Low-achieving Va. high school turns crisis into challenge

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 7:36 PM

When the bell sounded one autumn morning, the first-floor hallway at T.C. Williams High School was nearly empty. No lingering. No fights like last year's. No one talking on cellphones or dragging in late to class.

This new sense of order reflects wide-ranging changes in one of the Washington region's largest, most iconic high schools. Known as the setting for "Remember the Titans," a movie about the quest for racial integration four decades ago, T.C. Williams now is fighting another battle against educational disparities.

This time it's a 21st-century struggle that began in March, when Alexandria's only public high school was labeled "persistently lowest-achieving" in Virginia because of lagging test scores among some of its 2,900 students.

Nine months later, the school has an energetic new principal, more order and discipline and a stronger emphasis on writing. Teachers set goals and get critiques. Counselors are assigned fewer students so that they can help devise detailed achievement plans for each one. There is a new math and writing center where students drop in for tutoring.

"I think the school has a lot of promising practices that, if implemented and successful, can be used by a lot of other urban districts in our state," said Kathleen Smith, director of school improvement at the Virginia Department of Education.

The reaction to the dismal label "was like mourning, going through stages of anger and denial," recalled Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman. But when the shock wore off, he and others decided: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It was clear that some students were falling through the cracks, he said, and the "lowest-achieving" designation came with $6 million in aid from the Obama administration.

T.C. Williams is one of more than 350 high schools nationwide - and the only one so far in the D.C. suburbs - to receive the federal school improvement grants. But there is no precise prescription for transforming a high school, and no one can say for sure whether changes will translate into higher math and reading scores and an improved graduation rate, the benchmarks of success.

Educators say T.C. Williams still performs well in many ways, and that a number of other schools in the region face equal or greater challenges. But T.C. Williams has never met all its goals under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, falling short with some minority and special education students. It sends 85 percent of graduates to college. But school system data show that nearly one in three Hispanic students and one in five African Americans fail to graduate on time.

"I'm guessing that T.C. Williams has a lot more capacity to pull this off than do most schools," said Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, who is collaborating on the reform at T.C. Williams. "They seem like they are up to it, and I don't get that impression everywhere I go."

'The transformation'

T.C. Williams is hardly the picture of a downtrodden public school. The main campus is set in a gleaming windowed building where 26 Advanced Placement courses are taught and a cadre of high achievers go to top colleges. But the school is highly diverse. Its students come from more than 100 countries and speak more than 50 languages. More than half come from low-income families.

After it made Virginia's list of lowest-achieving schools, Alexandria officials had four options: close it down; bring in new management, such as a charter operator; replace the principal and at least half the teachers; or replace the principal and make an array of improvements.

Alexandria chose the last of those options, the least severe. At the forefront of what everyone now calls "the transformation" stood Suzanne Maxey, 58, the third principal in three years, chosen partly for having led improvement efforts in Maryland schools.

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