like to mention a few things I think contribute to the school's success.

Not much goes on that Principal Pamela Jones and Liz Bojtos, director of student services, and their staff members don't know about. Jones and Bojtos are omnipresent and have created a palpable sense of community among the parents, students and staff.

I attended a PTSA meeting at which Jones talked about loving and nurturing our children. I can't tell you how comforting it was to hear a Fairfax Country public school principal use these words when talking about teenagers.

Despite all the talk about AP, IB and uber-achievement that Northern Virginians love, as a former special-ed teacher, Jones has a special place in her heart for children with learning differences and has made it a priority to make sure they are given their fair share of resources.

Marie Cavanagh

Fairfax County

Thank you so much for this inside information, just what I was looking for when I asked to hear more from people involved in those schools.

Dear Extra Credit:

You might be right that there is no money or expertise to provide gifted classes in high school, so AP is the only alternative for gifted students.

But I have always felt that gifted students do not need extra funding but only creative teachers and liberation from following a dumbed-down curriculum. Unfortunately, because AP classes carry extra benefits besides what happens in the classroom (GPA enhancement, the opportunity to test out of college courses, high regard by college admissions officers) no other offering would have a chance in the competitive educational marketplace. If the out-of-class benefits were equalized, a good gifted class would give the AP program a run for its students. That competition does not exist.

Some AP classes, such as literature, can be good places for gifted students because they are teaching an analytical process, not a mountain of facts. But in fact-based AP classes such as U.S. history, many teachers just shovel out the information because that is the basis of their test. I saw my daughter's interest in history wither and die from a class that primarily consisted of copying notes.

Asking kids to learn more facts is not gifted education. Challenging them to go deeper, to question perspectives and to create new meaning is.

Jay Lamb

Fairfax

There you go, pushing one of my buttons. I hope I live long enough to squash for good this notion that AP is only "fact-based" and leaves teachers with no choice but to "shovel out information."

Much of the most creative and exciting teaching I have seen has been in AP classes, particularly U.S. history. I had the pleasure of visiting the classroom of Eric Rothschild at Scarsdale High School in New York. His class was full of simulations of great events, debates, samples of 19th-century music, movement and passion.

I think an AP class for gifted students with a teacher such as Rothschild would be a fine idea, as long as you let that teacher also have one or two other sections of AP for us dummies.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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