At 10:05 a.m. the end-of-class bell sounds at T.c. Williams High School in Alexandria. Classroom doors slam open and most of the 2,500 students rush into the halls, sometimes stopping for a chat with friends or dashing to their lockers before hurrying on to their next class.
But some students head out the front door and onto King and Alison streets. It is not lunch time, but the first "free" period for these students, and they go on their way off-campus to enjoy the break.
Take 16-year-old Chris and her two campions.
The three friends are on their way to Bradlee Shopping Center, a few blocks west on King Street, to shore up for a low-cal lunch -- a few bunches of grapes, a couple of sugur-free sodas. Usually, the trio returns to T.C. Williams for a 12:50 p.m. class. But today they have decided to skip class in flavor of their favorite soap opera, viewed at one of their homes.
"We just couldn't miss [the soap] today," says Chris between snippets of conversation about the weekend homecoming, some new crushes and a recent math test. "All that might happen [to us] is that a notice will be sent home that we cut class. It's worth it."
Lately, however, school officials have been asking whether the open-campus policy that allows Chris and her friends to leave school grounds is really worth-while in educational terms.
"Kids that age just are not mature enough to handle that kind of freedom," says school board member William Euille, who asked the school board at its meeting last week to consider reevaluating the T.C. Williams plan. "By allowing an open campus, the school system may be allowing students to ignore an education. Most students need more structure and control."
T.C. Williams, the only public high school in Alexandria, opened in 1965 as a closed campus for all juniors and seniors in the city. In 1971, the school switched to an open campus, which allows students to leave campus any time they do not have a class. Since all students have at least one free period out of each day's eight, 50-minutes sessions, school officials report, many are off campus for part of the day.
In the case of Chris and her friends, their parents will receive written notice that their daughters had unexcused absences for the 12:50 p.m. class. But during the two "free" periods on their schedules, the girls could legally leave campus.
"It's like college," says Chris. "When we don't have a class we can go anywhere we want -- home, Roy Rogers, to friends' [houses].
"It's nice to have so much freedom, but it makes it a lot easier to cut classes. When you're away from school, it's easy to forget about time or class."
Euille, in asking the school board to study the issue, contended that the long-range effects of the policy have never been properly analyzed. Moreover, Euille predicts that an open campus does not invite students to exercise more responsibility, but to find chances to abuse the freedom.
"Unfortunately, it is the student who most needs [academic] help who abuses the privilege," Euille said. "The successful student will succeed anywhere."
Several teachers agree with Euille's assessments.
Said one teacher: "The kids have got to be self-motivated to succeed here.
Many of these kids room the halls looking for something to do. A lot of time, that something to do means heading off-campus, and heading off-campus frequently means not coming back. It [the open campus] is destroying them." f
However, Principal Robert A. Hanley, while conceding there are some problems with the open campus, says it was designed to meet specific needs of Alexandria students.
"Several of our students are married, many work, some have children. We most allow them the chance to exercise a bit of control over their lives," Hanley said. "It's not the best of all possibly worlds, but it's the best possible way to handle this student body.
"We're here to do more than teach the kids to read and add. We are trying simultaneously to prepare them to live in a community and make responsible choices. The basic premise is that we are dealing with individuals who are capable of making independent choices."
Hanley noted that the absence rate at T.C. Williams, about 8 percent, is on a par with most metropolitan schools, and the dropout rate of 4 percent is low for an urban school with a large minority population such as T.C. Williams.
"The term [open campus] is misleading, Hanley said. "In actuality, we operate no differently from any of the other schools in the area. Our kids are just more visible because we are located in an urban setting. In Fairfax, you can't see the kids as easily."
Campus practices vary at Northern Virginia high schools. One high school in Arlington County, H.B. Woodlawn, has an open campus, while the other three allow students to leave only for lunch. In Fairfax County, students cannot leave campus unless they work or have permission.
In the past year, Alexandria officials have begun to address some of the problems associated with an open campus, primarily absences and the feeling by some parents that the freedom was exacerbating drug and alcohol problems among students.
This fall, the board made Chinquapin Park, adjacent to the school, off-limits to students. The board now has off-duty police officers patrolling the park during school hours.
Addition, the school has instituted a stricter attendance policy. This year, a computerized system lets school officials know immediately which students are absent. Every time a student misses a class, whether the absence is excused or unexcused, parents are notified by letter. After the fourth unexcused absence, parents are sent a certified letter noting that their child will lose class credit that quarter after the sixth unexcused absence.
Principal Hanley said that teachers make a special effort to crack down on absences the first two weeks of school. After two weeks of close monitoring, he said, the novelty of skipping class wears off for most students. m
Still, some officials and teachers believe a closed campus would provide an environment more conducive to learning.
"What hurts most is watching all the valuable time lost," said George Webber, who has taught at T.C. Williams under both closed- and open-campus systems. "These youngsters are unwittingly destroying valuable time and there is no here to really stop them."
Just then, a student sauntered past Webber's classroom. When asked where he was going, he pointed toward the double doors leading outside.
"I don't like my seventh period English class, so I don't go that often," the student said. "For most of my friends, once they get off campus, they just keep on going."