Tyler Moulton likes fish. The 14-year-old has been catching the finned creatures since he was a toddler. He's dreamed of an ichthyology career for almost as long. Lately, he's developed an interest in studying the animals' habitats.
So when the Takoma Park resident heard that Northwood High School had an academy devoted to environmental sciences, Moulton decided the school was right for him.
Once it would have been impossible for Moulton, whose neighborhood school is Montgomery Blair, to attend Northwood, which is about a dozen blocks away on University Boulevard. But this year he was one of 2,100 students allowed to choose their high school from among five -- Einstein, Northwood, Wheaton, Kennedy and Montgomery Blair -- that are part of a group called the Downcounty Consortium.
Northwood also appealed to him for another reason: Moulton will be a member of the school's first graduating class since it was closed in 1985 because of low student enrollment. He and 360 other ninth-graders will be the school's only students when the campus reopens this year and will remain Northwood's oldest students until they graduate in 2008. For the past two decades, the school building has housed students from other high schools undergoing renovations.
"It's neat that we're the first," Moulton said during a brief break from fishing at a pond in Silver Spring.
Mary Conneran, Northwood class of 1958, found herself in the same position half a century ago. The campus was incomplete when the school opened in September 1956.
"They hadn't even put lockers in yet," said Conneran, 63. "And they had to blow whistles to change classes because they hadn't installed bells."
But there were perks to being the first students at the school. Conneran helped decide the school's new traditions: the design of the cheerleading outfits, the school colors and Northwood's mascot.
This year's students will reinvent those old customs for a Northwood much different than the one Conneran knew. Although she remembers classmates "from all different walks of life," the student body in the 1950s had little racial diversity.
"I think we only had one African American in our class," she said.
Now about a third of the class is black, a third Hispanic and a third white, said Northwood Principal Henry Johnson.
"It goes to show you how the population of this area of Silver Spring has changed over the past 50 years," he said.
The high school has had to adapt some of its old traditions because of broader cultural changes. Almost 50 years after Conneran helped select an Indian as the high school's mascot, she returned to help the incoming freshmen pick a new standard-bearer. The old symbol, Johnson decided, was "not politically correct anymore." After extensive deliberations with alumni and current students, they decided the new mascot would be a gladiator.
Staffing needs at Northwood have also changed. The school now has a bilingual teacher in almost every department, Johnson said. His assistant principal speaks Spanish, and other staff members are fluent in Spanish, French, Vietnamese and Korean. "We've tried to get a good mix of people in the building who will be able to communicate with our children and their parents," he said. "We're very concerned about overcoming the language barrier."
Another issue at Northwood is the poverty of many of the students. A higher percentage of Northwood's students qualify for free and reduced-price meals than any other high school in the county, Johnson said. The concern, he said, is that his students will leave school if they are not engaged.
"The highest dropout rate is at the end of the ninth grade," he said.
To combat the problem, Johnson has initiated an advisory program under which every staff member in the school is responsible for mentoring about 10 students throughout their high school careers. Each adviser will meet with his or her group of students every day to provide support and monitor their performance.
Johnson also hopes the school's four academies -- environmental sciences; humanities and film; political science and public advocacy; and American history -- will engage the students by allowing them to focus on the topics that most interest them. Students can start taking introductory academy courses during their freshman year, and many students in the Downcounty Consortium pick their high school based on its academy programs.
Most of Northwood's students, like Moulton, come from outside the area that would usually feed into the school. Of Northwood's 360 teenagers, 272 would have attended other schools were it not for the Downcounty Consortium program, Johnson said.
This year, almost all of the 2,100 students in the Downcounty Consortium area, located in the southeastern part of the county, will attend their first-choice school. Only 73 students didn't receive their top pick, said school system officials. Most of those students wanted to attend Montgomery Blair.
Johnson said the main advantage of the initiative is that students attend schools of their own choice. "That makes them more likely to care about the school and be engaged in their classes," he said.