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Diverse High School Battles Low Test Scores, High Drop-out Rate

The dropout rate at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Virginia ranged from 13 percent in the 2006 school year to more than 10 percent this school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
The dropout rate at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Virginia ranged from 13 percent in the 2006 school year to more than 10 percent this school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

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Penelope Poulou

TC Williams, the only public high school in the city of Alexandria, Virginia, is dealing with challenges.

The school is known for its ethnic and cultural diversity but it has been named by Virginia's Department of Education as one of the lowest achieving schools in the state.

The unflattering review follows the students' consistently low scores on federally mandated Standards of Learning Tests.

But many ask if the students are failing or if the US educational system is failing them.

In 1971, TC Williams' experienced racial integration. The same year, the public high school in Alexandria, Virginia and its ethnically mixed football team made headlines by winning the state championship.

Forty years later, the school is even more diverse.  

Immigrants in large numbers have been moving to Alexandria.  

Alexandria Public School Superintendent Morton Sherman points to diversity as one of the school's strengths.

"That is the face and voice of America. And it is a wonderful face. And there are wonderful voices there of teachers and children working hard to succeed," says Sherman.

According to Sherman, 84 percent of last year's graduating class went to college. The dropout rate at T.C. Williams ranged from 13 percent in the 2006 school year to more than 10 percent this school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Most of the dropouts were minorities.

The persistently low test scores of TC Williams students have made the school one of the lowest achieving in Virginia.

Filomena Reyes, a student there, says many kids lack basic reading skills and self confidence.

"It's coming from another country and not speaking the language and being told that you can't learn the language, that you're so stupid, that you're not gonna learn it," says Filomena. "Being told that Hispanics are not worth anything."

Filomena arrived in the United States from central America five years ago. She did not speak any English. Today she writes a column in the school newspaper. She credits her foster mother for her success.

But not all of the students have family support.

"They cry and they cry with all their hearts," says Guadalupe Silva-Kraus,  the school's counselor. "Because they try not to be babies but they still are. And they try to be grownups in a different country and they don't know how to."

Guadalupe says many immigrant parents have two jobs and no time to spend with their kids. So kids look in the wrong places for love.  

Some, like Carolina, end up pregnant. She has a 1-year-old baby.

"I didn't want to come to school," she says. "I had so many people coming up to me asking me 'why this, that.' I got picked on and I got pushed when I was pregnant."

Rafael Lopez, graduating this year, says he was involved with gangs. Now he is studying hard because he wants to go to college. He faults the students for TC Williams' failure.

"They don't go to classes. They skip their classes."

But Bander, from Egypt,  says "don't blame the kids. Blame their families."

"They want them to drop out and get a job so that they can pay their own rent."

Middle class students with high scores, on the other hand, feel underserved by the school. One of them is Catherine, a senior at TC Williams. .

"I'd be wanting to pay attention but because there's disruption in the class or because the teachers were not really paying attention to the students, that nothing really got done."

Gregory Baldwin, a special education teacher, blames standardized tests mandated under "No Child Left Behind." The law was passed under President George W. Bush.   

"You are more than a test score. You are more than a grade," says Baldwin. "We don't believe that this one size fits all approach works."

Superintendent Sherman has been under pressure to raise test scores. Recently, he unveiled a plan for improving the school's academic standards.

The plan involves smaller classrooms, more professional development for teachers and more extensive student tutoring.

Teachers agree. They say this is not only about academics in one failing U.S. public high school. It is about the changing face of America and the need for a new system that works for everyone.

An earlier version of this story reported that T.C. Williams has a 30 percent dropout rate. That figure is incorrect. VOA regrets the error.

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