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Why I ignore some great schools

[This is my Local Living section column for April 8, 2010.]

Cedric Sheridan, a Prince George’s County parent, worries about the high school where his son is a senior and his daughter is a junior. He told me “I fear that it started on a downward slide a few years ago.” The school is Eleanor Roosevelt High School, one of the highest-performing public schools in the country. It is a model of good teaching and successful racial integration. Why would anyone have any concerns about it?

Sheridan has visited the school often. He knows his children’s teachers are energetic and engaged. But there are always doubts, even about a school like Eleanor Roosevelt with a third of its students (includng the two young Sheridans) handpicked for academic excellence by its magnet Science and Technology Center.

Wasn’t Eleanor Roosevelt dropping on the Challenge Index, my annual ranked list of local high schools based on participation in college-level exams like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, he asked. No, I said. In the latest list released in January it had its highest rating ever, 2.460 college level tests per graduating senior. On my national list in Newsweek this June it will be in the top 2 percent of all U.S. public schools, measured this way. Half of Eleanor Roosevelt seniors last year had at least one passing score on an AP exam, more than three times the national average. Last year's senior class had the highest number of African-American students in the nation with passing scores on the AP English Language, AP Biology and AP Chemistry exams. This year’s Washington Post Agnes Meyer award for the best teacher in the county will go to Kenneth Bernstein of the Eleanor Roosevelt faculty.

Sheridan liked hearing that, but I could tell he was not entirely satisfied. In a recent column I had mentioned progress by two other Prince George’s County schools. I left Eleanor Roosevelt out. Why had I done that? I had fallen into an old journalist’s trap. In my mind, Eleanor Roosevelt was still a terrific school, but no longer news.

That is not a fair or accurate way to think about a school. Prince George’s parents have yearned for their children to be admitted to the Eleanor Roosevelt magnet since it opened, but that was 34 years ago so it is an old story.

The school is wonderfully integrated, with traditions and attitudes that unite a student body that is 62 percent black, 19 percent white, 11 percent Asian and 8 percent Hispanic, but education journalists rarely write about racial diversity any more. Most of the minority students at Eleanor Roosevelt are, after all, middle class, as are most black people in Prince George’s County. Only 25 percent of the student body is low-income, below the national average of 40 percent.

If Eleanor Roosevelt ever gets into trouble and makes news, as Churchill High School in Montgomery County recently did when student computer hackers changed report card grades, then my colleagues and I will be all over it, wondering how such things could happen in such a great school. Perhaps, before we have a chance to toss dirt on more fine reputations, I should take a moment to recognize other magnet schools in the region that have been good for so long that we have lost interest in them.

On my list, besides Eleanor Roosevelt, would be the champion of science contests, Montgomery Blair in Montgomery County. The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County is the highest performing high school in the country, but I still ignore it. Banneker, the District’s academic magnet high school, and the high-performing School Without Walls are also overlooked. Montgomery County’s International Baccalaureate magnet at Richard Montgomery High School gets little notice. The same goes for Arlington County’s 32-year-old H-B Woodlawn alternative program, even when Hollywood used its name in my favorite climate disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Stay good long enough, like Eleanor Roosevelt High, and many people will wonder what happened to you. Being great may have to be enough, for the Sheridan family and everybody else.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | April 7, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Cedric Sheridan, Challenge Index, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Prince George's County, ignoring great schools, journalists ignore old school stories  
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Comments

I'm sorry. Sheridan needs to worry about taking care of his kids at home rather than worrying about the slippage of a good high school. Plenty of folks I know went to "OK high schools" but ended up at Ivy League schools not because of the quality of our high school but because of the quality of our parents.

Posted by: bhuang2 | April 8, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

IF a school is a good school it's because it DOESN'T have IB in it. IB is a huge scam... and is ruining kids.

Quote from IBer: "I was taught that communism was bad until I took history in the international baccalaureate program at Richmond High," she said.

