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The principal who created a wellspring of innovation

When Doris Jackson, a former guidance counselor known for her warmth, replaced tough-minded Marie Djouadi as principal of Wakefield High School in 2002, some people assumed that school problems would henceforth always be handled with a soft voice and a warm embrace. They were wrong.

Chris Willmore, the assistant principal who is about to succeed her, recalls Jackson seeing a student throwing rocks at a window when he should have been in class. “You better be waiting for me in my office when I get there,” she said. He was, still full of attitude. When his parents arrived, Jackson had had enough. She got close to the boy and said: “There is only ONE principal at Wakefield and that is me and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.” She told his parents to start looking for a new school. Instead, he stayed, became a student leader and, last time anyone checked, was in college studying to be a teacher.

Jackson, one of the nation’s most imaginative and resourceful principals, has that effect on people. Staffers at Wakefield with fresh ideas — not always welcome in U.S. public schools — soon found themselves running the programs they had designed, turning the school into a wellspring of innovation. This was a startling contrast to what people expected from such a school. Half of the students are low-income. The ethnic mix is 47 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black, 15 percent white and 11 percent Asian. Its building is a wreck, with an infestation of rodents and burst pipes that flood classrooms, renovation not scheduled to being until July 2011.

Despite the school’s disadvantages, Jackson has produced one of the highest levels of Advanced Placement test participation in the country — top 2 percent. Thirty-seven percent of Wakefield seniors have passing scores on those tests, more than twice the national average. Wakefield has reached its federal achievement targets, unusual for a school with so many impoverished students, but also made itself a national model for imaginative instruction, outdoing even the most affluent public schools.

Until recently it was the only non-magnet public school in the Washington area to require each senior to do a special project — a paper, an internship, a performance, something personal and deep. As far as I can tell, nobody has yet duplicated its cohort groups — special clubs for minority students who meet each week to talk about how to deal with the annoyingly demanding teachers Jackson’s staff assigned them. Jackson requires much of ninth-graders and has a special summer program to prepare students for AP. In 2005, Wakefield won one of only three national Inspiration awards from the College Board for its work preparing students for college. That’s why President Obama chose the school for a nationally televised speech last year.

It was hard for me to see at first how Jackson could match her friend and mentor Djouadi, who pulled Wakefield out of a deep slump, but she did that and more. PTA President Rosie O’Neil recalled a scene from last winter: Mice from some deteriorating corner of the Wakefield building scampering between classrooms, science students screaming, testing disrupted, staff running with brooms, and the principal at the scene calm and smiling, issuing instructions, a cool general in the midst of battle.

She is one reason why fundraising has soared. The school scholarship foundation has more than $1 million, including a new scholarship named for her. It is hard to tell what such an idea magnet will do with her retirement, but it is likely to be something no one else has done before.

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By Jay Mathews  | June 13, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Doris Jackson, Wakefield High School, one of the nation's most creative principals, rare requirement for senior projects, top 2 percent in AP participation  
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Wow Jay, no mention of KIPP or Rhee.

Posted by: isupreme | June 14, 2010 7:14 AM | Report abuse

The power of the Internet.

It is because of the Internet that we know that about half the students in Wakefield are Hispanic. We also know that the AP test that they are taking, which has falsely massaged these stats, is the Spanish Advanced Placement test.

Take away that fabrication of academic performance, and the true percentage of AP tests passed plummets.

Liberals believe what they choose to believe. They write their own history. They make their own laws of physics. But ultimately what they produce are kids who cannot read and write, and no amount of spin alters that reality.

Posted by: john_bruckner | June 14, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Just because the students are Hispanic, it doesn't mean they know Spanish. Their first language may be English.

Unless Hispanic students are newly arrived immigrants that have studied in their own countries, they would have had no formal schooling in Spanish.

Most "fluent" native Spanish speakers that have attended American schools are literate in English, not Spanish. They do not have an academic vocabulary unless they read a lot in Spanish. And most people don't as the push is for English.

The Spanish AP tests test Spanish Language and Literature(grammar and literature). Think of an English speaking kid taking the English Literature test.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 14, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

But, john-bruckner, I see your point. If the school has a good Spanish program that is good, but what about other subject areas?

Posted by: celestun100 | June 14, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate john_bruckner pointing out that Wakefield, like many of the most conscientious schools in this region, now posts its detailed AP results on the net. I only wished he had gone and looked at them himself and done the math to see if "the percentage of AP tests passed plummets," as he alleges in his post. Here are the facts about Wakefield AP in 2009, the most recent figures I used in my calculations in the piece. Counting all AP tests, including Spanish Language and Spanish Literature, 60.5 percent of tests were scored 3 and above (343 out of a total of 567 tests) When I subtracted the Spanish AP Lang and Lit numbers (86 out of 109 test graded 3 and above), I found the percentage of AP tests graded 3 and above for the school dropped to 56.1 percent (257 out of 458 tests). If you think a drop from 60.5 to 56.1 percent is a plummet, you are entitled to your opinion, but I don't think most readers would endorse your view. Wakefield is an unusual school for many reasons, one being the depth of the AP program in many subjects.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 14, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I also endorse celeston100's good comment about the difficult of Spanish AP for many Spanish speakers. Also, it seems wrong for me that we celebrate white kids in affluent neighborhoods, like my daughter, who work hard in Spanish AP and become usefully bilingual, but not be equally impressed by Hispanic kids in low-income neighborhoods who work hard in AP English,and AP Spanish, and also become usefully bilingual. It is the results that count, not the family background of the student. Learning two languages well enough to be able to use them in your work, in writing and speaking, is not easy, not matter who is trying to reach that level.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 14, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Bravo, Jay. I hope you will keep in mind the numbers from Wakefield as a reference, if not benchmark, for authentic AP achievement. Those are strong test-performance figures.

