Friday, September 04, 2009

Washington Post article by Jay Mathews

The best part, though, is the comments.

The President Discovers My Favorite High School

Welcome to Wakefield High, Mr. President. I just saw the announcement that you have selected that mangy campus, overlooking an exhaust-filled commercial stretch of Route 7 in Arlington County, for a major speech on education Tuesday. You could not have picked a better place.

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I have spent nearly half my life looking for high schools that have learned how to raise American teenagers, particularly those with economic disadvantages, to new heights of learning. There are many more of them now than there used to be, and I find all of them inspiring. My favorite is probably Wakefield, because I have gotten to know well the people who made it such an amazing place.

When you get there you will see the school doesn't look like much. There is a plan to renovate the old facility, but it hasn't happened yet. But the minute you meet the teachers, an amazingly energetic and upbeat crew of classroom dynamos, you will see why Wakefield students have done so well despite their disadvantages.

For many years Wakefield was the poor stepchild of the Arlington system. It was located in the southernmost part of the county where low income people lived. Half of the students were poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies and most of them were black or Hispanic. Nobody expected much of a school like that, until two very talented and determined educators, Marie Shiels Djouadi and Doris Jackson, took over.

Djouadi, an ex-nun with extraordinary intellectual and musical gifts, came first and as a principal in the 1990s recruited teachers that believed, as she did, that low-income minority children were just as smart as the affluent white kids in North Arlington. They just needed more time and encouragement to learn. One of her recruits, Jackson, a D.C. teacher and counselor, became her guidance director, and then her assistant principal and her successor.

They opened up Advanced Placement courses to all students and installed AP teachers who knew how to get all kinds of students ready for the college-level tests. They created never-seen-before innovations like the Cohort, a group of indifferent male students at each grade level who met each week with counselor Al Reid and discovered, by talking it over among themselves, that they actually could handle these demanding teachers whose high-level classes they had been railroaded into taking. They set up summer programs and after-school opportunities for more study. They produced the first required senior project program in any Washington area public school. It has proven to be just as successful as similar programs in many private schools, providing electrifying experiences for seniors, and now a few other public schools are trying out the same idea. Last year 39 percent of graduating Wakefield seniors had at least one passing score on an AP test, more than twice the national average.

You are popular at Wakefield, Mr. President. They see you as someone who has pulled himself up to very high expectations, just as they have. I don't know what you are going to say in your speech, sir, but if I were you I would hang around afterward, and talk to some of those teachers. What they have done, everybody should be doing.

By Jay Mathews | September 2, 2009; 3:38 PM ET

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