Posted by: username | April 8, 2010 5:58 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, Jay chooses to focus on his own vapid Best High schools list instead of the reason this parent "fears a downward slide". As a frequent visitor to the school, what did he witness that caused him trepidation?

I am also disturbed by what Jay calls a "wonderfully integrated" school. Whites are clearly a minority - what were the percentages 10 years ago? Was this school 99% black? Or was it 80% white? Was there white flight from this area? Or are whites being bused in? I am so sick and tired of Progressives being more worried about "social justice" than quality education.

Posted by: lisamc31 | April 8, 2010 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Funny you should ask, lisamc31. I graduated from Roosevelt back in 1997 and the figures sound roughly the same. My home was about a twelve-minute drive away on the western edge of Bowie; I was bussed in, as were the majority of the kids who attended.

Posted by: random-adam | April 8, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Great column. Without independent education audits, this is where Amerians are about their schools: insecure in a culture which demands reassurance of being special and outstanding.

It would be great if Jay could use contacts in OECD countries to find out if they, like us and Brits (who are also enamored of "league tables", ranking lists), are also insecure about their schools and demand published rankings.

Without those education audits and reports, we are reduced to: Jay's Challenge Index, and years of argument about how much or little a single index means.

Posted by: incredulous | April 8, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

incredulous, can you tell me more or link to information about these independent education audits?

I was told over and over how wonderful our local elementary school was but it was a s**thole that produced generations of juvenile delinquents. Every person who told me it was a wonderful school either lied or had no idea. When I show my evidence folder to parents their mouths drop open. No neighbor besides me collected information from MPD about drug arrests of unescorted adult men on that elementary school campus. Therefore who was really telling the real story about what the kids were learning or exposed to? No one was.

Independent school audits and independent teacher audits are required. I'm tired of excuses. Parents need to know the facts. No one likes being forced by incompetent teachers to uproot their children from a school and transfer them, but 14 parents in my son's class did that.

Posted by: bbcrock | April 8, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

bbcrock:
Please spend an hour, not 2 minutes, with www.ofsted.gov.uk. Pick a school, read a report. Then link directly to previous reports and responses from the school. Do it again for more schools.
New reports posted daily, based on audits conducted no more than 3 weeks earlier. Reports go back 5 years or more. Evey school in England audited, comprehensively, every 3 years. The numbers game is separate, referred to, but not part of the audit. The audit is of the school, not of the teachers.

To see what this might look like in DC, start reading the latest annual report from the DC Charter School Board.
http://www.dcpubliccharter.com/PCSB-Publications/School-Performance-Reports.aspx
Summaries from audits are part of the description of every school. Look up, for example Paul Public Charter School. [Shout out to Barbara Nophlin and the terrific staff she's led.]
But, you'll have to read text, not just tables. If you can't give up substantively trivial and statistically nonsenssical +-2% changes as meritorious or disasterous, then there's nothing in it for you. (Too many commenters here foul themsleves and readers matching M. Rhee's game of selecting such differences.)

Posted by: incredulous | April 8, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

We think that it’s awesome that they scored so high on the AP exams. We attended Western high school in Baltimore MD, and I when I was there it was supposed to be one of the top schools but I felt that I didn’t leave with an anything. We ignore some great schools because fincaial situations, because some of these schools, there is too much competition in a sense of material things instead of education. Most of the lower level schools focus more on education. The alumni of these great school s sometimes loses focus in what’s important which is the education if these students. Their main goal is to see how much money they can contribute so that they can keep up with their status. They try to outdo each other instead of focusing on the main issue of education. It’s very sad how the school systems have gone down no matter how great they appear to be.

Posted by: ladiesccbc | April 8, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

username wrote:

"IF a school is a good school it's because it DOESN'T have IB in it. IB is a huge scam... and is ruining kids.

Quote from IBer: 'I was taught that communism was bad until I took history in the international baccalaureate program at Richmond High,' she said."

