Peter Hutchins, one of Woodrow Wilson High School's top freshmen, thinks it's important to be surrounded by students who want to learn as much as he does, and that's something he doesn't always see at Wilson.
But he also thinks it's important to go to a school with a basketball and football team, a glee club and a band, and kids of different colors and backgrounds, some of whom plan to go to college, some of whom do not. And that's something he does see at Wilson.
That's why Peter Hutchins will probably choose to stay at Wilson instead of competing for one of the 500 spots at Washington's newly approved academic high school scheduled to open in September. Peter believes he is already at an academic high school -- one that offers college-level courses together with the chance for a healthy dose of fun outside the classroom and friendships with kids much different from himself.
The attitude of Peter, and other students and teachers at Wilson, the city's de facto academic high school for the past decade, shows that a wholesale exodus of the best students and teachers to the new school, feared by many wilson parents, is unlikely.
Wilson offers the same courses planned for the academic school, plus classes like chorus, law, graphic arts, and social psychology, which the academic school will not have.
Besides that, there is more to traditional high school life than advanced algebra. The academic school, however, will not offer the routine after-school social activities that swell the pages of high school yearbooks.
Instead of cheerleading and athletic practice after school, academic high school students will work in "community service" projects, a prospect that does not thrill all of its prospective students.
"The academic school may be a place where there is complete seriousness [about academics]," said Wilson principal Dorothy Brown. "But students, with dedication, will get from Wilson just as much as they are willing to put into it and get a program that is comprehensive."
Yet, some Wilson students are hoping to attend the new high school, where they believe there will be fewer fights and robberies, more time to concentrate on studies, and classes that move ahead faster than the same classes at Wilson. There also may be less tension at the new academic school.
Last Thursday night, for instance, four persons were injured with a knife in a fight that involved as many as 10 people at a fund-raising dance at Wilson. Many of those involved were not students at the school.
A student was knifed there last year and, in 1979, a school official was grazed with a bullet as he tried to break up a student fight. There have been fights between black and white students in the men's bathroom and the schoolyard.
But the tension is more subtle. A white boy student stiffens as he passes a cluster of black boys gathered near some lockers in the hallway. At lunchtime, the cafeteria, painted with joyful scenes of school and city life, is the domain of the black students. The white students, by their own choice, eat in another part of the building.
Despite the academic school's anticipated advantages, Wilson, which sends 75 percent of its graduates to college and still wins most of the nationally competitive scholarships in the city, will continue to hold its own, Brown said, as it has for years.
The massive red brick school sits at the corner of Chesapeake Street and Nebraska Avenue NW in a tree-lined neighborhood of wide front lawns and $100,000-plus homes. It was once the school for the children of the white and well-off people who live in that neighborhood -- people who today pay to send their children to private or suburban schools.
But over the last 10 years, Wilson has drawn more and more students aiming for college from the public housing projects of Southwest as well as such neighborhoods as the predominantly black middle class Shepherd Park area on upper 16th Street. Once the only predominantly white high school in the city, Wilson today is 18 percent white, 66 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 7 percent asian.
Under a complicated formula the school board adopted, each of four city school regions will be alloted a certain number of seats at the academic school, based on the number of eighth and ninth grade students enrolled in that region. Wilson will get the least number of seats, because it is in the region with the lowest school enrollment. So the academic school will strip from Wilson at most a handful of students -- although they could be some of its very best.
Besides the students who want to stay in the diverse Wilson atmosphere, teachers also say the location of the academic school, at Banneker Junior High near Howard University, an inner-city neighborhood not served by Metro, will deter Wilson students from transferring.
"Many parents will want to keep their children west of the [Rock Creek] Park," said Wilson English teacher Marion Hatcher. That area is predominantly white and affluent.
One major difference between Wilson and the academic school, however, is in the number of courses students will be required to take. At the academic school, students will have to take three years of math, three years of a foreign language, including one year of Latin, and four years of social studies. That's one year more of math, two years more of foreign language and two years more of social studies than students in other city high schools, including Wilson, must take now.
Wilson principal Brown does acknowledge that the atmosphere at the academic school may be better suited for some students. For instance, Jennifer Miller, another top freshman at Wilson, says she is tired of waiting several minutes before class each day as her teachers calm and quite her classmates before any teaching can actually start.
"At Wilson, there are a lot of kids who are motivated," Jennifer said. "But there are also a lot of kids who are not motivated, and they detract from the others who are. Lots of times, you don't get a full period of work."
Although her family could afford to send her to private school, Jennifer and her parents opted for Wilson. She said she did not want to be in a "handpicked atmosphere -- which means basically white and affluent." And that, she said, is what she'd find in local private schools.
Despite the lukewarm reception the academic school plan is receiving from some Wilson students, school officials insist the academic high school will make a large difference for the best students from other city schools -- such as Anacostia, Spingarn, Eastern and Woodson, which lag far behind Wilson.
In these schools, students cannot get the same number of advanced, college-level courses Wilson offers, because there are rarely enough students who can handle advanced courses.
That fact also will shape the new school, because it will offer a less rigorous curriculum than some other big-city public academic high schools across the country and some local private schools in the Washington area.
Cecile Middleton, chief planner of the academic school, said school officials targeted the academic school curriculum at the past performance of D.C. students, which shows them scoring far lower on standardized tests than their counter parts across the country.
"We're just getting back to the basic subjects," Middleton said, referring to the school system's recent efforts to strengthen its curriculum in reading and math in elementary schools, increase its high school requirements, and insure that students have mastered all the skills of one grade level before moving on to the next. "We wanted to be fair to our students."