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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.


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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PresidentObama you was elected by the people of this UNITED STATES OF AMERICA as was thoses in the Senate and House get out there and explain what you are trying to do the people are still behind you but after 8 years of the last president and 4 years of the Gop and some of the democratis you can't blame thoses who trully believe in you, then you have thoses out there with all these frighten tactis they need you to lead them show your leadership get them to understand everything is not going to happen overnight they hear you but they don't you take charge of how the health reform will work you put your imput into it you have gone far and beyound with the other side and the ones in your own party now Mr.President it time you take the lead go the distance with the health care reform you didn't get where you are now by being soft get back to the no nonsense man that was running for the President of this United States of America and at the end of the day you would have done your best that is all the people of this country that behind you ask.

Posted by: nyokadavis | September 2, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Wakefield is the ONLY high school located in south Arlington an area which is rapidly being redeveloped. The future population growth will be in south Arlington. Afterall, isn't that why south Arlington "needs" a $150M trolley?

Why is money being spent on new north Arlington high schools and their sports facilities - Washington and Lee HS/pool ($100M+ spent),a new Yorktown school/pool ($?) Spend it on Wakefield. The educators and students have as much a right to updated classrooms and sports facilities as students in north Arlington. And improved schools are probably better for real estate values than a trolley.

Posted by: arlingtonva4 | September 2, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations, Wakefield High! As a proud alumni of the class of 1960 I salute all of the students and faculty that have made it a place that the President of the United States wants to visit. A lot of my development and basic knowledge of the world and academics was born and nurtured in the halls of this institution. Thank you Wakefield! Go Warriors!

Posted by: What7 | September 3, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

As a native Arlingtonian who still resides in Arlington, your article about Wakefield High School brought me so much joy. Staff and administrators at Wakefield deserve every iota of credit that comes their way. But I would like to add a "long-range" perspective. I graduated from Wakefield in 1968, only a few short years after Arlington schools were integrated. While most of us were hesitant and maybe a little intimidated about the change from all-black schools, what we found we when got to Wakefield were staff and administrators who truly and deeply cared about each one of us.

I was blessed with a scholarship to Syracuse University when I graduated, in large part because of the quality of preparation I received at Wakefield. And to this day I think often and fondly of Mrs. Toivonen, my English teacher in 10th and 12th grades. She taught me how to write, a skill that still serves me well after all these years.

Yes, Wakefield has a staff of exceptional caliber ... just as they did forty years ago. That is apparently the "Wakefield Way"!

Posted by: jcoachman | September 3, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Mr. President: You could have chosen no finer high school in American to honor with your presence. My class, the Class of 1958, was the first to enter in the 8th grade and go straight thorugh to graduation from high school. We did then have the finest teachers and motivators of all time. I am glad to know, the tradition continues. Without David Lynn, my homeroom teacher, a man who took a personal interest in guiding his students,I would never have graduated, much less gone on to college and law school and Robert Kennedy's Justice Department. Without Buddy Stein as a track coach, we never would have learned the physiology of sports, the honor of competition, and the obligation to help those who were disabled to learn from sports activities. We have distinguished alumni, such as Ron Terwilliger, Robert Gammon, and Garland Schweichardt; we have established a scholarship fund; and our wonderful Susan Christopher (O'hare)has kept us all in touch for 50 years. At our reunion last year, we had 200 in attendance. No, Mr. President, you could not have chosen a more worthy school to honor with your presence. Thank you.

Posted by: markin2500 | September 3, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

I was emotional by the time I finisehd reading this. I never went to Wakefield, but my niece graduated there last year (she is now studying at NYU) and my daughter is studying there now. I think it's a great school. The teachers are great, the principal, the counselors, you just can't leave anyone out. My daughter is dealing with dyslexia, and the help she receives is tremendous compared to what she had to endure in her previous school.

It doesn't matter how the school looks structurely speaking, it's the combination of great students, teachers, staff, etc. that make it a great school. I'm glad I decided to have my daughter go to that school.

