Why Washington area schools are the best
[This is my column for the Local Living section of Dec. 31, 2009]
The end of the year is a time to count blessings. Let’s start with the underappreciated fact that the Washington area is the best place in the country for children to both learn the mysteries of science, math, English and history, and to become comfortable with stark differences in race and culture.
I’ve looked all over the country for schools--particularly high schools--that have a critical mass of committed parents and educators of various backgrounds who are determined to create a lively learning environment for every child. It was hard to find that when I lived in Pasadena, Calif., which was still reeling from massive white flight after a desegregation fight. It wasn’t much better when we moved to Westchester County, N.Y., where schools were very short of minorities and low-income people.
Coming to Washington, it took time to see the difference. As usual, everyone complained about public education. That’s an American pastime. But the more high schools I visited here, the more I realized this was---at least relatively speaking-- the Shangri-la of American education. There were more schools in one place than I had ever seen that fit my profile---well-mixed, well-run, with families committed to strong instruction. They shrugged off neighbors who, betraying unexamined biases, wondered how they could send their kids to THOSE schools.
Other parts of the country share some of this good fortune: the San Gabriel Valley, the San Francisco peninsula, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, Norfolk, much of urban Florida. This is subjective, of course, but I have data that shows the places most likely to have both challenging and diverse schools. Greater D.C. leads the list.
When I returned to local education reporting after two decades as a foreign, national and business reporter, I started covering the Arlington and Alexandria schools. I was amazed. Arlington’s three regular high schools, Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield, and Alexandria’s T.C. Williams were almost exactly what I was looking for. I wandered further and saw there were plenty more like that--to name just a few, Mount Vernon, Stuart, South Lakes and Annandale in Fairfax County; Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Springbrook, Blake and Gaithersburg in Montgomery County; Wilson, Duke Ellington and Bell (its name since changed to Columbia Heights) in the District. The outer ring of counties--Prince William, Loudoun, Anne Arundel and Charles--were all experiencing demographic shifts, but their schools, surprisingly, got better.
So many parents and educators here agree on the worthiness of rigorous instruction for as many kids as possible, and on helping children appreciate their differences. The region has some advantages. Issues of national unity are woven into many parents’ working lives. Salaries are relatively high and stable, which means healthy school budgets (which to outsiders look good even in lean years like this one). Smart school boards recruited wise superintendents, who picked the best principals, who found the most talented teachers, who gave students lessons rich in content and thought.
I remember asking seniors in a government class at T.C. Williams about the differences between them. The teacher, Jack Esformes, had put in the same class Advanced Placement students heading for college and other students praying for the last bell. Weren’t they uncomfortable, all mixed together?
They fiercely defended their pride at being one exciting class, with contributions from everyone. In their eyes, I was just another clueless visitor trying to stereotype them.
I have the data backing up my impressions. But who wants to deal with that on New Year’s Eve? So check the stats yourself and tell me if I’m not right. By fortunate happenstance, with much work and talk, people of every sort have created schools in this region that have turned that overused word diversity into something real, and given a greater portion of our adolescents a better education than I have seen anywhere else.
| December 30, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories: Extra Credit | Tags: Shangri-la of public education, Washington area schools, challenge in schools, school diversity
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