"Ray, do we have class today?" The singsong voice of the 12th-grade girl is directed not to a classmate, but to another sort of peer, Ray Anderson, her principal at Arlington's H-B Woodlawn secondary school.
Anderson has been called "head teacher" during nearly 28 years as first among equals at the alternative high school, reflecting the fact that all administrators in his program teach a class. "But it really doesn't matter," he said, "because everyone calls me Ray."
To the teenage set, Woodlawn is the school where you can address teachers by first names, chew gum, wear a hat, nap on a sofa and eat any time or anywhere. It's the place with the flexible electives, independent studies and foreign language opportunities. It's the school that brings in outside teachers with specialties such as broadcasting, the school where 10 to 12 student plays are staged each year. It's a high school without ringing bells or security monitors on the prowl with walkie-talkies. And it's a community governed through a "town meeting" that offers an equal vote to students, faculty members and parents.
To the adults, it is a school that breaks the bank in the currency of test scores. Woodlawn students placed in the 87th percentile on the Stanford 9 achievement test for 1997-98. Woodlawn's average combined senior SAT score of 1,248 last year is the county's highest, and the school has been ranked among the top in the nation in percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses.
The school's laid-back atmosphere and its strong student academic achievement partially explain why applications to Woodlawn regularly exceed its openings. Acceptances come after a countywide lottery. Some families whose children lose the lottery are so passionate that they have filed lawsuits, entangling Woodlawn in nationally watched litigation over a policy that, until it was suspended by court order, adjusted the lottery results for affirmative action.
The Woodlawn program, tucked in a wooded delta defined by Lorcom Lane and Lee Highway, has been housed for 21 years in a building opened in 1950 as Stratford Junior High. Its population of sixth- to 12th-graders has the run of hallways in which the trophy case awards go not for sports, but for chess and Latin competitions, where a bulletin board preserves students' alphabetized mail in the manner of a college dorm, where cafeteria walls are given over to the adolescent urge for graffiti (grouped by graduating class).
"Visiting parents often ask why all these kids are roaming the halls," said Anderson, 58, who arrives for duty in jeans, open collar and scuffed sneakers. "This tells me they're uncomfortable and probably shouldn't have their child in a program" that, as spelled out in its mission statement, "offers no continuous adult supervision."
Parents of the 80 or so new students who enter each year--there were 608 students enrolled in the program last school year--sign a pledge to "accept the philosophy and structure of H-B Woodlawn and try as best they can to make its unique program work for the applicant."
Embrace of informality is a must for Woodlawn teachers. They are known for inviting students to their homes and for putting on an annual play and a volleyball tournament. They must teach a variety of grade levels and accept that students serve on the committees that interview teacher candidates. The teachers handle a workload of six courses rather than the typical five, and they double as guidance counselors, which is Woodlawn's secret for keeping class size small.
The self-selected nature of Woodlawn's enrollment produces students who are fiercely loyal. Many came because they were turned off by cliquishness in their neighborhood high schools.
Tom Marron, a junior, chose Woodlawn because nearby Washington-Lee "doesn't trust students enough" to give them more than three minutes between classes. "Woodlawn is comfortable because of the friendly relationship with the teachers," he said. "I go out to lunch, and my teacher sometimes drives me, or I play golf with a teacher."
Janice Damico, an Arlington math teacher who watched her daughter "bloom" at Woodlawn, was impressed with her daughter's 1997 graduation ceremony. It "was a love fest between students and teachers--totally for the kids," she said.
The Woodlawn stereotype is "artsy and interesting," but the students mingle with others from the home schools where they ultimately receive their diplomas (Woodlawn is officially a program, not an accredited school) and to which a fourth of them return by bus in the afternoon for interscholastic sports.
"We've always attracted the freethinkers who don't want to follow the rules," Anderson said. "If you took a poll on the kids' religions, they would mostly be Unitarian. And nearly everyone here is a Democrat. In our mock presidential election in 1996, Bob Dole came in fourth."