Posted by: WakefieldMom | September 4, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I also think a school is more than brick & mortar or chrome & glass. Here is an offer to "influence the future of education in our community". (TJ Renovation Town Hall Meeting Visioning the Future of Thomas Jefferson).

Making the resources of a Governor's School more available to all students in Virginia would be my vision for the future. Use the web, Virtual Virginia, online, a mobil van to bring labs & specialists to the students. (The Magic School bus becomes a reality bringing math, science and technology to our kids). Build on free college courses on the Web for the "gifted" (e.g., MIT, webcast.berkeley and more). The future is here. Let's use our money for the teachers and the students.

TJ Renovation Town Hall Meeting
Visioning the Future of Thomas Jefferson

Fielding Nair International Architectural Firm

Meetings - Informational Meeting



Friday, September 11, 2009

4:00pm - 6:00pm

TJHSST Auditorium

6560 Braddock Rd
Alexandria, VA

Prakash Nair, world renowned, award-winning school architect and president of Fielding Nair International (FNI), will lead the session. FNI is the Planning and Design Consultant on the Ballou Justice Upton Architects team responsible for the Renewal and Reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST).

FNI is one of the world's most leading change agents in school design with consultations in 27 countries on 5 continents. They are the recipient of several international awards including the prestigious CEFPI MacConnell Award and the International Planner of the Year Award, the top two honors worldwide for school design.

Prakash will be talking about the dramatic changes that are taking place in education across the globe and the lessons they teach us as we move forward with the conversion of TJHSST into a state-of-the-art campus that celebrates teaching and learning in the Creative Age.

Each attendee will have an opportunity to participate directly in this session and share your thoughts, ideas and vision for the future of TJHSST. So please be there and take part in this historic opportunity to influence the future of education in our community. All are welcome!

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | September 5, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

WAKEFIELD your warriors will ever be true!
Class of '70 -- Go Frogs!

Posted by: Karmicquickdraw | September 7, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for your articulate comments nyokadavis.

It appears that you are a Wakefield grad yourself.

Posted by: laura77 | September 7, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Way to go Wakefield! I think it is great that President Obama will be speaking at Wakefield on September 8, 2009. As another proud alumni from the class of 1960, I congratulate the students and faculty for making my school a special place that our President has selected to visit. Last January I had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with the President in Ft. Myers Florida. It was wonderful! I am sure the students and faculty will be equally as thrilled. Wish I could be there!

Posted by: eaberrio | September 7, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I grew up across the street from Wakefield, and I have always loved the school. My sister entered the school as a ninth-grader when the doors opened in 1953, and graduated in 1957. I was in the class of 1971; my older son was class of 2005; my younger son is now a senior (class of 2010), and will actually have the opportunity to be in the assembly on Tuesday! We are all thrilled to pieces that the President is honoring Wakefield and all that it stands for. What a terrific day!

Posted by: dooleyj | September 7, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Thank You, Mr. President.....
As a resident of Arlington County for over 28 years and my husband graduating from Wakefield in the 1960s I am proud of all... our school, our students, and our administrators. Wakefield High School have held its own. Keep up the great job "Warriors"!!!

Posted by: bouknightj | September 7, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

A lot has changed since I graduated in 1964 with one Black graduate among us. What a thrill to see our President in our gymnasium today. Thanks for this great article and to the young people who sat on those bleachers "keep up the good work."

Posted by: barbara212 | September 8, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I was thrilled to run across this article moments ago...(writing from N.C.)Wakefield Class of 1971. I didn't realize the President and his keen staff had targeted Wakefield High School. Perfect ! Great memories from the late 60's and 70's. A true example of public schooling. If I would have known President Obama was visiting Wakefield I would have flown in for the occasion. Wow, changing times in the best of ways.

Posted by: sallycochran1 | September 8, 2009 10:43 PM | Report abuse

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