Our View | Don’t overlook the good at T.C. Williams

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T.C. Williams High School, the city’s only public high school, kept intact its record of not meeting the federal standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, which went into effect in 2002. Eight years later, T.C. is being lambasted unfairly as a “persistently lowest performing school” for failing to meet those standards while having significantly impoverished student population.

Yes, the school needs to improve beyond a doubt. Its dropout rates are higher than the state average; its graduation rate is lower. 

But there’s a problem with slapping a broad label, conjured up by state and federal standards, on an individual school: It doesn’t take into account the school’s individual character, nuanced problems and solutions already being carried out by school system leaders. In the case of T.C. Williams, a superintendent and his administration have had less than two years on the job to attempt to affect a sea change in the city’s education system.

Because 53 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, a gauge for low-income and impoverished students, T.C. is eligible for Title I funding from the federal government   a measly $1.5 million over three years, as estimated by Superintendent Morton Sherman. 

The label bestowed on T.C. is relative to the other 128 other schools in T.C.’s category, which have similar poverty levels but higher standardized test scores. To base a school’s performance evaluation and subsequent federal funding on the standardized test scores of similarly impoverished districts is irrelevant, and it overshadows the school’s positive elements. Like T.C., those 127 other schools surely have some positive things going on as well. Maybe some have high test scores but low Advanced Placement enrollment. 

Labeling T.C. Williams as an across-the-board “persistently lowest performing school” because of low standardized test scores is like renouncing a winning basketball team because its players can’t make free throws. There are other elements to consider when rating a school’s success.

For instance, 43 percent of T.C. Williams students took Advanced Placement (college level) courses last year, while the statewide average was 16 percent. The Virginia State Board of Education states on their data sheets, “The percentage of students enrolled in advanced programs is a key indicator of school quality at the secondary level.”

Also, while T.C.’s standardized test scores are lower than the state average, they have improved each school year since 2006 in English, math, history and science. In 2006, the percentage of T.C. students passing the English portion was 78. This school year, 88 percent of the school’s students passed the test. That figure went from 74 percent to 79 percent in math, 83 percent to 91 percent in history and science success jumped from 75 percent in 2006 to 82 percent this year.

The well-defined problem in Alexandria is the achievement gap existing between white students and minorities. This is also a flagship issue that Sherman was brought here to fix. And he has made steps in that direction by encouraging proactive community and family involvement in children’s education, signing a pact with an activist organization to increase minorities’ achievement and implementing the International Baccalaureate program.

One of the school administration’s options as deemed by the federal government if it wants the federal funds, is to get rid of a good chunk of the school’s workforce. While it’s not good policy for employees to assume their jobs are safe regardless of their performance levels, an approach of wholesale dismissals is also not in the students’ best interest. 

Truth be told, the federal grant money that T.C. Williams stands to receive is probably a blessing under a guise of useless semantics that erupted in a storm of negativity for the school, which underachieves for sure, but achieves success as well. The school system should seek the money, though it is a marginal amount, and opt for the government’s “transformation” option of adding or changing some of the school’s programming as long as it enhances what the current administration is already achieving.

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