Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Coming of Age at Hippie High

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Coming of Age at Hippie High

Article excerpt

Sixties-style 'free form' high schools may have faded like lava lamps, but alternatives such as Arlington's H-B Woodlawn continue to flourish inside education's mainstream, Mr. Clark reports.

DISCO revival music blaring from his classroom's PA, math teacher Jim Schroeder stands calmly rolling a stick of chalk between his palms. The students in his Advanced Placement calculus class ' mostly high school seniors, though one is a seventh-grader ' settle into their first class this autumn morning dressed in predictable jeans and flannels with shirttails out, one boy sporting a sweatshirt labeled 'bullshirt.'

The students crinkle their noses and mock their peers' corny morning announcements as five or six classmates enter late, spreading their coats and backpacks on chairs or on the floor.

But the students focus their gaze promptly as Schroeder launches a discussion of homework problems in graphing vertical and horizontal asymptotes. 'How do you know whether the second derivative test delivers the maximum, the minimum, or the point of inflection?' Schroeder asks them in his gentle but intense voice.

'If the first derivative is positive, then the curve is rising; if the first derivative is negative, then the curve is falling,' comes the shared answer from several students. As they casually scribble notes and pass around calculators, the students ' volunteers in a course that converts to college credit ' display a slouching, at-home demeanor, one boy in the back providing ironic commentary.

'Jim,' another student asks, 'if you take an expression for which the first derivative is zero and the second derivative is positive, why do you have a minimum point?'

'Real good question,' Schroeder replies before answering directly. 'That's the level of understanding we want, and we don't just want to skim the surface. I want to be able to ask you anything, anytime, anywhere.'

When the students melt into the hall for a seven-minute break, one senior tells Jim he wants to skip the second half of the class to join the majority of students, who use this free period for homework, for an ice cream social, or for playing Ping-Pong. Can he catch up on the material later?

'That's fine,' Schroeder says. 'The decision is up to you.'

Such decisions are built into the social contract among the 547 students who 'do' high school in the atmosphere of faint rules and minimized conflict that is H-B Woodlawn in Arlington, Virginia. (The initials stand for 'Hoffman-Boston,' a former junior high school that was merged with Woodlawn in the late Seventies.)

To the teen set, Woodlawn is the school where you can address teachers by first names, chew gum, wear a hat, nap on a sofa, and eat anytime or anywhere. It's the place with the flexible electives, independent studies, and foreign language opportunities. It's the school that brings in outside teachers with specialties like broadcasting, the school where 10 to 12 student plays are staged each year. It's high school without ringing bells or security monitors on the prowl with walkie-talkies. It's a community governed through a 'town meeting' that offers an equal vote to students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

To the adults, it is a school that breaks the bank in the currency of test scores. Woodlawn students placed at the 85th percentile on the annual achievement test for 1998-99, well above the scores at the neighboring Arlington high schools: Yorktown (78th percentile), Washington-Lee (63rd), and Wakefield (47th). Woodlawn's average combined senior SAT score of 1206 last year is the county's best, and its placement rate in four-year colleges, which last year hit 90%, is often tops.

Such numbers partially explain why applications to Woodlawn ' acceptances come after a countywide lottery ' regularly exceed its openings. So passionate are the families whose children lose the lottery that some have filed lawsuits that have entangled Woodlawn in nationally watched litigation over policies that ' until a court ban ' adjusted the lottery results for affirmative action. …

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