The D.C. school board approved plans early yesterday for a model academic high school, resolving a longstanding city controversy through a compromise of the academic standards proposed by former school superintendent Vincent E. Reed and the racial and economic politics so common to District affairs.
On a 9-to-2 vote shortly before 1 a.m., the board approved a plan that will establish the school, starting in September, for 500 students at Banneker Junior High near Howard University in Northwest Washington. It will offer college preparatory courses to youngsters in the top 18 percent of their eighth-grade class.
Reed and some board members had long sought such a school, fearing that many of the higher-achieving students in the city were deserting the public school system because of its preoccupation with back-to-basics education for the students in the system who perennially score below national norms on standardized tests.
Opponents of the academic high school had twice beaten plans to create it, saying it would be elitist. But the proposal adopted yesterday addressed that concern by establishing a system that ensures a student body reflective of the entire school population, rather than one dominated by the higher-ranking student from the predominantly white and more affluent sections of the city.
Under the formula adopted by the board, each of the city's four school regions will get a number of slots at the school based on the number of students enrolled in each area. this means that students in the densely populated Anacostia region will get the most slots, while students in the region encompassing wards 3 and 4 in Upper Northwest in some of the most affluent parts of the city, will get the fewest seats.
Reed, who wanted the school to be a torch of academic excellence against the tawdry reputation of the city high schools, had proposed that the school enroll 500 to 700 students from across the city in the top 15 percent of their class.
The board's adopted formula, fostered by board members R. Calvin Lockridge from Ward 8 in Anacostia, one of the two members to vote against creation of the school, and Frank Shaffer-corona (At-Large), drew immediate criticism from board member Carol Schwartz of Ward 3.
Schwartz argued at the 6 1/2-hour meeting that the board was creating a quota system, and that none of the city's other special academic programs, such as the Math-Science School at Ballou High School or the Duke Ellington School for the Arts restricts the number of students who can attend by geographic area.
Conceivably, the model school could appeal to a large number of students attending Wilson High School in Ward 3, which boasts some of the top-ranking students in the system. Wilson over the years has been the city's de facto "model" high school for the college-bound. Some Wilson parents have opposed the establishment of the academic high school, arguing that it would drain Wilson of some of its best students and possibly lead to a lowering of standards there.
Both proponents and critics of the model school have been quick to note that it will offer the same courses that can be found at any of the city's 14 high schools. The difference is that the model school students will be required to take more math, social science and foreign language courses than their counterparts at the regular schools.
The students at the academic school also will have to work part time in their community or school to relieve "the obvious boredom, potential for destructiveness and pent-up energy of teen-agers," according to the plan.
To be admitted, students must write a letter of application, be working at or above the level of the grade in which they are enrolled and have the recommendations of two teachers. Instructors at the school also will be specially screened and selected.
Shortly before his retirement, Reed worked out a plan with Howard University President James Cheek whereby the model school students would take some advanced courses at Howard, work with Howard professors and use Howard's laboratory facilities.
Reed thought the participation of Howard, a respected black institution, would make the plan more palatable to those board members who had considered it elitist. He has said that one of the reasons he resigned last month was the board's rejection of his earlier plan for the school.
School officials say they recognize that by admitting students by class rank in their respective high schools may lead to a situation where students in the academic school are working on many different levels, since some city schools have traditionally had a better academic record than others. But they insist this will not be a problem.
Some critics of the school say it raises the spector of the schools' old "tracking" system, whereby students were rigidly segmented according to ability until a court outlawed tracking in 1967. But Middleton and other school officials insist the model school is merely intended to "challenge" students who may not find the current academic fare stimulating enough.
Board members who voted against the proposal last June but for it yesterday said they changed their minds for a variety of reasons.
Board President Eugene Kinlow (At Large) said he is now convinced that the school would not drain the city's other high schools of their best students since only 500 will attend the academic institutions. Shaffer-Corona said he was happy with the inclusion of Howard in the plan. Nate Buh (Ward 7) said he was pleased that the plan now calls for lowering the admissions requirement from the top 15 percent to the top 18 percent, and would allow for admission of students who rank even lower in special circumstances.
But board member Alaire B. Rieffel (Ward 2) said she felt it was pressure from the public that eventually forced the board to approve it.
"There was something about the model high school which touched the people of this city . . . perhaps in a way, it was an indictment of the current conditions in our secondary schools," she said.
Barbara Lett Simmons (At Large) cast the other vote against the proposal.