Alexandria's T.C. Williams High hustles to get off urgent-reform list

The campus in Alexandria has been dogged by an achievement gap. Now the school will receive federal funding reserved for the nation's worst schools.
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

After T.C. Williams High School landed on a federal list of schools in urgent need of reform, the Alexandria superintendent wrote President Obama a polite letter in March questioning whether the school was really the right target.

Test scores for minorities and students with disabilities have long lagged behind those of other students. But Superintendent Morton Sherman wondered whether Obama meant to single out a school that sends more than 80 percent of its graduates to college and that offers two dozen Advanced Placement classes and a free laptop to every student.

Many in Alexandria were dismayed and confounded to see their high school lumped in with the nation's "persistently lowest-achieving schools," even though the designation means that T.C. Williams will claim a share of $3.5 billion in federal aid. But as the school prepares to close for the summer Tuesday, administrators are bent on finding answers to some of the toughest questions in education: How to erase achievement gaps, and how to get all students to graduate?

In the "Transformation Situation Room" next to the T.C. Williams front office, groups of teachers and administrators have worked overtime this spring, contemplating opaquely worded mandates -- posted on the wall -- that direct them to "provide operational flexibility" and "create community-oriented schools." They are beginning to devise a strategy for taking advantage of $6 million in federal aid over three years.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded their hard work.

"T.C. Williams is a school with a proud, proud history. But we know, where we are is not where we need to be," Duncan said in a telephone interview. "I'm absolutely confident that what will happen for kids this fall and the following fall at T.C. will be much better than it is today."

Obama's initiative is intended to rejuvenate struggling schools, elementary and secondary alike. Federal spending has generally flowed to lower grades, on the theory that earlier intervention will yield a bigger payoff. But high dropout rates have led federal officials to conclude that the solution for failing high schools is more than starting early.

T.C. Williams, with 2,900 students on two campuses, is one of the Washington region's largest high schools. It has never met goals set under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, because too many special education or minority students have failed standardized state math and reading tests.

One of three Hispanic students at the school fails to graduate on time. For African American students, the rate is one in four. Half of special education students tested passed math exams last year, far below the state average. Pass rates for black and Hispanic students trailed those for white students by 10 percentage points in reading and 20 points in math.

The school's white students, who account for about 20 percent of enrollment, are the only racial group that consistently outperforms its peers across the state, multiple school system analyses have found. Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, said T.C. Williams fits a pattern often found in close-in suburbs with racially and economically diverse populations: The success of some students overshadows the failure of others. Such schools "usually hover at a level of performance that is okay, but not great," Ferguson said. "They don't get caught in the net."

Sherman, despite the questions he posed in his letter to Obama, calls the label a gift that will lead to overdue changes. "I don't know of a better place in America to take on this challenge," he told the faculty in May.

One night in early June, more than 60 teachers, counselors and parents came to a Vision in Action Committee meeting in the cafeteria. Tired from the long school year and shivering in the air conditioning, they wondered aloud what could make a better T.C.

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