Slapped with the label 'lowest-achieving,' a high school turns a crisis into a challenge

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; B01

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.

The first day of school, students stepped off yellow buses to a sort of small-town celebration. The marching band played. There were balloons and welcome posters. Teachers, parents and elected officials cheered as students walked inside. "Their eyes were rolling," recalled parent Sharon Longabaugh, "but they were smiling."

Inside the school, Maxey tried to set new expectations. At once a warm personality and a rule follower, she is a presence in hallways and lunch hours as well as at band concerts and parent coffees. Early in the school year, students hung a poster in her office, dubbing it "Mama Bear's Den."

But Maxey said change will not be easy or without setbacks.

"We're learning to do something we've never done before," she said. "It's hard. We're trying to fix the car when it's going 45 miles an hour."

From Day One, the school's ban on iPods, cellphones and hats was newly and strictly enforced, even during lunch. Students were not allowed to wander the halls, and classes were to be taught "from bell to bell." For 61/2 hours a day, Maxey told students, "You're ours, and when you're here, it's about learning."

Some students complained school was like a prison. Others appreciated a newfound calm in the hallways. Jack Peisch, 17, recalled that during an initial assembly, Maxey said a few words, then stopped. "You'll find I don't like to repeat myself," the teen recalled her saying. A hush came over the students.

"I felt like that kind of set the tone for this year," Peisch said. "The wheels are moving in the main office, and last year they weren't. . . . There's a vibe. And there are definitely fewer fights."

Data were not available to compare the number of fights from year to year. But teachers and other students echoed Peisch's assessment.

Some students said they see academic change, too. "The teachers are better," says Alexi Soto, 16. "They put the time into teaching us."

Said Juan Ramirez, 17: "There are more opportunities to get your grades up."

Learning blitz

The demands of change are keenly felt by teachers. Some did summer training. Each has devised a professional learning plan, collaborating on ways to improve and measure success. Administrators and department heads observe their classes.

"I think it helps that the teachers feel supported," says Molly Freitag, a veteran social studies teacher. "They see the administrators' long hours. It's we're-all-in-this-together."

Some of the faculty, though, are skeptical of a shift in grading practices that allows teachers to give a mark of "incomplete" rather than a D or an F. The idea is to give students more time to learn. Much is left to teacher discretion, Maxey said. But she acknowledged "some think we are wrong on this and we gave away the farm."

Parent Nicolas Lataillade praised Sherman and Maxey but said T.C. seems to be "two schools in one" - the equivalent of a private education for high achievers, but a different experience for teens who struggle. "If they really want to change," he said, "they have to get closer to the students who are having the problems."

To help students pass state tests, Maxey recently started a plan to "blitz" them with preparation and review.

Day to day, there is a new focus on writing. In Craig Scheuerman's culinary arts class, for example, students typically have not done written work. They have cooked. But one recent day, Robyn Johnson, 17, was writing on her laptop after she'd spent nearly 90 minutes on a gingerbread house.

"The more they do things, the better they are going to become," Scheuerman said.

In Mark Eaton's AP English class, writing has always been a mainstay. But now there is a stronger emphasis on revising. His new motto: "There are no great writers. There are only great rewriters."

Jacqueline Ancess, a scholar on secondary school reform at Columbia University, said two strategies are key in high-poverty high schools. One is to personalize education, ensuring each student has an adult advocate to help with problems. Another is to emphasize writing, high-order thinking and other "college readiness" skills.

"There are plenty of studies out there that show these methods work," she said.

A place for help

With the federal aid, T.C. Williams got 41/2 new counseling positions and an assistant counseling director to help with student achievement plans. There are also nine new math and English teachers, as well as consultants to help in such areas as teacher training.

Part of the cafeteria, behind glass doorways, has become a math and writing center. Peer tutors and teachers rotate in and out. About 300 students have sought help on English papers, lab reports and college essays. Many are also dropping in with math questions.

"The idea is to try to reach these kids before they get to the point where they are ready to give up," said teacher Jennifer Loftus, co-director of the writing center.

Franklin Reyes, 18, recently handed her a paper with smoothly crafted paragraphs.

"This is great!" Loftus said.

He blushed. She gave him a chocolate bar.

Last year, Reyes struggled in math, but now it is one of his favorite subjects. "I want to make good grades and pass 12th grade," he said. "I kinda pulled myself together."

Still, challenges remain.

Math teacher Gary Thomas praised Maxey's commitment but said more systematic efforts are needed to reach teens who falter and fail. "There is a lot of stuff swirling around, and a lot of motion," he said. "I just don't want [the administrators] to confuse activity with progress" - and then be disappointed with the results.

In mid-December, Maxey gave students a readout on the first quarter. There were 900 students on honor rolls, she told them, but too many absences and low grades. She talked about how hard it is to improve a school, how sacrifice is needed for success.

Then she played them a snippet from the Disney movie that has defined T.C. for the outside world. In the scene, a coach played by Denzel Washington leads the just-integrated football team on an exhausting run that ends at the edge of a Gettysburg cemetery. He talks about the need to pull together.

She asked them to imagine the scene was not about football but about academics. For a minute, she recalled, the room went quiet.

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