With the graduation of the T.C. Williams class of 1999 on Tuesday, summer vacation begins for the high school's 1,900-plus students. They are ecstatic about the academic year's end and, truth be told, so are the teachers and administrators. But as routine as it may be, I find there is something unsettling about the summer shutdown.
It's bad enough that students already woefully behind academically are going to retrogress during the summer. Even more troubling is that many of them are going to be cut off from their most important emotional support. Though I doubt they'd admit it, the school has been their sole source of structure and their main connection with the adult world.
From September to June, most schools do more parenting than could have been imagined a few decades ago. On the Tuesday morning after a three-day weekend, the guidance office is often like an emergency room full of students in turmoil. If three days out of school are too much, how will they fare during the 80-or-so summer days off they are starting this week?
There was a justification for long vacations when ours was an agrarian society, but given the ever-increasing social problems of children today, and the central role schools are forced to play in supporting them, the wisdom of all that time off has to be questioned.
Twenty-five years ago, the main function of guidance counselors was helping students decide on colleges or jobs. Today, they often find themselves having to deal with a range of personal problems before they can even start talking about academics or careers. At T.C. Williams, more than 50 percent of our students now come from single-parent homes, often with a mother struggling to survive. Thea Hambright, one of the school's two social workers, says she's seen an enormous growth in the number of kids being raised by adults other than their parents.
The school's population is also more transient. Every year, I see students being bounced around the Beltway among relatives or foster homes. This year, I had one 10th-grader who had been in three foster homes in three different school systems since September. And it's no longer shocking to find students in homeless shelters--often girls who have been kicked onto the street when their mother's boyfriend moves in. One of my favorite students this year loved living by herself in the shelter, because her mom's boyfriend had made life at "home" intolerable.
Even for teenagers with no major problems at home, summer can swing between the boring and the dangerous.
"In school there is someone to talk to," says 17-year-old Shahidah Aziz. "You can vent with an adult who listens. If you don't get to talk things out, frustration builds up. . . . Kids take it out on someone else or get depressed."
"Anything goes in the summer," says Nah'Sikha Mackay, also 17. "Most kids won't fight during the school year because they know they'll be expelled. They wait until the summer to settle scores."
"When you don't have nothing to do it's easy to do the wrong thing," says sophomore Alicia Brown. "Peer pressure is much harder to resist during the summer. . . . Friends say 'Come on, it's the summer, you're expected to do weird things.' " She adds, "You'll do anything to keep from being bored. If friends call to do drugs after school, people are usually too tired or can make up an excuse. In the summer, you have the time to get in trouble."
Several nights a week during the summer, some underage kids go "clubbing" till 3 a.m. at Washington nightspots such as Mirage, DC Live, the Ritz and the Ice Box. "The clubs are more dangerous during the summer--there are these immature kids who get rowdy. There's a lot more fights," said senior Olinka Turner, one of my best students.
Even during the school year, there is a tension between the school's mission to instruct students and its responsibility to nurture them. That tension is obvious in the T.C. Williams guidance department, where there are eight counselors, most of whom have 250 kids assigned to them, the maximum number suggested by state guidelines. Most counselors at other big high schools in Northern Virginia carry about the same load. To make things worse, counselors are saddled with other duties, such as administering state and national tests, which can keep them out of their offices for days at a time.
Counselor Tony Derigge says the personal crisis of one kid can take up a whole morning.
It's the same with our two social workers, who are so loaded down with federal, city and school red tape that they can't always get to kids who are desperate for help, those who are being sexually abused by stepfathers, those who are pregnant or in turmoil over a divorce. Back in April, Thea Hambright spent more than 40 hours jumping through bureaucratic hoops trying to help a homeless kid who had told one of his teachers that he wanted to die. Hambright was told by a city agency that the boy couldn't be evaluated to see if he's eligible for psychiatric care until July.
Obviously, the school needs more guidance counselors and social workers, as do other high schools in Northern Virginia, but in the last few years those needs have taken a back seat to other needs, like refurbishing school buildings and wiring every classroom for the Internet.
To me, one of the best examples of the conflict between the dual roles of educating and nurturing is our school's "C rule," which prohibits students who have less than a C average from participating in sports.
Ours is one of the few public high schools in Northern Virginia that has such a rule. The policy was instituted 10 years ago with good intentions--raising the academic performance of minority athletes--but has proven itself counterproductive. It has helped cripple our football program; more importantly it has not changed test scores and cuts a disproportionate number of low-income, minority students off from meaningful activity and adult supervision after school, the time when teens are most likely to get in trouble. The school board won't even entertain an alternative, like allowing students to participate in sports if they attend Saturday school for special tutoring.
Given the social and academic needs of so many of the students we serve, I can't help but feel that our school's closing for the summer is an enormous waste of resources and that it flies in the face of the city's recent statements that education is its number one priority. There are summer classes for high school students held at another Alexandria school, but they are almost entirely for those who have failed courses--a small fraction of our student population.
Take the fact that more than 200 computers will sit at T.C. Williams unused during the summer--and that doesn't count the laptops that every teacher was given for personal use, many of which are gathering dust at home.
It's bad enough that the school spent $15.8 million on computer technology and that, even during the school year, the classroom computers are used overwhelmingly for administrative duties such as taking roll and sending e-mail. But it's unconscionable that in Northern Virginia, an area whose businesses are begging for computer programmers, a school will lock up its computer resources for the next two and a half months instead of offering special training to teenagers--especially those whose families cannot afford computers or Internet access. And there are all kinds of other courses, from math to the arts, that we could be offering during the summer.
As the vacation begins, there is one group of kids that won't be let loose. They are in a program called Choices, run by Elbert Ransom Jr., a minister and former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Asante Clarke, a psychology teacher at Northern Virginia Community College. Ransom, Clarke and T.C. Williams administrator Robert White have started meeting at our school twice a week with a group of 25 kids that White thought could use some help with academics or personal problems.
The program, supported by the city, will run through the summer and then continue through the school year. The goal is for participating students--all 10th- and 11th-graders--to stay with the program until graduation. Ransom's idea, which is backed by Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson, is to get teachers, schools, parents, social service agencies and city government involved in helping kids throughout Alexandria all year long--finding tutors, helping with college applications and financial aid, intervening with teachers, and so forth.
"The program helps people talk about problems they would never talk about outside the group, stuff with friends and family," says 11th-grader Barry Alexander. "It keeps trouble from starting. When someone in the group talks about how they feel the others can relate. . . . Guys say, 'Man, I thought I was the only one.' That helps a lot."
Other schools could take their cue from programs such as this one and provide more opportunities that don't end with the school year.
Unfortunately, that won't be easy. With all the fears of violence, schools are developing a fortress mentality, and are relieved to have the year end without major incidents and to see the students off for the summer. Then, of course, there are the teachers who have convinced themselves that they simply must have the entire summer off to recuperate. But if we are serious about raising test scores, producing world-class students and nurturing the next generation, we in the schools have to rethink our mission and start offering more to our teenagers during the summer.
Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.