The Education Review: April 2005


Top-Rated Public Schools

By Jay Mathews

Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page W10

What makes a great high school? Many people think they know, and it usually boils down to numbers: average SAT scores, percentage of kids taking Advanced Placement classes, the number of students who get into Ivy League colleges. These numbers are important, but they don't tell the whole story. They can't tell us which school has an amazing principal, or a great drama program, or a way of encouraging minority, immigrant or low-income kids in need of extra help. They can't tell us which high schools extend a warm welcome to learning-disabled kids, or academic underachievers, or teenagers who have made bad choices and are in desperate need of a second chance.

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Great High Schools:
What Makes a Great High School? The Back Fence Survey took community nominations and looks at these 30 area schools.
The Price Is Right
Finding Classes With Class
Why Online Teaching Turned Me Off spacer
___ Transcript___
High Schools That Work: Jay Mathews was online to answer questions about top-notch high schools in the Washington area.
So last September we asked readers which local high schools had impressed them and why. More than 300 people responded to The Washington Post Magazine's Back Fence Survey, nominating high schools and explaining what made them worthy of praise. Those who weighed in included parents, teachers, principals, students, alumni and community leaders. This wasn't a scientific survey and didn't pretend to be. But it highlighted some interesting high schools we hadn't heard much about before, along with others that we had.

In addition to the Back Fence responses, we talked to education experts, visited schools and examined the numbers. Then we compiled a list of 30 exceptional public and private high schools from across the region. It's by no means comprehensive. There are undoubtedly lots of terrific schools that aren't mentioned here. But this list offers a glimpse of what some public and private high schools are doing right in the eyes of those who know the most about them.

Eleanor Roosevelt High School
Greenbelt, Md.



Ajay Chandhok and Jonathan Morris work on a project in an engineering class at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. (Chris Hartlove - For The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location: Greenbelt, Md.
  • Population: 2,869 students (26.6 percent white, 57.4 percent black, 4.3 percent Hispanic, 11.5 percent Asian, 21 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1061; 83.3 percent pass state English test, 57 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 1.289
  • Teachers: 63 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 90 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

This very large school educates its students in an austere, prisonlike building with a bus fleet large enough to serve a small city. But it also has a big advantage. About one-third of its students have been selected based on grades and test scores for its science and technology magnet program.

In other words, it has more than its share of bright and ambitious students. Yet what parents and teachers gush over is not the many awards it has won or the number of AP classes it offers or the Ivy League admissions it boasts, but something more metaphysical. Eleanor Roosevelt has an extraordinary spirit, the Back Fence boosters say, stemming from the fact that 57 percent of its students are African American, that the nonmagnet students get as much encouragement as the science and tech whizzes, that klutzes are welcome on athletic teams and that the staff treats parents like partners rather than like dangerous intruders.

Udomah C. Ohiri says that when his daughter's grades slipped badly her freshman year and he sought help from her guidance counselor, within 24 hours all of the girl's teachers were assembled for a before-school meeting. "Life changed thereafter," Ohiri reports. Now a sophomore, the daughter "does all her school work without being reminded."

"I love the fact that we carpool with an Asian, an Indian and a Jewish-Caucasian boy," says parent Tina McGuffey, who describes her family as white evangelical Christian. Accustomed to her son's fine grades in middle school, she was stunned when Eleanor Roosevelt refused to let him take geometry in ninth grade. Despite his A in eighth-grade algebra, he had failed the school's algebra assessment test, which was not multiple choice and did not allow calculators. He took algebra again, the Eleanor Roosevelt way.

The school has an effective principal, Sylvester Conyers, and several legendary teachers, including Latin instructor Linda Squier and social studies teacher Kenneth Bernstein. Band director Sally Wagner and choral director Barbara Baker have created a 750-student musical juggernaut with so many ensembles and bands that one can barely keep count.

H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program
Arlington, Va.

