By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; B01
Federal education officials have singled out Alexandria's only public high school as one of the nation's poorest-performing schools, putting it on track for dramatic instructional reforms fueled by new federal funds.
Washington area educators don't generally regard T.C. Williams High School, whose early integration efforts were celebrated in the movie "Remember the Titans," as one of the region's worst schools. But the new federal label highlights the extent to which it has failed to lift the achievement of its large population of minority students, whose performance lags behind those of white students at the school.
T.C. Williams boasts a $100-million state-of-the-art facility with a rooftop garden and green technology. Participation in Advanced Placement courses ranks among the highest in the country. And more than 80 percent of graduates last year went on to college.
Yet this month it became one of 17 in Virginia -- and the only one in Northern Virginia -- to be dubbed a "persistently lowest achieving school," as determined by standardized test results.
"We are almost a bimodal school division. Three-quarters of our kids do extraordinarily well, but we have traditionally underserved huge portions of our population," said Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman.
The 2,900-student school, which is divided into two campuses, has never met all federal testing benchmarks required by the No Child Left Behind law. In 2009, 78 percent of students graduated from T.C. Williams in four years, compared with 83 percent across the state. Just 65 percent of Hispanic students graduated in the same time.
The school qualifies for the federal grant because standardized test scores in 2008 and 2009 fell in the lowest 5 percent of 128 Virginia high schools that have similar poverty demographics but do not receive funding under Title I, a federal program that provides extra resources to schools with large numbers of poor and at-risk students.
About half the students at T.C. Williams receive free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.
In 2008, 82 percent of T.C. Williams students passed the state's standardized reading test and 79 percent passed the math exam. In 2009, the pass rate was 84 percent in reading and 77 percent in math. The average pass rate for the state in 2008 was 87 percent in reading and 84 percent in math; in 2009, it was 89 percent in reading and 86 percent in math.
The school's performance makes it eligible for a piece of a $3.5 billion program that is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's efforts to spur change in the nation's weakest schools.
T.C. Williams has challenges familiar to many urban schools, including high mobility rates and large numbers of students who don't speak English or who live in poverty, said Mel Riddile, former principal at T.C. Williams and associate director of high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But many things set it apart, he said, including highly engaged parent groups, a cadre of very talented teachers and an impressive array of college-level classes.
"Is this school the worst of the worst? No. Is it a dropout factory? No," Riddile said. "This may not be typical of the kinds of schools the president is trying to target . . . but it definitely needs to improve."
To qualify for the additional federal funding, which Sherman estimates could total $1.5 million over three years, the school will have to undergo a radical transformation.
The Obama administration has identified four options: closing the school and sending its students elsewhere; reopening it as a charter school; firing the principal and at least half the faculty; or submitting to a host of instructional changes that include lengthening the school day or year and expanding professional development.
School leaders will be weighing the same set of options for about 10 schools in the District and more than a dozen in Prince George's County that also have been designated as persistently lowest achieving. Most schools earned the label through test performance; a few were selected because graduation rates were lower than 60 percent for three consecutive years.
Sherman said he is inclined to choose the least drastic option: revamping instruction and expanding professional development. But he has not ruled out the possibility of replacing a significant portion of the faculty. He met with teachers last week to talk about the best course of action and said he is more likely to seek new ways to support existing faculty.
A struggling Rhode Island school made headlines last month following a decision to spur reform by replacing its staff. Officials have since backed down.
Earlier this year, T.C. Williams Principal William Clendaniel announced his intention to retire. The school board has launched a national search for someone who can lead the transition.
The school's staff began a series of reforms over the past year, including opening a college and career center and adding graduation coaches and tutorial services.
The pending reforms look promising to activists with Tenants and Workers United, a community group that has been working with school officials to improve academic outcomes for Hispanic students, who are most likely to drop out. "We hope we have hit bottom and we are going to start to bounce back," Executive Director Jon Liss said.