Terry Pullen spends three hours a day sanding, finishing and painting junk cars in the auto body repair shop. Steven Stanford, meanwhile, juggles rats in animal metabolism experiments, Jen Choi practices computer programming, Deborah Porterfield computes calculus equations and Anthony Bond reads sports scores to a class of would-be broadcasters.
At Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, 2,400 students have a lot of choices. As the only public high school in a city of widely contrasting wealth and poverty, the curriculum at the school dubbed T.C. has steadily expanded over the years to include more than 200 courses--compared to the average of 70 required and elective courses available at most high schools in the Washington area. At T.C., youngsters aiming for acceptance to Ivy League schools take college-level courses, while students shooting for jobs in high-paying trades take electronics, carpentry and masonry classes.
All of this diversity, which has won T.C. a national reputation, has not come cheaply. During the last decade, the Alexandria school system's budget has doubled to this year's $45 million, giving the system -- and T.C., with its $10.6 million budget -- one of the highest costs-per-pupil in the nation. Next year, however, school officials say the system faces one of its biggest challenges: how to preserve the school's rich, diverse curriculum and at the same time live within a severe city budget guidelines.
"It'll be a sad thing for Alexandria" if the budget is sharply cut, says Superintendent Robert W. Peebles, who says the city "has all America in its schools" and is proof that "an urban system can compete" with private schools for the best students in its area.
To compete, however, Peebles and other school officials say they will need to boost their budget next year to $52 million just to keep T.C. and the city's 14 elementary and junior high schools operating at their current levels.
Faced with the likelihood that the City Council won't be that generous, the Alexandria School Board has embarked on a major review of the system's secondary school curriculum, the first step in paring down the number and kinds of courses offered at the school.
An initial report from a citizens committee to be presented tonight is expected to lead to a call for an overall 5 percent cut in the number of high school courses, dropping offerings in some home economics courses and Russian language offerings. The proposals will likely mark the beginning of a anguished debate among school officials, some of whom agree with Peeble's assertion that the system "went overboard" in creating T.C.'s 200 courses.
"One of the ways we attract students is the wealth of courses," says School Board Chairman Lou Cook. "We may have to say to parents, 'We can't offer these goodies anymore.' "
To Cook and others the diversity is critical if Alexandria is to compete with the city's 12 private schools and continue to attract white students. Many whites fled the system after 1973, when Alexandria began a major busing program.
The courses attract students like Terry Pullen, the son of an auto parts shipper who lives in the moderate-income community of Del Ray. Pullen, 18, is an All-Met defensive end in football and varsity basketball player majoring in auto body repair. "It's a trade to fall back on," Pullen says.
Steven Stanford and others were drawn by the school's advanced placement (AP) college-level courses in math, science, languages and English. As a result, Stanford, a 17-year-old "Army brat" who hopes to attend Stanford University next year, is one of the school's "APs." He says he opted for T.C. over the prestigious St. Stephen's Episcopal School attended by friends in his fashionable neighborhood off Seminary Road.
"There's so much offered here, it wouldn't have made any sense not to," says Stanford. "I took organic chemistry last year, which is something you couldn't get anywhere else."
When it opened in 1965, T.C. gave its students a more basic education. In those days, it drew its students, most of them white, from the stable middle-class communities surrounding the school at 3330 King St.
Today, however, both the school and the city have changed. Alexandria's three high schools were merged into T.C. in 1971 to achieve racial balance. Almost half the students are black and 11 percent are foreign-born, representing 57 countries.
It is, Peebles says, "a wonderful mix of kids . . . a sophisticated little city right in itself." There is Jen Choi, who arrived from Seoul, Korea, five years ago. "It's a lot better than just having all the white people," she says. The ethnic, racial and socioeconomic mix, school officials say, is more pronounced than at any other Northern Virginia school system except Arlington.
Nationally, student test scores have been declining as costs for what some consider educational "frills" have risen. The same is true at T.C., where combined Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have dropped 45 points since 1972. This year, the test scores of T.C. students ranked lowest in Northern Virginia, a comparison that troubles Alexandria school officials.
The scores were slightly above the national average, however, and higher than those in Prince George's County and the District. Alexandria officials blame the low scores in part on the problems of its foreign-born students, many of them still unfamiliar with English.
T.C. Principal Robert Hanley, head of the committee that is studying ways to streamline the curriculum, says the major cuts may have to be made among courses with low enrollments.
School Board Vice Chairman Judith Feaver says the cuts need not be drastic. The board also will continue to try to reduce the budget in ways that won't affect curriculum, she says. In recent years, the board has trimmed its summer school and free busing programs. "I don't see us making the kind of changes that would affect the feel of T.C.," Feaver says.
At T.C., most students express more concern about the district football championship recently nabbed by the T.C. Titan's than possible curriculum cuts. That's because the school, they say, has other pluses that make up for any initial streamlining.
"Beyond all the courses," says John Vaughan, an AP who transferred from St. Stephens to T.C. three years ago, "it's the teachers and the students who make this school."