About This School:
  • Location: Arlington County, Va.
  • Population: 322 students (67 percent white, 6.2 percent black, 19.3 percent Hispanic, 7.5 percent Asian, 15 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1206; 98.7 percent pass state English test, 98.6 percent pass state math test
  • College Index rating: 5.747
  • Teachers: 78 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 84 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

Here is one of the last bastions of the 1970s movement to create alternative educations to free American youth from the petty rules and hierarchies of the standard suburban high school. Students and teachers govern the school at weekly town meetings. Teachers are called by their first names. There are no bells or tardies or other annoyances.

Many of the other surviving alternative schools reject or soft-pedal standard measures of academic achievement, such as AP tests. But H-B embraces them, with an AP participation rate that was second highest among public schools in the region last year, even without a few H-B students who protested the AP pressure by sleeping through the exam because AP scores don't count on final grades.

The four high school grades have only 322 students, creating a cozy atmosphere that students -- picked by lottery -- and their parents love. "The physical plant looks like a cross between a bomb shelter and a prison," says parent Ann Tutundjian, "but kids are made to feel welcome there every day because it is their school."

Maurice J. McDonough High School
Pomfret, Md.

About This School:
  • Location: Pomfret, Md.
  • Population: 1,388 students (55.3 percent white, 38.3 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, 2.6 percent Asian, 12.3 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1070; 73.1 percent pass state English tests, 35.6 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 1.496
  • Teachers: 56 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 41 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

Like many schools in rapidly growing Charles County, McDonough is overcrowded, with trailer classrooms added. But parents and teachers say that Principal Garth Bowling has handled the growth well and that the academic program has improved rapidly, with five times as many AP tests given in 2004 as there were five years before.

The most glowing raves are for the music program and choral director, Teresa Mazzeo. Some of the singing ensembles, such as the madrigal group, are so good they are often mistaken for a college or professional choir. Mazzeo "has been one of the most influential people in my teenage life because she has taught me to love and share music," says Austin Rick, a recent graduate.

Montgomery Blair High School
Silver Spring, Md.

About This School:
  • Location: Silver Spring, Md.
  • Population: 3,236 students (27.4 percent white, 32.2 percent black, 25.1 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian, 21.3 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1148; 64.5 percent pass state English test, 42.1 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 2.488
  • Teachers: 86 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 59 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

This gigantic, ethnically diverse school gets its national reputation from its two magnet programs: science, math and computer science, which produced four Intel Science Talent Search finalists this year, and communications arts, which puts out what is probably the region's best high school newspaper.

But most Blair students are not in the magnets, and it is the way they are treated and what they learn that impress the school's boosters. The regular students are urged to take AP courses and graduate from the school "understanding the complexities of dealing with divergent attitudes, different races, religions and cultures," says parent Emily van Loon.

Blair has one of the area's most accomplished principals, Phillip Gainous, a splendid new building and many other attractions. "Nearly anything a student might ever want -- a cappella singing, sports, step teams, dancing, you name it -- is at Blair," says junior Samir Paul, "and if it isn't, it's very easy to start up a club or find a following."

Patuxent High School
Lusby, Md.

About This School:
  • Location: Lusby, Md.
  • Population: 31,500 students (73 percent white, 14 percent black, 1.5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 10 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1053; 76 percent pass state English test, 53 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 1.275
  • Teachers: 44 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 27 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

This school has the highest AP test participation rate in Calvert County, despite having slightly more low-income students than the county's other two schools with a senior class. But it is the community spirit that seems to energize the parents and faculty.

It was a big event when Patuxent opened in 1995, and it quickly became the center of the community in southern Calvert. Even residents who didn't have children at the school "supported the athletic teams, attended the choral concerts, supported the award-winning marching band and attended the outstanding theater performances," says Anita Shepherd, chair of Patuxent's social studies department.

