Public schools, private choices

Al Gore could have sent his son to Wilson High, a public school, but chose nearby Sidwell Friends, which is private. Here's a look at both.

Published May 22, 2000 12:07PM (EDT)

It is one of the tragedies of urban public education that the sight of hundreds of students lining up outside Woodrow Wilson High School, waiting to go through a metal detector, barely attracted notice in this violence-scarred city.

In February, Wilson officials decided they had to inspect all 1,550 students for weapons, after two of the school's most promising students were gunned down outside their homes, just hours after a fight at a school basketball game. Their alleged killers -- who were not Wilson students -- tracked the victims down to their depressed Washington neighborhood several miles from the school, and shot them as they unloaded groceries from their car.

The killings made the task of Steve Tarason, Wilson's lean, gray-haired, hard-working principal, even more daunting: to transform the school's image, and to convince affluent parents that Wilson is a better and safer school than many think it is. "The biggest challenge is maintaining the trust of parents, the faith of parents, and to encourage those who are trusting and those who have had a positive experience to go to other parts of the city, and say, "Hey, it can work." He was talking in his small office, keeping on eye on a surveillance monitor perched on a shelf in front of him.

Wilson High was once the crown jewel of a school system that has fallen on hard times. Situated in a largely white neighborhood dotted with embassies and expensive homes, it is just two miles from the vice presidential mansion where Al Gore currently resides. If Gore had decided to send his teenage son, Al Gore II, to a public school, he would almost certainly have enrolled at Wilson High. Yet Gore Jr. is a student at Sidwell Friends School, halfway between the vice president's home and Wilson. It's also the school President Clinton chose for Chelsea.

On the campaign trail, Gore has been confronted with uncomfortable questions about why someone who has been a champion of public education -- and an opponent of private school vouchers -- has, as a parent, shunned the D.C. public schools. At a CNN debate at the Apollo Theater in Harlem earlier this year, he was asked, "Is there not a public or charter school in D.C. good enough for your child?" Gore deflected the question, responding that his children should be left out of the matter.

By contrast, Gov. George W. Bush promotes the fact that his twin daughters attend Austin High School, a public school in Texas. But like most issues in the presidential campaign, the truth is far more complex than the comparison between the two candidates suggests. For one thing, Austin High is a world-class high school that closely resembles many private schools. For another, any vice president -- or president -- has to make his children's security his first concern, and that's presumably more easily provided at a small private school than at a crowded public high school campus.

There are other attractions to Sidwell. It was founded by Quakers over a century ago, and tries to imbue its students with a sense of social justice. It has an enrollment of just over 100 students in all 12 grades, who are housed in a lower, middle and upper school. It has worked hard to recruit minority students, who now make up 36 percent of the student body.

But it is a sign of the deep level of distrust with which the public schools are regarded that few in Washington question Gore's decision to send his children to private schools. Parents do send their children to a handful of elementary schools in the affluent, and largely white, neighborhoods in Northwest Washington. But when kids reach high school age, parents either flee to the suburbs -- or find a place in the private schools mostly concentrated along the tree-lined streets near Wilson.

Now Gore and Bush are trying to trump each other with a myriad of proposals for improving public schools. Gore, for example, is proposing using federal monies to hire more teachers to reduce class size, and to pay teachers a bonus of $10,000 to work in inner city schools. He supports a multibillion dollar school construction program that could help schools like Wilson fix dilapidated buildings. Failing schools that don't succeed should be held strictly accountable, Gore says, and if necessary their entire staffs should be replaced.

Bush also wants to hold failing schools accountable, by shutting them down if necessary, and giving parents vouchers to pay tuition at private or parochial schools.

Will these reforms be sufficient to transform schools like Wilson into one where future presidents might be willing to enroll their children? If the past is the best predictor of the future, probably not any time soon.

To Steve Tarason, the campaign jockeying over education has little impact on his daily travails. Wilson, he readily admits, has many of the characteristics of a troubled public school. Its once-grand building, a three-story, 60-year-old red brick structure with a wooden watchtower and wind vane atop it, is desperately in need of repair. The elevators don't work, its plumbing is corroded, the roof leaks.

