From the outside, H. B. Woodlawn in Arlington looks like many other schools. But, in this case, appearances are deceiving. One clue that something different is happening here comes when a visitor first sees principal Ray Anderson -- wearing a school T-shirt with his first name emblazoned on the back. Everyone at Woodlawn, faculty and students alike, goes by his or her first name.
"If you work with kids and you're fair and they have respect for you, you don't need to have a title", explains Mary McBride, who helps coordinate the teaching staff at Woodlawn and also teaches history.
Then there are the weekly town meetings, where Anderson, the faculty and students discuss -- and often decide -- school policies such as next year's class schedule or which nine-week "mini-courses" will be offered.
First names, town meetings -- both are part of a basic philosophy at Woodlawn -- that students should be intensely involved in their own education. w
And it looks as if the program is working.
In the 10 years the program has existed, Woodlawn students have had among the highest scores in the county on national tests.Last year, Woodlawn students averaged 563 on the math and verbal parts of college entrance exams, while the countrywide average was 463 in verbal and 503 in math. Nearly 80 percent of the seniors go on to four-year colleges, compared with 75 percent of seniors countywide. And six of the nine Arlington students identified this year in a national talent search as being exceptionally gifted academically are from Woodlawn.
School officials attribute the success of Woodlawn to two major factors. The rules, although few, are precise and everyone is expected to follow them. And the 385 students at Woodlawn, in grades 7 through 12, are among the most highly motivated in the Arlington school system, which allows the flexibility to tailor the curriculum to individual needs.
"Students here have to be self-motivated and self-disciplined," says principal Anderson. "We're not going to force them to learn; they have to want to. The students are here to accept responsibility for themselves. That's the whole notion of the school."
Officially, all students are based at a "home school" and actually graduate from those schools -- with a notation that they participated in the Woodlawn program. All, however, attend classes full time at Woodlawn, which provides the same basic curriculum as other Arlington schools, but with a clear flair and atmosphere of its own that is keyed to the individual needs of its students.
The structure at Woodlawn, particularly in grades 9 through 12, is more like a college campus than a traditional high school. Classes meet three or four times a week, freeing up time for students to work on independent projects approved by their teachers or to take "mini-courses" in subjects such as Gaelic, sign language and calligraphy.
In the 7th and 8th grades, where there is slightly less flexibility, students may "contract," or set goals with their teacher to work harder on basic skills such as spelling, vocabulary or writing. "The purpose of the contract is to make students stretch, really reach and achieve," says English teacher Randy McKnight.
Admission to Woodlawn is by lottery, with first preference given to siblings, minorities and students already enrolled in one of the county's two alternative grade schools -- the Woodlawn-like Drew and the "traditional" Page Elementary. All students and their parents must have a personal interview before entering Woodlawn, primarily so they will know exactly what to expect, according to school officials.
Once accepted, a student must maintain a B average in the first quarter to remain at school. If it becomes apparent that a student does not have the self-discipline or motivation to cope with the independence at Woodlawn, Anderson says he recommends that the student return to a regular school.
"I have to laugh when people say Woodlawn's not as structured as other schools since that must mean it's free-for-all here," says Mary Flynn, a teacher of French who heads the nationally award-winning language department. "It's probably more structured here. Every kid knows exactly what to do here."
Over the years, Woodlawn has had little trouble attracting -- and producing -- a crop of bright, highly motivated and independent students, and the waiting list for admission is long. But Anderson and the faculty bristle at suggestions that the program is elitist, attracting only the academic cream of the crop.
"This is not designed for people with high ability, but for students who are self-motivated and self-disciplined," Anderson says, "Some people are terrifically motivated and disciplined but struggle to get a C."
But there is little doubt, as evidenced by test scores and other measures of academic success, that Woodlawn students are among the best and the brightest in Arlington public schools.
"The students know they have to perform at the level they're capable of performing at," says English teacher McKnight. "If that (credo) weren't there, (schools like Woodlawn) would have folded a long time ago."