Attachment to the school was so strong that when the county opened a fourth high school, Huntingtown, this year, and tried to shift some Patuxent students to Calvert High School, many Patuxent families rebelled. The school board relented and let 75 students stay at Patuxent, while telling them there would be no bus transportation. The families said they would get their children there.

"I fought hard to keep my students in this school," reports Michelle Klares, who has two children at Patuxent, because it had done so well by them and their classmates.


Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Alexandria, Va.

About This School:
  • Location: Alexandria, Va.
  • Population: 1,670 students (61.4 percent white, 1.4 percent black, 2.4 percent Hispanic, 30.4 percent Asian, 1.1 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1482; 100 percent pass state English and math tests
  • Challenge Index rating: 7.142
  • Teachers: 81 percent of teachers with master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 97.8 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

Like Microsoft and "American Idol," TJ gets picked on for being famous and successful, but many people argue it is the best high school in America. And the 1,600-student magnet school is expanding its enrollment to 2,000 because so many Northern Virginia students -- five applicants for every opening -- want to go there.

Although there is grumbling about a new admissions process that will give low-income and minority candidates a boost, and will deemphasize grades and test scores, TJ's average SAT score will still be in the mid-range for admission to Harvard.

Of course, the students and parents know that, which is sometimes off-putting. Former Fairfax County superintendent Daniel Domenech had to do two nationwide searches for a new principal in 2000 before the Jefferson community was satisfied. "They wanted God," he says. And although Elizabeth Lodal, the charming administrator Domenech persuaded to take the job, has done well, she is being needled by parents and students about the school's failure to produce a single semifinalist in this year's Intel Science Talent Search.

Back Fencers praise TJ's teachers for emphasizing character in a place filled with intellect. "Basically they tell their students: 'Yeah, sure, you're smart, maybe even brilliant. But that does not make you special or better than anyone else. The only thing that truly matters is what kind of person you are,' " says parent Sheri Brown.

Marissa Cole, Class of '95, adds that TJ is an academic oasis for "teeny-bopper nerds" who often feel like outcasts. "Suddenly, we're not alone." One parent remembers how reluctant her son was to play on his middle school chess team because he got teased for it. "That doesn't happen at TJ," she says.


Walkersville High School
Walkersville, Md.


Luther Weedon, a deaf basketball player at Walkersville High School, relies on his interpreter to communicate with members of his team. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location: Walkersville, Md.
  • Population: 1,278 students (90.4 percent white, 5.3 percent black, 2.4 percent Hispanic, 1.7 percent Asian, 8 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1100; 74.3 percent pass state English test, 52.8 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 1.378
  • Teachers: 70 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 44 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

This school has a modern-brick look, and yet to its Back Fence supporters, it feels like a throwback to the days when Frederick County was more farmland than suburb.

The school production of "A Christmas Carol" had more than 100 participants from the community and sold out two performances. When the girls' basketball team played in Baltimore County for the state championship, both sides of the court were packed with WHS fans in blue and gold. The school sponsors a holiday shop for horticultural products in the winter, a pork butchering in the spring and year-round farming activities.

Walkersville's academic side is also strong, with an AP test participation rate in the top 3 percent nationally, four times better than it was in 1997. Many of the faculty have children in the school, happy with the combination of high-level learning and old-time fun.


Washington-Lee High School
Arlington, Va.


Seniors Ister Gonzalez, from left, Kelly Armely, Kim Baugh, and Jennifer Espinoza, talk over lunch at Washington-Lee High School. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location: Arlington County, Va.
  • Population: 1,587 students (39.3 percent white, 13.5 percent black, 32.9 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian, 31.8 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1092; 90.5 percent pass state English test, 86.6 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 3.491
  • Teachers: 76.8 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 64 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

All four Arlington high schools received enthusiastic reviews, but Washington-Lee boosters seemed to be particularly pleased because they have one of the few schools in this area able to maintain significant programs in both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, the premier college-level courses and tests for high schools. This puts them on the same challenging academic plane as their more affluent and sometimes envied neighbors to the north who attend Yorktown High School.