Some who fancied themselves the Woodlawn type have been forced to rethink their decision. About 5 to 10 percent of students leave before ninth grade every year, some of them longing for such conventional school institutions as a marching band, according to school administrators.
"My daughter said it was chaotic, and the lack of rules was stressful," said Lee Cooper, whose sixth-grader switched to Swanson Middle School after a month. "She didn't know where to eat lunch every day, and she felt teachers weren't clear on assignments."
Anderson, who in 1996-97 won his school district's Principal of the Year award, answers naysayers with the spiel he delivers to parents of prospective students. "Woodlawn is not a better school, it's a different school," he said. "At the moment we have good scores. But academics has nothing to do with success at H-B. It's your attitude and approach. I've had very able students who barely graduate. I'm happier with average students who are a good match."
The origins of H-B Woodlawn (the name combines two former Arlington schools, Woodlawn and Hoffman-Boston) go back to the days of Vietnam War protests and radical student demands for "relevant" experimental education. When the national climate shifted toward back-to-basics and career paths, Woodlawn made its own shifts toward high academics. But it has retained its informality, freedom of choice and power shared between students and adults.
The school's "town meetings" of students and teachers over the years have addressed everything from disinvestment in South Africa to which age groups should use the computer labs to what to name the school's garishly painted auditorium. Because town meeting decisions are binding, the body is more powerful than the Parent's Advisory Committee, Woodlawn's equivalent of a PTA.
"Parents could vote at the town meeting, but no one does, and the kids are happy for parents just to disappear," said Betty Gibbon, last year's co-chairman of the parents committee. When parents raise money, the town meeting finance committee decides how to spend it.
Students in grades 8 to 12 can leave campus with parental permission. While attendance in class is recommended and records maintained, "Woodlawn differs from normal schools in that we have no administrative response such as three absences and you fail," Anderson said. He added that the school has few discipline problems, describing many of the ones that occur as pranks.
As one of three Arlington countywide choice schools, Woodlawn is resented by some who believe it creams off the brightest students and attracts the most active families, thus harming neighborhood schools in less affluent central and South Arlington. Its student body currently is 45 percent minority--10.5 percent Asian, 11.3 percent black and 22.2 percent Hispanic. Next year's newcomers, picked through the court-ordered random lottery, will be 78 percent white, and 91 percent will come from families that earn more than $51,000 a year.
After a quarter-century, Woodlawn still has not won over some educational traditionalists. "The writing instruction lacks rigor," said Eric Christenson, who, having retired after 30 years of teaching English in Arlington, coaches high school seniors writing essays for college applications. "The teachers recommend students on the basis of whether they'd make a nice roommate and tell me I'm too critical for saying that colleges want kids who are nice but who also can write."
Others complain that Woodlawn is a personality-driven anachronism.
The Woodlawn staff is accustomed to calls for its demise. "The proposals to abolish come up every five years or so," Anderson said, "usually not because of what we're doing but because someone else brings it up." Not surprisingly, the fury over the admissions lottery has prompted some editorial writers to demand that the program be expanded to handle all students who are interested. "But part of our uniqueness is our small size," said Woodlawn English teacher Ellen Kurcis. "If we grew too much, it would be hard to have our relaxed and informal atmosphere."
Several years ago, a group of concerned parents took Anderson to lunch to press him on what will happen when he and the teachers who were present at Woodlawn's creation reach retirement age.
As part of the school's development plan, Anderson is recruiting alumni to return as teachers. Otherwise, he said, he doesn't expect the Woodlawn philosophy to change.
"Anyone can pick up the basics of what we do. It's the subtleties that are crucial," Anderson said. "Society has changed, and the implementation of our program has changed, but the structure and philosophy of Woodlawn have not. And so as long the founding teachers are here, we don't want to change the design. In that sense, we're the most conservative school around."
CAPTION: H-B Woodlawn Principal Ray Anderson, right, talks with seniors Julia Hainer-Violand, left, and Amanda Poore about important senior matters . . . T-shirts and yearbooks.