At T.C. Williams High School, a 'low achieving' label is a wake-up call

By Patrick Welsh
Sunday, March 21, 2010; B01

Things around T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where I teach English, have gotten pretty gloomy.

Two weeks ago, Superintendent Morton Sherman called an emergency faculty meeting. We gathered in the school auditorium to hear him break the news: Ours was officially a "persistently low achieving" school. That unflattering label is a new one, created by state officials and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for high schools ranked in the lowest 5 percent of schools statewide with demographics similar to ours.

I was stunned. Some of my seniors from last year went on to Yale, MIT, the University of Chicago and other great schools. Just that morning I had listened to my current seniors discuss Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses," a novel that is hardly fare for underachievers. How dare some bureaucrats tag us with such a demeaning label?

Yet I couldn't hide from the facts: Based on students' scores over the past two years on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, T.C. was ranked 122 of the 128 high schools in the state that serve a number of at-risk students but do not accept federal Title 1 resources. "Persistently low achieving" wasn't just another education cliche. Our scores didn't lie.

Things only got worse when Sherman told the teachers that we had four options for corrective action, three of which would probably involve firing at least half of us.

From that afternoon on, low-grade paranoia filled the school. We weren't just afraid of losing our jobs; the way we thought about T.C. had changed. Math teacher Gary Thomas got a call from his brother-in-law asking what it was like to teach at one of "the worst schools in the nation." Thomas is a West Point graduate and retired Army colonel who usually can be found in his classroom an hour before and an hour after school, tutoring kids. "You feel horrible when you are putting in the time and effort and see a lot of your students who catch on and do well get characterized as low achievers," he told me.

How did our school -- which in 1984 received one of the country's first Department of Education excellence awards and in 1988 had the highest number of National Merit semifinalists in the state -- get to this point?

T.C. Williams has always been proud of its student achievement and its diverse community. But as the demographics of the school shifted over the past 25 years and low-income students -- many of them minorities and immigrants -- began to outnumber middle-class kids, one thing that didn't change was the way the school thought about its students. Even though we knew better, many of us -- both teachers and administrators -- acted as if all our students came to school with basic reading and math skills and had a parent at home actively supervising their education. The stragglers could do the work, we insisted, if they were in a room full of other kids who could do the work, too. The school definitely did not want to create tracking classes, in which kids are separated according to ability, or anything that could resemble ethnic or class-based segregation.

Instead of zeroing in on the relatively small number of students who came to us unprepared and needed a great deal of help to catch up, we opted for appearances. The school mixed kids of different academic levels into the same classes in hopes that the best students would pull up those on the bottom. We also continued passing kids through the system, whether they had learned the skills they needed or not. Gary Thomas says many students enter T.C. Williams not knowing how to add or subtract without a calculator, and even the better students do not understand fractions.

We tried to confront some of these challenges once before. But in 1997 the school board rejected a task force recommendation that Alexandria create an alternative school -- the type of school that we desperately need today to serve students with specific educational challenges. Glenn Hopkins, who runs a nationally recognized local preschool program, remembers that fight. He said he and other task force members were "pilloried by a small but vocal cadre of short-sighted community activists." Most of these activists were African Americans who had battled segregation years ago. "They saw a small alternative school as a ruse to bring back segregation," Hopkins said. The school board, unnerved, shelved the recommendation.

Over the past two weeks, teachers at T.C. have been angrier than I have ever seen them. We are angry at federal officials who label those of us who work in the most challenging schools as failures. We are angry at administrators who constantly send us mixed messages (be rigorous, but don't give out many Ds and Fs, and make sure everyone graduates!). We are angry that our leadership has been so unstable (the new principal to be named soon will be our third in five years).

And we are outraged that the school system enrolls newly arrived 18- to 20-year-old immigrants in the general student population, where they aren't in programs tailored to their particular needs. Had we done as Arlington and Fairfax counties do and offered them enrollment in an adult education program, their Standards of Learning scores would not have counted, and it's very unlikely that T.C. would have gotten the "persistently low achieving" label. We would also be serving those students better.

But the teachers also realize that we earned this label. For 39 years, I've been teaching grammar, writing and literature. Yet if a student comes into my classroom reading well below grade level, I don't know how to teach him to read. I should have taken courses years ago; I just never thought that I would need to teach reading in the 12th grade. And teachers throughout the school system have passed kids on to the next grade, even though they have not mastered the skills they need to succeed at the next level.

Now that we've earned a label no one wants, maybe we'll be ready to label other things more accurately. Even students can identify the key challenges more clearly than many educators. "If T.C. wants to see any improvement, it will need a principal who will stick around and be willing to make unpopular decisions and confront head-on issues involving race -- which are really issues of economic class," said senior Luke Dorris, who has gained early admission to Columbia University.

The students also realize what's at stake. Tenth-grader Layla Mustafa said she is hearing a lot of kids say that their parents are thinking about taking them out of T.C. and sending them to private schools. "There are a lot of smart, hard-working kids here who are getting a great education, but with the state calling us 'persistently low achieving,' people outside of the school won't believe that," she said.

I'm confident we can shed our unwanted label. We took a great first step Tuesday night at a dinner that Superintendent Sherman hosted for all the T.C. staff members. Some, fearful that he would announce numerous firings, were calling it "the last supper." I thought it turned out to be Sherman's finest hour. He defended us and our work and told us he would probably exercise the least punitive option available to him: the "transformation model," which requires that we submit a detailed plan for improvement. He then opened the floor for the most honest discussion I have heard in all my years at the school.

One by one, teachers walked up to two microphones and addressed the problems -- and solutions -- they saw at T.C.: the lack of clear, consistent discipline; kids roaming the halls freely during class; the failure to curb cellphone and iPod use; the need to identify and focus on those students who are woefully behind in reading and math.

I couldn't help but chuckle when Steve Geter, a 27-year-old history teacher who didn't exactly kill himself studying when he was in my English class 10 years ago, suggested, to thunderous applause, that we could help change the atmosphere by making students wear uniforms. It seemed to be the first time that everyone was pulling in the same direction to confront the problems that helped give us the label we all hate.

I thought T.C. Williams being tagged "persistently low achieving" was the lowest moment of my career at this school. Now I see it more as an unfriendly wake-up call, something to pull us back from the long, slow slide of not serving all our students well.

Labels can be unfair. They never tell the whole story. But though we never wanted to achieve our new label, I have no doubt that it will help us get back to achieving our best.

Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

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