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

By Patrick Welsh
Sunday, March 21, 2010

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.

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