Alyson Rose-Wood, a 17-year-old senior at Arlington's Yorktown High School, received a birthday letter in the mail last month, attached to a gushy poem about personal strength, high expectations and smiles. It was from her principal, strangely enough, and she loved it.
"Dr. Pasi sends one every year to each kid on their birthday," she said, "and he is always stopping kids in the hall to talk."
At a school such as Yorktown, with some of the highest academic standards and most competitive students in the country, a warm hug from the principal may seem out of place, but for Raymond J. Pasi and many students at Yorktown, it makes sense.
There is no question of Yorktown's scholastic strength. Blessed by its location in one of the most affluent and best-educated neighborhoods in the Washington area, it scores high on standardized tests, produces many National Merit finalists and semifinalists, and sends four out of five students to four-year colleges. According to a Washington Post survey, only seven public schools in the Washington area had a higher ratio of Advanced Placement tests to students in 1997.
But like all public schools with large ambitions, there is a forced-march quality to student life. Deadlines for papers and midterms and college applications always loom, and there is never enough time for fun. So Pasi, 47, a former Marist brother, tries to lighten the day with a friendly word and an uplifting verse about being "too big for worrying." Janet Chavez, a senior and a Pasi acolyte, said the only complaint she ever hears about him is "maybe he talks too much."
In the second year of the Pasi era, students and parents say mostly positive things about Yorktown. The school has long been known for talented teachers who go to great lengths to help students. Ralph Johnson, father of Yorktown senior Kevin Johnson, said science teacher Michael Zito "writes 100 recommendations a year, loves biology and really cares about his kids." Parent Pat Gillick praises the work of mathematics teacher Kate Rooney.
Several students and parents mention physics teacher Deborah Waldron. Rebecca Kallem, a senior in Waldron's Advanced Placement physics class, said: "Yesterday we were talking about frames of reference, and she had built this long wooden platform. Two students on the platform spun round and round and threw a ball to each other. To them it looked like the ball curved, but to us it didn't."
Dot Green, the Yorktown PTA president, said, "My favorite thing about Yorktown is the very responsive teachers and the extra time they spend with students." Her daughter, senior Heather Green, noted that "teachers are willing to help even during lunch."
Good teaching and challenging classes mean more students. Everyone agrees that Yorktown is bulging. "Many classes are too large," said Joyce Gamse, a parent, "and at 1,500 students, the whole school is getting too crowded."
In turn, some administrative offices are overburdened, creating an impression of remoteness. "The counseling office is not very welcoming when you walk in," Gillick said, noting that personal attention is difficult when each counselor must oversee 240 students. Many parents and students also say the social studies department has too many weak teachers.
Rose-Wood's least favorite thing about Yorktown is the failure of teachers to coordinate their required projects and papers so that the heaviest academic burdens are sometimes falling on students at the same time. This is a common complaint in American high schools, but with a faculty as demanding as Yorktown's, a big project can be truly huge.
Carol Rose, Rose-Wood's mother, echoed the concern of several parents that the school "may be pushing the students too hard, as if they were all trying to get into Harvard." Many Yorktown parents and students have that Ivy obsession, although the school's official profile refrains from the usual elite public school practice of listing the brand-name colleges its graduates are attending.
Students and parents praise Yorktown's wealth of extracurricular activities, such as student government, the International Club, Art Honors, band and the Keyettes service club. Ralph Johnson said that he likes the activities but that he thinks a school of Yorktown's stature should follow the example of Wakefield High in south Arlington and toughen requirements so that students getting "D" grades would not be allowed to play on sports teams.
Judy Hadden, who has a son who graduated two years ago and a daughter in the senior class, said she loves attending school performances, games, meetings, exhibits, concerts and matches, seeing "kids enjoying themselves and having fun being kids." But when there are no scheduled events, the school libraries, gym and other facilities are closed, meaning "there is very little to do and no place for kids to go in this community on weekends and weeknights."
Kallem joins a few internationally minded students in bemoaning the lack of interaction between the American-born school majority and the many foreign-born students who make up the school's High Intensity Language Training classes.
Will Pasi, the energetic and enthusiastic principal, be able to make a great school even better?
The principal said he is "trying to get all students to feel that every student is important, and that all faculty and staff care about them." "I would say Dr. Pasi is very qualified, with a good personality, and I have great hopes for him," said Ralph Johnson. "But it is too early to say." YORKTOWN PROFILE First opened: 1960. Total students: 1,478. Low-income students: 14 percent. Challenge Index*: 1.414 Advanced Placement tests per student (top 2 percent of U.S.). Graduates going to four-year colleges: 81 percent. Famous graduates: Katie Couric, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.). Some favorite teachers: Deborah Waldron (physics), Dianne Ashley (English), Marilyn Barrueta (Spanish), Timothy Niebergall (band), Albert Van Thournout (history). Cafeteria atrocity: Sour chocolate milk. Pet peeves: Crowded classes, homework, weak athletic eligibility rules. Favorite adjectives for school: Challenging, diverse, helpful. SOURCE: Official school profile and interviews with students and parents. * Challenge index is a device to measure how hard schools are trying to coax students to take AP courses and AP tests. It measures the average number of AP tests given per graduating senior CAPTION: Yorktown High Principal Raymond J. Pasi talks to students Judy Hernandez, left, Marilin Bonilla and Sandy Delcia. "He is always stopping kids in the hall to talk," senior Alyson Rose-Wood said. ec CAPTION: Pasi, with Gustavo Encinas and Fatima Benchaouch, said he wants students "to feel that every student is important, and that all faculty and staff care about them." ec