It was silent in the Takoma Elementary School auditorium yesterday as David Lanham, a ninth grader from Rabaut Junion High, bit his lip and rehearsed in his mind what he would say to his interviewers when asked why he wants to attend the District's new academic high school.
The nervousness was real even if the competition for entry into the new academic high school is not intense -- only 325 eighth and ninth graders have applied for 300 freshman and sophomore slots. So far, school officials have interviewed 180 of those applicants, many of whom believe that getting into the academic school could determine whether they eventually are accepted into college.
Although the selection process for students has begun, the academic high school, a controversial issue for about six years, is still very much an idea instead of a reality. School officials said they have not yet selected the principal or teachers for the new school, although 54 teachers have applied for the first 12 teaching positions at the school. Their selection will take place early next month, officials said.
It has not yet been decided whether the job of principal will be advertised both inside and outside the school system or whether Acting Superintendent James T. Guines will appoint his choice for the job without taking applications. School officials also have yet to pick a name for the school, although suggestions include the District of Columbia Academy and the Preparatory School for Academic Excellence, as well as the names Mary McLeod Bethune, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr.
Like most student applicants, David gets occasional As, but mostly Bs, and is in the top 18 percent of his class. He and the others have won the recommendations of their principals and teachers.
Most want to go to college, officials said. They have careers in mind (David wants to be an architect). But for now, students interviewed yesterday at Takoma said they simply want to go to a high school where most students take their education seriously.
As a panel of teachers, principals and youth workers from the community interviewed the first applicants, it became clear that most would be chosen more for their motivation than for the number of As on their report cards.
"We never said this was designed to be a 'super' school for the 'super' kid," said Cecile R. Middleton, chief planner of the academic high school, which is scheduled to open next September at what is now Banneker Junior High, on Euclid Street NW. "It is designed for kids who are motivated, who want to go beyond the 12th grade.
In adopting the plan for the controversial school -- which critics had labeled as elitist -- the school board adopted admission standards that were lower than those at many of the nation's public college-preparatory schools. They also insisted that most of the slots at the school go to students in Southeast, where much of the city's poor black population is concentrated and where a majority of the city's students are located.
Middleton said of the 180 students interviewed during the past two days, all but about nine were from public schools. Some critics of the academic high school -- especially parents at Banneker, who are angry that their school will be closed to make way for the academic school -- said school officials were catering to the middle class.
The deadline for applying has been extended to May 1, and interviews for the remaining applicants will be held later next month.
Many parents who came with their youngsters said the academic school would be a convenient alternative to the high-priced, highly selective private schools in the area.
Clara Neal, an English teacher from Hamilton Junior High School in Northeast, said she is paying $3,800 in tuition for her 13-year-old daughter Dierdre to attend Sidwell Friends. Neal said Dierdre is a student "who has always been conscientious about school." In her years as a public school teacher, Neal said, she has seen too much of "the public high school syndrome" -- loose discipline and a less-than-academic atmosphere at some schools which prevents children from doing their best.
She feared the "syndrome" might affect Dierdre, she said.
David Lanham's father Isaac, who took time off from his job at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to accompany his son on the interview, said he sent his oldest three children to Coolidge High School in upper Northwest, but that he and his wife had become concerned about discipline problems there, especially about how easy it was for students to cut classes.
They sent their next two children to private schools. The Lanhams said they had their youngest son take the entrance exam for parochial school, but then they heard about the academic high school.
"We were really sort of out on a limb as to where to send him," Regina Lanham explained.
"To be perfectly frank, it's a matter of economics," her husband said. "I am a District resident and pay taxes here. I shouldn't have to expend my funds for a private school."