W-L went through several principals after losing the legendary Bill Sharbaugh to retirement. But now it has Gregg Robertson, a 42-year-old dynamo who pleases many Back Fencers. Parents note with approval that they can't meet with him at lunch because he spends that time with students.

Lynn Dorfman, president of the PTA, says students are so comfortable with Robertson that they replaced his treasured Virginia Tech Hokies clock in his office with a Virginia Cavaliers clock, knowing he would enjoy the prank. "He knows where he's going, and the atmosphere in the building tells you his teachers and staff want to follow him there," Dorfman says.

Westfield High School
Chantilly, Va.


Runners prepare for track practice at Westfield High School. (Chris Hartlove - For The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location: Chantilly, Va.
  • Population: 2,839 students (64.1 percent white, 8.2 percent black, 8.5 percent Hispanic, 16.4 percent Asian, 10.4 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1069; 95 percent pass state English test, 78 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 2.583
  • Teachers: 65 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 69.8 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

Brand-new schools in good districts often have an advantage because the principal can select exactly the teachers he wants for every classroom. Westfield parents say Dale Rumberger did just that, and then went off to have the fun of starting another school, leaving the humming machine of Westfield to his top assistant, Mike Campbell.

In its fifth year, the campus has the very high AP participation that is standard of Fairfax County high schools, but it also has a recent state football championship and a reputation among parents for making families' lives easier.

Debbie Arnsperger wondered if her son, who has multiple disabilities, would really be treated well on the cross-country and track teams of such an athletically competitive campus. At one of his first meets, she stood back and watched carefully. "Even though my son would talk nonstop, and ask the same questions over and over again, and get in other team members' spaces, the reaction was always the same," she reports. "The kids genuinely accepted him, answered his questions and kindly reminded him what he should be doing."

When Kathy Sposa's son was injured, his entire team sent cards to the hospital, and the coaches came to his home and sat with him all afternoon as he was recovering from reconstructive surgery. When deadlines got close on his college applications, his counselor collected all his recommendations and personally drove the envelopes to the post office to make certain they were postmarked on time.

Westfield has an award-winning school newspaper, a versatile music program that encourages band members to play with the string orchestra, a guitar club with more than 100 members and an assistant principal, Tim Thomas, who, according to parent Carey Williams, "sees potential in kids whom others have already given up on."

W.T. Woodson High School
Fairfax, Va.



David Fink, from left, Amy Duong, and Andrew Nelson enjoy a lighter moment during an advanced placement government class. (Len Spoden - For The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location: Fairfax, Va.
  • Population: 2,018 students (69 percent white, 4 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian, 3.7 percent low-income)
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1159; 98 percent pass state English test, 89 percent pass state math test
  • Challenge Index rating: 3.748
  • Teachers: 65.5 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 79 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile »

Back Fence fans of this school acknowledge that the 42-year-old facilities are long past their prime. But the renovators will get to them eventually, and, in the meantime, Woodson has one of the strongest faculties and one of the most communicative administrations anywhere.

"I can't tell you how many times I have made impromptu visits to the school and had access to almost everyone I needed to see, or, if not, an appointment for later in the day," says parent Vanette McKinney.

The principal, Robert Elliott, was tested severely when he arrived in 1999 in the middle of a pitched battle between pro-AP parents and teachers and an equally devoted group of families and educators who preferred the new IB program. The outgoing principal had failed to make clear that if the school took IB, AP would have to go. Elliott called a series of meetings, created a committee with advocates of both programs, and eventually worked out a return to AP.

As a consequence, Woodson's AP participation rate is No. 23 among 25,000 U.S. public schools, and everybody loves the creaky old place. "Woodson may be physically falling apart," says parent Catherine Potter, "but it has more heart than any school I have had the pleasure to be associated with."

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