How to Survive Our Worst Schools
I was intrigued by a story on the front page of the Post Aug. 9 Written by my colleague Robin Givhan, it focused on a White House internship program for D.C. students that included a recent high school graduate named Clayton Armstrong. Despite his background, he had won the prestigious summer job and a place in the freshman class at the University of Arizona.
The article was so good I wanted to know more. I wondered how Armstrong acquired his obvious academic skills, given that he had graduated from Ballou High School. D.C. has some fine public high schools, but most are bad, and Ballou in my view is the worst. It is part of what is the worst, or next to worst (Detroit is in the running) urban school district in the country.
This year, only 23 percent of Ballou students reached proficiency or above on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. As far as I can tell, no Ballou student has ever passed an Advanced Placement test.
I called Armstrong to ask how he survived such low standards and gained admission to a good school like Arizona. He was at his dorm in Tucson, the day before classes. He was exactly as Givhan described him--polite, articulate, thoughtful and determined. He patiently explained how he managed to get an education out of a bad D.C. high school---actually, three D.C. high schools.
One fact makes Armstrong very different from most of his classmates. He grew up in a two-parent household. Like 90 percent of Ballou students, Armstrong’s parents are low-income. His father Milton is a church janitor and his mother is unemployed. But they were both there, helping each other encourage his hard work, and that made a difference.
Armstrong acknowledged that many of his high school classes were not very good, but in whatever he was asked to do he did his best. In his four high school years, he received 15 A’s, six B’s and one C. Some of his teachers were dedicated. Others made clear, he said, “that they did not want to be there.”
Armstrong had lost interest in his studies for a while in middle school, but by 9th grade he had decided that “school was what I wanted to do.” He was extraordinarily conscientious. For instance, if a teacher in one of his classes was unhelpful, he would seek out other teachers to answer his questions.
By the time he graduated last spring, it was clear to him he still had a way to go. I often complain about the SAT test as an out-of-date measure of college readiness, but it does shed light on our worst high schools. It is very rare to find a D.C. student who scores better than 1500 on the 2400-point test. Armstrong’s score was 1380, only about the 33rd percentile nationally for male test takers.
“I know my school didn’t prepare me enough for it,” he said. Just trying to focus on an exam for 3 hours and 45 minutes was something he wasn’t used to.
The costs of low school standards are often hidden. Armstrong’s course selections look fine, as good as the ones in any suburban school. In ninth grade, Armstrong earned A’s in Algebra 1, Geography and Physical Education. He had a B in English 1 and a C in Environmental Science. In 10th grade he had A’s in English 2, Biology, Spanish 1, U.S. History, Problems of Urban Society and P.E., plus a B in Geometry. In 11th grade he earned A’s in Algebra 2, World History, Chemistry, and U.S. Government, plus B’s in English 3 and Spanish 2. In 12th grade his A’s were in AP U.S. History and Computer Science, and his B’s were in AP English Lit (a B-plus, to be precise) and Pre-calculus.
The best of those classes, he said, were AP English and AP U.S. History, taught as a combined double course. Many suburban schools have similar systems. The combined courses help students understand how the events of American history are reflected in its literature, giving both courses a dose of intriguing reality.
Armstrong said he liked the AP English teacher, Tom Bishop, and the AP history teacher, Matthew Kostecka. They demanded frequent writing assignments, and made sure all students in the class took the AP exams. When I spoke to Armstrong, he had not gotten his AP test results. He assumed he did not pass either one, because his teachers did not call him. A passing grade of three or above on a five-point AP exam would have been such an astounding result for a Ballou graduate that they would have wanted to tell him right away.
Bishop and Kostecka, as well as AP teachers in other D.C. schools, are trying to improve that situation. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is emphasizing AP. The 2009 results were the best ever, although passing rates were still very low. Kostecka told me all his students received 1’s this year except Armstrong and another student, Kaya Lowery, who earned the first 2’s at Ballou on the AP U.S. history test since at least 2005. There was one 2 this year on the AP English test, Kostecka said. Everyone else, including Armstrong, got a 1. Ballou principal Rahman Branch told me he is determined to build student skills for better results and change his school’s academic reputation.
In only one way did Armstrong, in my view, fail to concentrate enough on his studies. It has to do with football, the reason why he attended three D.C. high schools. He spent his sophomore year at Woodson and half his junior year at Dunbar before he went back to Ballou. An aspiring football running back, he left the impression that each transfer was motivated by what he saw as a chance for more playing time. But he declined to be specific.
He did not say if anyone warned him that the moves might interfere with his classroom work. He admitted he missed a chance to take AP Biology because of one transfer. I suspect no one had the heart to get in the way of the football dreams of a student whose classroom dedication was so exceptional, regardless of which school he attended.
When it came time to apply to college, Armstrong said, he knew he was not going to be recruited for his football skills. But his grade point average was good, and his recommendations from teachers and counselors were strong. He applied to nine colleges. He was rejected by USC, UCLA and the University of Central Florida. Florida State said it would take him, but only after he spent a year in a community college. He was accepted by Arizona, Morehouse, Hampton, Morgan State and Florida A&M.
At Arizona|http://www.arizona.edu/, he has been placed in English 101 Plus, an enhanced version of freshman English that provides extra instruction in a small group setting for students whose high schools did not give them all the writing skills they need. He said he may major in political science, and perhaps go to law school.
College is a lot to absorb, he told me. But his persistence and devotion to learning, the character strengths that helped him get as much as possible out of his high school education, should bring faster progress for him now, because he is in the hands of educators whose expectations are so much higher than the demands placed on him earlier.
Washington Post editors
| September 11, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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