I was scanning the latest school-by-school breakdown of standardized test scores for the District recently, when something grabbed my attention. I was noting, for future reference, which had gone "six for six," with both of the two classes tested in each school surpassing the national norm in reading, math and science.
As expected, several of those with superior scores -- the 60th percentile or higher -- were in Wards 3, 4 and 6, those parts of the city that many of the city's most affluent residents, black and white, call home. But something else became quickly apparent, a point that rekindled my belief that the school system can wring higher achievement from students of all backgrounds, regardless of whether they live in poor, depressed or crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Four of the schools were in Ward 7, including Houston Elementary on 50th Place in Northeast. A check of U.S. Census data and city statistics showed that only one-third of the adults who live in the neighborhood have finished high school. Single-parent families outnumber two-parent families by 3-to-1, and more than half of the households have poverty level incomes. It is an area in which periods of unemployment among adults in the 1980s averaged as much as 19 weeks a year.
It can be a useful experiment to make a call to a principal's office an hour or so after classes have ended. Invariably, the kind of principal we've praised in The Post is still toiling away in his or her office. It was nearly 4:30 p.m. when I called Houston Elementary, and principal Dene Pendleton was there. The long hours have paid off.
Houston's students easily ranked in the top 10 percent of D.C. schools. In fact, the school's worst showing on the most recent Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills -- the 64th percentile in reading by third graders -- was good enough for 22nd place out of 120 elementary schools. In science, those students reached the 96th percentile, fifth best in the city.
"We teach our students that poverty is not limiting, that they can do anything. School is free, and you don't need to have money to have brains," said Pendleton, who has run the school for eight years. "When you tell a child how well you expect them to perform, they try harder."
Pendleton has a veteran staff of teachers and administrators who have watched at least four superintendents and countless school board members come and go, a parent-teacher association whose membership has tripled and a wide array of friends who have supplied support and resources for several field trips. And when Pendleton talks about field trips, she doesn't mean a subway ride to the National Zoo.
One involved a plane ride to Kansas City and a bus trip along the southern highway route to Los Angeles and back to Kansas City again for 86 students and parents, which was paid for by the school's own fund-raising efforts and by the United Black Fund. Regular classes were held on the bus each day, including a geography lesson at the Grand Canyon. When U.S. Air Force Col. Frederick C. Gregory, the first black Space Shuttle pilot, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, another group of Houston students and parents were there. School Superintendent Andrew Jenkins helped provide the bus that took them. "Whenever we can, we get them out of this neighborhood. There is so much to see," Pendleton said.
Houston Elementary has also been adopted by the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Whenever the Ellington school holds a special event or has extra tickets to performances at the Kennedy Center or the National Theatre, Houston students are invited.
Houston Elementary emphasizes science and math instruction, requires science projects each year and has three Young Astronauts club chapters. From 3 to 5 each afternoon, its magnet program is open to its own students and others from neighboring schools. This offers more science instruction, along with instrumental and vocal music, drama, piano, as well as beginning and intermediate Spanish. The next goal is an after-school tutoring program that would run until 7 p.m.
Summers tend to be even more active. From 9 until 9 in summer, the school runs an array of academic and athletic programs, including science, math and reading classes and field trips within the city.
For the most part, the Houston staff doesn't seem to mind the longer hours and extra efforts required by these activities. "I had one little girl who had to ride two buses and the subway to get here every day. She was never late, not once," Pendleton remembers. "You want to do more for students like that."
Ronald D. White is a member of the editorial page staff.