President Obama to Give Back-to-School Address From Arlington, Va., High School

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Less than a week before school starts at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, teachers are getting classrooms ready for students and a team of men in black suits is preparing the school for a special Day One guest: President Obama.

The president has chosen the aging campus with a reputation for success with disadvantaged students to be his backdrop for a national back-to-school address Tuesday.

The speech, which will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and the White House Web site, is intended to motivate students to work hard, set educational goals and take personal responsibility for their learning. It's also meant to underscore the president's commitment to education, even as the country is engaged in two wars, an economic crisis and a tense health-care debate.

At Wakefield, word of the president's visit was met Wednesday with excitement and pride. "It's a validation of this little school that keeps trying to pop all the charts," Principal Doris Jackson said.

Set in a 1950s-era building just off a commercial strip on Route 7, Wakefield is the county's most economically and racially diverse high school. Nearly half of Wakefield's 1,400 students are Hispanic, and more than a quarter are African immigrants or African American. About half receive free or reduced-cost lunch.

Despite a population with many and varied academic needs, the high school has achieved continuous improvement on standardized tests. It has a reputation for setting lofty academic standards, including a goal that every student will take at least one Advanced Placement class before graduating, said Arlington schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos. Last year, 39 percent of graduating Wakefield seniors had at least one passing score on an AP test -- more than twice the national average.

Obama visited schools in the Washington suburbs during the presidential campaign, including after-hours stops at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. After his election, he and first lady Michelle Obama read to students at the Capital City Public Charter School in February.

This will be his first visit to Arlington public schools, a system with 20,000 students and a new superintendent. But the district has already received a wave of national attention since the president took office.

In February, Education Secretary Arne Duncan chose Wakefield as the site to unveil details of how the stimulus package would affect education. And Duncan included Arlington on his national listening tour, stopping by Washington-Lee High School in August to meet with area principals and solicit ideas for reform.

Some of the high-level attention probably stems from the fact that Duncan's two children attend Arlington Science Focus Elementary School.

The spotlight can only help the school system succeed, officials say.

"This will be a super school year," Jackson said. "I don't know how we can't soar after a start like this."

Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.

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