-----------------

Why would you use that quote to support your statement that the IB program is ruining kids? You've basically destroyed your argument and contradicted yourself.

"Bad" is a vague, relative and subjective word. Communism, like any other system, has positive and negative attributes, and the fact that students are taught this speaks highly of the program - one that substantially bases its curricula on fact and enlightened thought, not pure emotion. Only seeing communism in a negative light shows your ignorance and lack of education.

Posted by: mytwocents | April 8, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Please... Roosevelt handpicks the best students away from the northern PG county schools, then boasts about how great their school is. For 35 years, PG County has been boosting Roosevelt at the expense of other schools in the county.

Posted by: someguy100 | April 8, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I enjoyed this article. I'm going to remember this list for when my son reached that age.

Posted by: forgetthis | April 8, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Of course the Science and Tech program hand-picks it's students. You have to gave good grades and score high on their test to get in. But that's not the only thing that makes it top-notch. The classes are challenging, the teachers are excellent, and the students are engaged. In addition, students are encouraged to do extra-curricular activities and are welcomed into all activities, even if they're not good at it.

Posted by: accountant1 | April 8, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

So what are you saying Jay, that there are no great middle schools, only great high schools? The success of a high school depends at least in part to the success of the middle schools feeding into it.

What about the Middle School Magnet Consortium in Montgomery County - Parkland, Loiederman, and Argyle? At Argyle, a very diverse school, every student gets to take digital design and development classes. That means these kids are advanced in computer skills when they get to high school.

Jack

Posted by: JackS2 | April 8, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I am a current student at Eleanor Roosevelt. I personally know both of the Sheridans and can assure you that their father is "taking care of his kids at home" and that they are excellent students. The issue from a student's and a parent's perspective is that the accomplishments of students at this school, as routine as they may seem, still deserve recognition. The students now, although included in the Roosevelt legacy, should not be ignored merely because our predecessors accomplished great things themselves. We are not saying that we need to receive honors and be written about every time we do something noteworthy, we would just appreciate the occasional mention.
As far as the age old argument that Roosevelt only takes the best students, this is not true at all. While we do have science and technology program, QUEST and other programs for our school these programs do not make up the entire school. Many students who live in the greenbelt area attend school here and receive an excellent education as well. Many of these students are in honors and AP classes!
Other schools employ such programs and face far less heat for it. Oxon Hill and Flowers also have their own science and technology program. Bowie has the SUMMIT program. Plenty of excellent students attend private high schools or go through the honors programs at other public high schools. With so many other programs how is it possible that Eleanor Roosevelt "handpicks the best students?" I know several intelligent and gifted peers who do not attend my school and are easily as smart as some of the students who do. From the outside in many people assume that we are all this pretentious group who look down on everyone, but that is not true. We feel that we have more to prove than anyone because people assume we should be smart and that Roosevelt harvests all of the "brains", but honestly most of us feel and act like any other high school student. We hard to accomplish goals and would merely like to be recognized for them.

Posted by: xdthompson | April 8, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Matthews is right about not constantly giving one school all the praise and glory.Every school that does a great job should be in the spot light at least once a year.There should be a special section in the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun that list the top best twenty schools in the Washington DC and Maryland area. He should talk about all the schools that are doing a great job. My classmates and I are in college and we here about the high school horrors more than we would like to. So hearing good news is great. Each school should be recognized for it's achivements. But the real issue is how can we make other schools function the same way or better.I'm glad that Mr.Sheridan takes pride in his children school as do other parents. Education is the key to success.Test scores aren't the only thing that makes a good school, it also includes parent participation, enthusiastic Principals, Teachers and Students.

