Happy birthday to Vincent E. Reed, one of the best D.C. schools superintendents ever. He turned 87 on March 1. Among the many battles Reed fought for children was the creation of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. The selective, demanding magnet school in Northwest Washington became a reality in 1980 only because Reed inspired a revolt against a school board that thought challenging low-income students was an elitist pipe dream.
That bias against high standards for D.C. kids lives on. Many smart, well-meaning people still think that some programs are just too hard for children whose parents didn’t finish high school or college. Four years ago, staff and consultants for the D.C. Public Charter School Board recommended against approval of a charter for Basis D.C., now one of the city’s highest-achieving schools, in part because its emphasis on Advanced Placement courses for poor kids didn’t seem realistic. (Fortunately, the board overruled them.) Recently, Guy Brandenburg, the most astute blogger on D.C. schools, told me that he thinks Basis’s good test scores in part come from forcing struggling students to leave.
A Basis teacher told him many students withdraw in January “because they realize that they are on track to fail one or more courses for the semester and will therefore have to repeat the entire grade — something that would not happen at any other school that I know of. This is of course an easy way to get rid of low-performing students, making the rest of the school look good,” Brandenburg said in an e-mail.
Many assume the solution to that problem is to give up on such challenges, hold those children to a lower standard and hope for the best. But as far as I can tell, Basis, Banneker and other schools that think D.C. kids can handle tough courses are not actually pushing out their lower-performing students.
Peter Bezanson, chief executive of Basis, said that his network of 15 schools in Arizona, Texas and the District does not have a minimum required grade-point average. “No student has ever been dismissed from Basis for a low GPA,” he said. He said that the school does not know how many students return to regular schools because of the difficult of Basis courses, but Basis’s overall attrition rate is less than 10 percent, except for the transition from middle school to high school, which is between 30 percent to 35 percent.
Washington Latin, another D.C. charter with high academic standards, also has no required GPA. “In the last two years,” said Martha Cutts, head of the school, “three to five high school students and no middle school students — less than one percent of school-wide enrollment — voluntarily withdrew for reasons related to their academic performance.” The charter school board has no rules on grade retention.
At School Without Walls, a D.C. public magnet that requires a 2.0 GPA, the percentage of students forced to leave has decreased from 12 percent nine years ago to 2 percent. Principal Richard Trogisch said that the school has “developed support, teacher training and communications systems” that he hopes will get the academic expulsion rate down to zero.
Banneker has the same emphasis on helping all of its students succeed. They are not cherry-picked geniuses. Banneker’s SAT average score is 1488, compared with 1822 at Thomas S. Wootton and 1876 at Langley, two Washington-area high schools that do not shrink from challenging their mostly affluent students. Banneker is 60 percent low-income, yet its passing rate for AP tests is 89 percent, right up there with Wootton at 88 percent and Langley at 88 percent. It has about the same test participation rate as the two suburban schools. According to principal Anita Berger, less than 1 percent of students ever leave because the work is too hard.
Banneker students are proof of Vince Reed’s stubborn insistence that city kids who can’t afford private school will respond to the same rigorous academic demands. Sadly, that is still not a universally accepted notion.