Toward the end of Parents' Night at T.C. Williams High School in September, a woman came up to me and introduced herself. "I'm Carolyn Weeder," she said and then, in response to my blank look, quickly added, "Jonathan Disciullo's mother." Suddenly my memory clicked and I realized that this was the Carolyn Weeder who had been captain of the cheerleaders in 1974, my fourth year teaching at T.C.
A few days later, when I pulled out a '74 yearbook to show Jonathan some pictures of his mom at his age, it hit me that I'd forgotten how T.C. was a mostly white, middle-class school back then. Of the 718 seniors in that class, 75 percent were white and 24 percent were black. There was only a smattering of Hispanics and Asians.
At that time there was fear that we were reaching what school demographers called the 30 percent "tipping point" -- the percentage of black students that would cause an exodus of white families. Today we are way past that tipping point, having turned into one of those sociological oxymorons: a majority minority school. Today, due to demographic changes in Alexandria, T.C.'s white population is about 25 percent, the black population is up to 42 percent (of which about a quarter are African immigrants) and the Latino population has skyrocketed to 24 percent; Asians and Asian Americans are 6 percent.
And with that new makeup have come new concerns. So much of the focus in public schools today is on bringing along underperforming low-income and minority kids, on improving test scores and raising standards. Those are positive goals, but they also raise some uncomfortable questions: If that's where virtually all of a school's energy is going, then can a school with a student body that's 75 percent minority, with many poor kids -- overwhelmingly black and Hispanic -- who are far behind their middle-class counterparts academically, meet these students' needs without selling middle-class kids short? Is there, in the end, still a place for the middle class in public schools like T.C.?
I'd like to think there is, and so far, many of our middle-class families, which at T.C. are largely white, still feel that their kids are getting a great education at the school, both academically and socially. "My kids have thrived in the public schools," says Alexandria resident Marybeth Stoddard, who has a daughter at T.C. and whose two older children, both T.C. graduates, went on to Ivy League universities. But lately, I see a disturbing trend emerging: The school system's current leadership is sacrificing genuine excellence for a warped notion of equity and wasting money trying to create the illusion that we are leveling the playing field when in fact we are not. And in the process, we run the risk of neglecting the middle-class kids while not really helping the lower-income ones.
Take the new $85 million-plus T.C. Williams building, now under construction and set to open in September 2007. The catchphrase for the new school is "smaller learning communities," meaning that T.C.'s roughly 2,000 students will be divided into five "houses" or "academies," each with its own administrator and guidance counselors. What teachers worry about -- but administrators aren't discussing -- is that under such a plan, the small number of middle-class kids will be scattered among the five groups and end up so isolated that their parents will pull out of the school system. I know we are all supposed to revel in diversity, but no middle-class parents I know -- black perhaps even more than white -- want their children relegated to a "house" with few of their middle-class peers.
This summer, teachers were paid to attend an in-service day on smaller learning communities, where we got the clear impression that the concept is geared to the weakest students. The "trainer" for the session, a former D.C. school principal, spent all the time talking about raising test scores of low-income minority kids. She made one contradictory remark after another, first admonishing us for not having rigorous enough standards for minority students and in the next breath telling us that the minuscule progress of a high school kid reading way below grade level is just as important as the high achievement of a top student.
The pressure put on administrators by Virginia's Standards of Learning exams seems to be making them obsess over the weaker students, whose failures on those exams can give individual schools and the system as a whole a black eye and can cause -- indeed has caused -- principals to lose their jobs. In truth, these supposedly high-stakes exams have turned into nothing more than minimum-competency tests. They may benefit some students who are lagging far behind, "but they have been dumbing down the curriculum for other kids," says chemistry teacher Joel Kaplan, who taught in New York City public schools for 13 years before coming to T.C.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the fear of white flight drove much of the school system's policy. In effect, T.C. ran a school within a school, where savvy white middle-class parents used honors and AP courses to keep their kids challenged. But now there's an assumption that middle-class kids are doing just fine -- that their parents can make up the slack for anything the school doesn't provide. Again and again, I have heard administrators say things like, "Those kids don't need us to succeed." In other words, kids who have the talent to get into places like U-Va. or Virginia Tech don't need to be challenged. That's a deadly anti-intellectual concept. But worse, it completely ignores the middle-class kids who are just average students and could use a lot more attention than I fear they're getting now.