Posted by: micheleswarn | April 9, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
There could be numerous reasons why someone could be concerned whether or not this school could be going on a downfall. Like you said it might be a terrific school, but it’s the fact that it has a wonderful history for very intelligent kids coming out of it that you don’t need to hear about it anymore. Even though that might be true parents might think since they don’t hear anything about their progress that it is not the institution that it once was. Even though each senior graduated with at least one AP is still unbelievable for a public school. The one thing I don’t understand about this article is that they make the African-American community lesser then the other races. That they seemed so shocked that they graduated with an AP class. Being a college student it shocked me to read that. When you look in our society today, one of the best doctors is African-American (Ben Carson). Even though you might seemed shocked; did the other races have AP classes as well. Even though the African-American community is the majority with-out the other races doing so well their ranking wouldn’t be so high year after year.

Posted by: bslaxin3 | April 9, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
There could be numerous reasons why someone could be concerned whether or not this school could be going on a downfall. Like you said it might be a terrific school, but it’s the fact that it has a wonderful history for very intelligent kids coming out of it that you don’t need to hear about it anymore. Even though that might be true parents might think since they don’t hear anything about their progress that it is not the institution that it once was. Even though each senior graduated with at least one AP is still unbelievable for a public school. The one thing I don’t understand about this article is that they make the African-American community lesser then the other races. That they seemed so shocked that they graduated with an AP class. Being a college student it shocked me to read that. When you look in our society today, one of the best doctors is African-American (Ben Carson). Even though you might seemed shocked; did the other races have AP classes as well. Even though the African-American community is the majority with-out the other races doing so well their ranking wouldn’t be so high year after year.

Posted by: bslaxin3 | April 9, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

For bslaxin3---ER has maintained steadily Challenge Index high ratings for many years. What I most like about it is that the faculty works hard to involve in their most challenging courses, like AP, not only the third of students who are in the magnet program, but everybody else.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 9, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

This is a response to the (lisamc31) blogg. I think that you are making this a race issue and it shouldn't be. Race should not play a part in how well the school is doing.Is Mr. Sheridan worried because the school is sixty two percent black is he saying that's the reason the school is on a downward spiral. What's the deal. Students are students regardless of their color. Let's take another look at how well those students who attend this school are doing and does Mr. Sheridans children like the school. Are his children doing well. Maybe Mr.Sheridan walked in on a bad day, all schools have them. No one school is perfect. Kids are kids regardles of anything else. Eventhough they have high AP scores. Everyone deserves to have a fair chance to get a great education.I think all parents would agree with me. I do know that every school has a grade requirement status. If you don't have certain grades you won't be selected. So I do beleive that E. Roosevelt hand pick their students. I think all parents would agree with me.

Posted by: micheleswarn | April 10, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

i graduated from ERHS in 2007. yeah, it might be "old news" that the school does well, but that's also because of the community that is around the school. i live in the greenbelt area (so ERHS was my boundary school) and was involved in the great music department that this school has. overall, prince george's county public schools are raising standards so that all the high schools in this county can be at the overall level ERHS has constantly kept with. i also have family working through PGCPS, and i plan to teach in this county as a music educator. i know some of the challenges of ERHS are a little different than other high schools in this county, but i am proud to be a graduate of this school and continuing in college with some great foundations learned from ERHS.

the other thing that i think is hurting PGCPS is the constant change in leadership. it has hurt this county overall to see so many changes with the board of education in the last 5-10 years and progress is very slow to happen in many of the schools around the county. i am happy that ERHS has been able to stay above that line for so many years, and i also am glad to see many of the high schools in this county coming up to that line, too.

Posted by: purgoldduke | April 10, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: itkonlyyoupp | April 12, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Sports, mainly by the advanced sports equipment.
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Posted by: itkonlyyoupp | April 12, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

lisamc31 says she is tired of Progressives being more worried about "social justice" than quality education. I wonder if anyone is tired of her. Jay is she stalking you?

Posted by: eaglechik | April 12, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

The reason parents worry is because so many journalists eliminate magnet programs from their list of the best schools. That's like eliminating the Ivy League from a list of the best colleges.

Without including magnet schools, h.s. rankings just turn into a list of which towns have the highest per capita income.

Posted by: hunterpr | April 12, 2010 9:54 PM | Report abuse

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