Now a tougher question: We've taken your reporting as authentic on the quality of leadership at Wakefield, past and present. What is it then, about a progressive Arlington Co, VA School System that leaves the physical plant of Wakefield a shamples? Or, is it just one more responsibility of the school principal, among too many others, to effective lobby the Board and technical leaders on the capital plant side for attention to the physical condition of the school?

I recently drove through Boston,Wayne County Indiana, (pop 177),and shot photos of an arresting sight on the main road: a boarded and shuttered public school campus with side- by-side elementary and high school buildings totalling perhaps 20 classrooms. OK, so the school-aged population had grown and gone. But, what was the date on the cornerstone of the HS? 1932. The Great Depression was on, and there was investment in public education infrastructure. Why the deplorable condition of Wakefield HS, Arlington, VA, during 15 years of economic prosperity?

Posted by: incredulous | June 14, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

@john bruckner
First off how is stating that liberals are "rewriting history" even relevant to this story? Including Spanish AP tests is not "massaging" the statistics, but instead including all available data to make them as accurate as possible. Do we judge the number of AP exams taken at Thomas Jefferson High School and exclude the math and science tests because the school has a majority of students interested in math and science? No, so why should we make an exception for Wakefield because much of their school is bilingual?

Secondly, you appear to think that students who are already fluent in Spanish and are taking the AP exam are cheating. These students whose first language is Spanish speak english much better than English speakers speak Spanish. However, spanish speakers are forced to take standard English classes but English speakers take much simpler Spanish classes so how is that cheating?

I also agree with celestun. I am entering my 4th year of high school spanish and have noticed that frequently the students who are fluent in Spanish have the most difficulty in class because they are used to using slang or different vocabulary than what we are assigned. Additionally, I'm not sure about Wakefield but I know that some schools also offer both a Spanish and a Spanish Fluent Speakers class which could also make a difference.

Posted by: chrisroman | June 14, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

to incredulous, a great question, which we should explore. But if you look at the beginning of my book Class Struggle, about the BEST public high schools in the country, the ones in good suburbs with high schools and wealthy parents, I noticed that a lot of them have very shabby buildings. It could be that even wealthy voters dont want to tax themselves for that stuff. that is certainly the situation in Calif. As long as their kids gets into Stanford, maybe they dont care if the aircon breaks down twice a week. Thats just a theory.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 14, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

I say congratulations to an activist principal for trying to make her high school great. A $1 million scholarship fund? Holy Toledo! And stop picking on the Latin kids for speaking their language and showing excellence. If you are truly a conservative, then you should applaud achievement, not belittle it.

Posted by: hotrod3 | June 15, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

Arlington County has approved a new school to be built to replace the aging Wakefield, and yes it is about time. However, I've been in the school many times and never saw any rodents or flooding. BTW, the other reason for the AP Spanish exams is that Wakefield offers a continuation of the county's very popular Spanish immersion program that is at two elementary schools and one middle school. The students taking these college-level courses at Wakefield are the same ones who have been immersed in Spanish for years; and it attracts a diverse group of students. I think these students are very lucky for the opportunities at Wakefield; imagine being bilingual when you graduate from high school. It's cool and it helped some of them get into some very good colleges.

Posted by: kpt56 | June 16, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Bell HS in DC forces AP courses on students, and achieves a national Challenge Index ranking of 37. Wakefield HS in Arlington gets celebrated by the blogger for much more, but its students take half the number of AP courses and tests, and it ranks just 375 nationally, getting credit only among these comments for the high success rate of its AP course enrollees.
The eminence gris of US education journalists doesn't have to endorse one approach to the appearance of high educational expectations over another. But, his own reporting now and over the years, and the quals of the new principal -- should help anyone who cares about authenticity to prefer the approach of the school whose leadership does not much mimic a mortgage lender telling all clients they are qualified now to be home owners, behavior that generates lots of volume.

Posted by: incredulous | June 16, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

For incredulous: I hope you will use your obvious energy and smarts to look a little deeper into those two schools, Columbia Heights and Wakefield, and their principals, Maria Tukeva and Doris Jackson. Both are proteges of one of the great principals of all time, Mike Durso, now on the Montgomery County school board, and both have that sense of what works best with disadvantaged students, and how to stick with it, that is so rare. You have read my inside Bell Multicultural High (now Columbia Heights) pieces and still don't believe my descriptions of what a great place that is to learn, and how the AP for all rules work so well. Okay, so go look for yourself. Tell Maria I insisted you do so. You will surprise yourself.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 17, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and before I forget, a school that is ranked 375 on that list should not be said to be "just" 375. Being number 375 on that list means you are well within the top 2 percent of all public schools in the country measured that way. Choosing between number 37 and number 375 is like choosing between a Mercedes or a BMW. And its for free!

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 17, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

My further thanks to the many fine commenters here for inspiring my column that will be in the paper on Monday.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 17, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

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