On math and reading tests administered by the district, 40 percent of students score at the "below basic" level, and another 32 percent score at basic level. Only 7 percent score at the advanced level.

At the same time, Wilson has many positive attributes that belie its reputation as a failing public school. That is why Tarason shrugged off the skepticism and outright discouragement of friends and colleagues when he decided to come back to Washington a year and a half ago to work in a school system that even its superintendent Arlene Ackerman described as dysfunctional -- so dysfunctional that she quit last week after only two years on the job to become the school's chief in San Francisco.

With the election of Mayor Anthony Williams two years ago, Tarason, 55, who grew up in Washington, felt for the first time that real change might be possible. "As I walked through the school, and felt the vibrations here, I knew it was going to be hard work, but I wasn't going to be fighting those awful perceptions about inner-city schools . You'd expect to see the gangs and the violence, and all kinds of outrageous things going on, but that is not what exists here at Wilson."

The reality is that even though many affluent parents wouldn't think about coming here, thousands of parents fight to enroll their children here. Only 48 percent of Wilson's students come from within the school's attendance boundaries; the rest choose to come here instead of attending their neighborhood school.

The reason they come is that Wilson is still the best public school in the district, with many top-notch academic programs. The school has three programs called "academies" -- one focusing on science, math and technology, another on international relations and a third on business and finance. It offers a range of Advanced Placement courses, when some urban schools offer few or none. This year eight students were National Merit Scholar semifinalists, and two students got perfect SAT scores. Eighty-five percent of its graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges, including top Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard, and historically black universities like Spellman College in Atlanta.

Outside the classroom, students can choose from an array of athletic programs, including golf, lacrosse, crew and tennis, sports not usually found in urban schools. They can also choose from 40 extracurricular activities, from traditional organizations like the math and chess clubs, to culturally innovative ones like Latinos in Action and the African American Male Club.

A morning at the school earlier this year revealed quiet hallways, with students seemingly hard at work in the high ceilinged classrooms, whose large windows open out onto the playing fields below. In Ray Schuhart's racially mixed Advanced Placement English class, students were busy reading Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," the classic saga of the Tyrone family's battles with drugs, alcoholism and mental illness.

The tall, thin, casually dressed veteran of the Bronx public schools had divided the students into small groups, and he challenged them to talk about crises -- physical or spiritual -- that they may have faced. Schuhart walked from table to table, participating in the lively back and forth that filled the classroom. Down the hall, Kelly Hartoin led a peer-mediation class, designed to help students learn techniques to avoid conflict.

In a role-playing exercise, two girls pretended that they were running for the same class office, and had gotten into fight. Later, two boys acted out a dispute they had gotten into over a girl. In both instances, other students acted as mediators. "That's wonderful, you deserve the Academy Award," the immaculately dressed, blond Hartoin gushed.

Tarason believes one major reason students fall through the cracks in large urban schools is because no one pays enough attention to them. So he and his staff encourage students to sign up for at least one activity, and to form a relationship with at least one adult in the building -- whether it is an administrator, counselor or a janitor. He also spent a $1.5 million budget increase on additional teachers in order to reduce the student-teacher ratio from 27-to-1 to 23-to-1.

Wilson offers something that Tarason believes can't be found at most private schools or suburban public schools: a diverse student body. In Washington, 85 percent of the student body is black, and only 4 percent white. But at Wilson High blacks make up only 57 percent of the student body. Another 18 percent are white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Asian. Instead of shunning Wilson, he said, white parents should be "honored" to enroll their children there.

"When you talk to the CEOs of major companies, and ask them what the one quality they would like to see in a worker of the future, the response I usually get is the ability to work with a diverse population. They say, 'We want them to be able to work with people from all nations, from all racial backgrounds, with people who have physical and mental challenges, with people who speak different languages.' This is an education you can't get everywhere, and it's here naturally at Wilson. You can't pay for it."