Ironically, no group of students is more ignored at T.C. than the average white kids. Many of the kids we lose to private schools are average students whose parents feel they'll be lost at T.C. -- and in many ways they're right.
Take the English classes. We have just two groupings -- honors (or Advanced Placement in 12th grade) and regular. This means that a C student's only choice is between a class that's too demanding for him or a class that's too easy and often full of kids with poor attitudes. What we need is a class that's somewhere in-between. As it is, the parents of these kids force them into the honors and AP classes, because they'd rather have them in a class that's too hard than one they'd get little out of. In my five so-called AP courses this year, I have more white kids labeled "learning disabled" -- which gives them, for instance, extra time on tests -- than ever. Some may have genuine learning problems, but it seems to me that a lot of them are just in over their heads and would do fine in a class more tailored to their skills -- it could be called college prep or something else to make kids and parents feel good. A number of the minority kids in my AP courses would be better off in a class like that, too. Such a much-needed course, though, doesn't exist, and it's solely out of the fear that a true AP course would look too white. In the end, neither the kids who could really be challenged by a rigorous AP course nor the kids in the middle are being truly well served.
Nowhere is the fixation on appearances more obvious than in the situation with AP exams. Last year, the school system paid $83 apiece for 237 students to take the AP test in English. Because of the large number of students taking the test, it was administered in the gym -- under disgraceful conditions. Students sat crowded at small, rickety tables, with pockmarks that tore the exam papers as they wrote. One kid, who got an F from me in the first quarter but whom administrators permitted -- against school rules -- to transfer to another AP teacher, kept whistling during the test, apparently in a deliberate attempt to distract others. When told to keep quiet, he cursed the proctors, but was allowed to continue with the test.
The good students I had came out of the exam furious, and I have no doubt that some of them got lower scores than they would have had the test conditions been decent. But it didn't seem to matter to the school system, which got what it wanted -- a record number of kids taking the test so that it would appear as if we have the highest standards. In all our leaders' boasting about the large number of minorities taking AP courses, there are a few figures I haven't heard mentioned: of the 237 students, 177 (75 percent) got scores of 1 or 2 on the five-point grading scale, meaning that the school board spent $14,691 for those students to "experience" failing the English exams.
The politics of race and class has also played into the enormous amount of money wasted on the "Computer Initiative" that Alexandria School Superintendent Rebecca Perry likes to take credit for. To close the "information gap" between the well-off and the not-so-well-off, Perry and the school board decided two years ago to give every student at T.C. a laptop, at the cost of over a million dollars a year. Most of the kids in my classes call the laptops "expensive paperweights," because they don't have the capabilities or power of their computers at home. "They should have given them to kids who needed them," says senior Hannah Pocock. "Most of us didn't." Teachers agree that at the very most, all they needed was a set of classroom computers. But because some kids cannot afford computers, officials decided to give every kid one. For many -- both good students and not-so-good -- the computers serve as pacifiers, as they sit in class pretending to do research while surfing the net to distract themselves.
Another example of throwing money at a problem to create the illusion of leveling the playing field was the creation this year of a position called "counselor for athletes." Every student in the school is already assigned to a counselor, and I doubt the girls' ice hockey team needs special attention. There's no question that the man selected for the new job, Ivan Thomas, was hired to help black male athletes, some of whom have not, to put it mildly, worked very hard in school. But since Thomas seems to have a real touch with kids, it makes no sense to limit him to athletes, especially when there's not one male counselor in the guidance office.
The good news in the midst of all the administrative obsession and waste is that T.C.'s students -- black, white and Latino, native-born and foreign-born, rich and poor -- co-exist pretty well. "The school is what brings us together," says senior Virginia Byron. "I have loved being in a school where kids are different from me."
It's great that this generation of students is so at ease with peers of different races and ethnic backgrounds. When Jonathan Disciullo graduates in June, his yearbook won't look at all like his mom's did -- his class picture will be surrounded by faces of many hues. But if educators don't also learn to be more at ease with and honest about issues of race and class, then I have to wonder how many Jonathan Disciullos we'll see in the yearbook of 2035.
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Pat Welsh has taught English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria for more than 30 years.