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Numbers hide a great high school

Jay Mathews explains why he is astonished that a federal formula labels an Alexandria school persistently lowest achieving.

by Jay Mathews
Numbers hide a great high school

I was astonished to see T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria labeled a "persistently lowest achieving school," as reported by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler. This exposes the untruths that can come from sticking to a test-score formula for labeling schools. But in a surprising way, it also reveals a helpful twist in the way this might work out for the school and the Obama administration.

I have looked at a lot of schools like T.C. Fifty three percent of its students are from impoverished families. Even more are minorities. Often such places have gone through a succession of principals, have trouble holding onto good teachers and don't show much interesting in challenging the students they have. On every one of those indicators, T.C. is the exact opposite, a school that has strong leadership, exceptional faculty and a participation rate on college-level courses and tests that puts it in the top four percent of U.S. public high schools.

The reason why it is so strong has to do, as if often the case, with an unusual school and community culture. Alexandria is one of the rare communities where a critical mass of middle-class families, who saw that the school had great teachers and a long record of sending students to selective colleges, stuck with public education while similar families in other communities abandoned it.

So why did T.C. get such a bad rap this time? It seems to have something to do with a federal grant that focuses in part on schools like T.C. that fill a peculiar niche. Those are the 128 high schools in Virginia that have large numbers of low-income students, and would qualify for anti-poverty funding under a federal law called Title I, but don't in fact get that money. In that group, which likely includes several schools with hidden strengths, T.C.'s test scores are low enough to earn the low achieving school label and qualify for $1.5 million in extra federal funds.

Some of the numbers in Chandler's story show that T.C. was not that far below several benchmarks. In 2009, 78 percent of its students graduated in four years, compared to 83 percent for the state. In 2008, 82 percent of T.C. students passed the
state reading test and 79 percent the math test, compared to 87 percent and 84 percent respectively for the state.

Fortunately, the teachers and families of T.C. Williams know how good their school is, so they won't be leaving because of this odd funding system. And here is the twist: many schools that receive the extra federal money won't know what to do with it. The T.C. Williams faculty and administrators will know exactly how to use it in creative and effective ways. I say, Go Titans, and don't worry about funding systems that often don't make sense.

Alexandria's T.C. Williams High called poor performer

By Michael Alison Chandler

Federal education officials have singled out Alexandria's only public high school as one of the nation's poorest-performing schools, putting it on track for dramatic instructional reforms fueled by new federal funds.

Washington area educators don't generally regard T.C. Williams High School, whose early integration efforts were celebrated in the movie "Remember the Titans," as one of the region's worst schools. But the new federal label highlights the extent to which it has failed to lift the achievement of its large population of minority students, whose performance lags behind those of white students at the school.

T.C. Williams boasts a $100-million state-of-the-art facility with a rooftop garden and green technology. Participation in Advanced Placement courses ranks among the highest in the country. And more than 80 percent of graduates last year went on to college.

Yet this month it became one of 17 in Virginia -- and the only one in Northern Virginia -- to be dubbed a "persistently lowest achieving school," as determined by standardized test results.

"We are almost a bimodal school division. Three-quarters of our kids do extraordinarily well, but we have traditionally underserved huge portions of our population," said Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman.

The 2,900-student school, which is divided into two campuses, has never met all federal testing benchmarks required by the No Child Left Behind law. In 2009, 78 percent of students graduated from T.C. Williams in four years, compared with 83 percent across the state. Just 65 percent of Hispanic students graduated in the same time.

The school qualifies for the federal grant because standardized test scores in 2008 and 2009 fell in the lowest 5 percent of 128 Virginia high schools that have similar poverty demographics but do not receive funding under Title I, a federal program that provides extra resources to schools with large numbers of poor and at-risk students.

About half the students at T.C. Williams receive free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.

In 2008, 82 percent of T.C. Williams students passed the state's standardized reading test and 79 percent passed the math exam. In 2009, the pass rate was 84 percent in reading and 77 percent in math. The average pass rate for the state in 2008 was 87 percent in reading and 84 percent in math; in 2009, it was 89 percent in reading and 86 percent in math.

The school's performance makes it eligible for a piece of a $3.5 billion program that is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's efforts to spur change in the nation's weakest schools.

T.C. Williams has challenges familiar to many urban schools, including high mobility rates and large numbers of students who don't speak English or who live in poverty, said Mel Riddile, former principal at T.C. Williams and associate director of high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But many things set it apart, he said, including highly engaged parent groups, a cadre of very talented teachers and an impressive array of college-level classes.

"Is this school the worst of the worst? No. Is it a dropout factory? No," Riddile said. "This may not be typical of the kinds of schools the president is trying to target . . . but it definitely needs to improve."

To qualify for the additional federal funding, which Sherman estimates could total $1.5 million over three years, the school will have to undergo a radical transformation.

The Obama administration has identified four options: closing the school and sending its students elsewhere; reopening it as a charter school; firing the principal and at least half the faculty; or submitting to a host of instructional changes that include lengthening the school day or year and expanding professional development.

School leaders will be weighing the same set of options for about 10 schools in the District and more than a dozen in Prince George's County that also have been designated as persistently lowest achieving. Most schools earned the label through test performance; a few were selected because graduation rates were lower than 60 percent for three consecutive years.

Sherman said he is inclined to choose the least drastic option: revamping instruction and expanding professional development. But he has not ruled out the possibility of replacing a significant portion of the faculty. He met with teachers last week to talk about the best course of action and said he is more likely to seek new ways to support existing faculty.

A struggling Rhode Island school made headlines last month following a decision to spur reform by replacing its staff. Officials have since backed down.

Earlier this year, T.C. Williams Principal William Clendaniel announced his intention to retire. The school board has launched a national search for someone who can lead the transition.

The school's staff began a series of reforms over the past year, including opening a college and career center and adding graduation coaches and tutorial services.

The pending reforms look promising to activists with Tenants and Workers United, a community group that has been working with school officials to improve academic outcomes for Hispanic students, who are most likely to drop out. "We hope we have hit bottom and we are going to start to bounce back," Executive Director Jon Liss said.

— Jay Mathews and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post


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