So it seems that many of the elements of a successful school are in place at Wilson -- strong academic programs, relatively small class size, a diverse student body, attractive sports and extracurricular offerings, and a dedicated and thoughtful leadership. Then why have Al Gore and Bill Clinton -- and so many other affluent parents of every race -- sent their children to Sidwell Friends just down the road? And can public schools learn from what Sidwell does better?

Some of the answers come from Bruce Stewart, Sidwell's director. His office has the feel of an Ivy League professor's den, decorated with African art objects, as well as artifacts that make some reference to his name, like empty Stewart root beer bottles. The tall, white-haired, patrician-looking educator is a former university provost who, like Tarason, has devoted his life to K-12 education with missionary zeal. He abandoned his career in higher education when he became aware of a little noticed truism: the startling large gap between the world-class higher education system in the United States, and our less than stellar elementary and secondary system.

Stewart says that Sidwell's success derives in part from its small size. "We know who goes to school here, we know each student personally and each family personally," he says. Another is that teachers are free of many of the constraints that limit public school teachers. At Sidwell, he says, "teachers have a lot of autonomy in the way they teach their class, and choose their texts and develop their curriculum. As a result, it is able to attract "a bright, creative interested person who wants to teach in that environment." Another reason for its success is its astonishingly low 9-to-1 student-faculty ratio.

A major difference between the two schools is that Sidwell doesn't have to deal with a revolving door of school superintendents who must cope with the vagaries of school board politics and larger political pressures endemic to any urban setting -- all of which are particularly acute in Washington.

"We have the luxury of having continuity of mission, not only over the lifetime of a school committee but over generations," Stewart says.

With an endowment of $20 million, and an annual student tuition of $16,000, Sidwell can do things that Wilson can only dream about -- like planning for the future. And not just for next year, but decades ahead. "I'm trying to look out 20, 30, 40 years ahead, and figure out what we need to be teaching 4-year-olds now, for them to function effectively when they've finished college and graduate school and entered the profession," notes Stewart, who has assembled a panel of distinguished alumni to help him divine the future.

Stewart also concedes that Sidwell has the luxury of not having to deal with the daunting range of student abilities and urban pathologies that schools like Wilson cannot avoid. "When you look at the public school system and the range of students is from one extreme to the other, from the most gifted to the most needy, you have to provide many more services. And you have to do it with a much higher faculty-student ratio, and a much lower per pupil expenditure, with all the political pressure from school boards, whose agendas are changing very rapidly depending on who is elected in the most recent campaign."

But rather than being an advocate of the kind of elite schooling offered at Sidwell, Stewart is a passionate believer in the public schools. He disdains the idea of vouchers, which could conceivably benefit private schools like his -- though most voucher proposals offer parents a much smaller stipend that Sidwell's tuition.

"In the last analysis, it's the quality of public education in America that counts the most, because that's where most of our children are," Stewart says.

What elevates Sidwell to the top rank of American schools shouldn't be so hard to achieve: smaller classes, attracting creative teachers and freeing them from some of the stifling constraints of public school instruction. But it will require, Stewart believes, the equivalent of a space race to transform public education.

Wilson's Tarason looks forward to the day when all parents see his school as a real option -- including our nation's leaders who have school-age children. "I think it would be a smart choice," he says. "I don't know why they don't do it now. It's a great school and they can get a sound education."

Indeed, research shows that the most important determinant of school achievement is family income. In a school with motivated teachers, sound leadership, good sporting facilities and a solid course curriculum, motivated students can do well, regardless of the overall test scores of the school itself. The irony is that affluent kids, whose family circumstances could probably compensate for inadequacies in public school funding and administration, go to the best schools -- public and private -- while low-income kids who need the most help have to make do with the least.

Clearly the gap between promising urban public schools and excellent private schools remains large. But the fact that education has become a top issue in a presidential campaign is a promising sign that things may change -- regardless of where the candidates send their own children.

By Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg is a reporter for the Frontline program "The Battle Over School Choice," co-produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting, which airs on PBS May 23.

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