Sent to us by Diane Benjamin
T.C. Williams High School may be best known outside the Washington, D.C. area as the setting for the Denzel Washington movie Remember the Titans (ironically filmed here at the former Shamrock Middle School), but it is winning more than football games these days. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education named T.C. Williams a “persistently lowest achieving school” because it was in the bottom 5% of standardized test performance among Virginia schools with similar demographics. Since then, T.C. Williams has transformed itself by focusing on building relationships between counselors and at-risk students, resulting in substantial increases in graduation rates:
“Officials used corresponding federal dollars to create a more personal environment in one of Virginia’s largest schools. Extra counselors were hired, bringing caseloads down to a 1:170 ratio, compared with about 1:400 nationally. And the administration was restructured so that each grade level has a dean, four counselors, a social worker and an administrative assistant who stay with the class for all four years. A specialized academy was created for students learning English.
Graduation rates improved, especially for minorities. For African Americans, the on-time graduation rate grew from 79 percent to 88 percent between 2010 and 2013, and for Hispanics it grew from 69 percent to 80 percent, according to state calculations.”
T.C. Williams, which has 3200 students across two campuses, is the only public high school in the city of Alexandria. About half of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The high-touch mentoring approach the school adopted provides the kind of advocacy for high-risk children that middle class families routinely provide. On the other hand, some people might worry that too much help to graduate might sap students’ ability to function after high school.
“If a lot is done for them, they won’t know how to do things for themselves when they no longer have those resources,” said Shaun Harper, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on success and minority men. He cited the example of student athletes, some of whom struggle to open a checking account or get a job after college.
[Principal] Maxey echoed that concern. “Do we do too much? Absolutely we do too much. But what’s the alternative? Let them fail? That’s not going to help anyone.”
Advocates described a shift in thinking in American high schools from one of personal to shared responsibility, a trend fueled by federal accountability measures.
It used to be, “if kids can’t manage their credits and can’t get themselves to school, that’s not our role, that’s their role,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Now, more people are talking about the high social costs of dropping out, he said.
Surely the personal intervention that T.C. Williams provides makes more sense than one more partially-deployed central office program, or administrators walking through classrooms playing “teacher gotcha” because a classroom discussion doesn’t match the lesson plan binder. In truth, high school graduation has never solely been about a student’s personal responsibility. Fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year olds have always needed someone to provide a backstop of structure, a shoulder to cry on, and also a swift kick in the rear end, depending on the situation. T.C. Williams is doing what it takes to make sure that adolescents are not penalized for life because there is not an adult to provide that kind of safety net. No community can afford to walk away from these kids.
Could DeKalb do this if it wanted to? Absolutely.
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By Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post, 13 June 2014
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