Hitting the High (School) Notes

I am a 2004 graduate of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. ["America's Best High Schools," December 15-22]

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I am a 2004 graduate of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. ["America's Best High Schools," December 15-22], and currently a teacher at Nanakuli High and Intermediate School in Hawaii with Teach for America. I bear witness to the polar opposites of academic achievement: I was one of 173 National Merit Semifinalists at one high school in Northern Virginia and now work in a state with 68 total. I was part of an environment that embraced academic rigor and exploration, and I now strive daily to teach high school students the value in learning how to add integers. My peers have asked me what made T.J. the No. 1 high school [Best High Schools, Gold Medal List] and how we can bring that to our school, ranked second to last in a state ranked 47th in student achievement. The simple answers lead us to conclude that we have nothing to learn from the nation's best high schools. And the simple answers would be wrong. Not enough is said about the teachers and mentors at America's top high schools. These men and women work tirelessly and know that good isn't good enough. Teachers, devoted to their students' achievement, are the answer to our educational dilemma. Teachers who stay long after their paycheck requires, who research extension and enrichment opportunities for their students, who work individually with struggling students, are what make T.J. great. It was the teacher who found that real-life tie-in, who pushed us and held us to high standards, who made us want to learn. And teachers who said "good is good enough" found students skipping their class, acting up, and falling behind their peers. I strive to bring excitement into my classroom. Sometimes I am successful, oftentimes I am not. I now know that being a good teacher is extraordinarily difficult. Admin and policies can make a difference; a student's socioeconomic situation can make one, too. However, the biggest factor, often overlooked, is that of the teacher in the classroom making connections with his or her students.

Lance Murashige, Kapolei , Hawaii

In Somerset County, N.J., the superintendents made a conscious decision not to raid the "crème de la crème" of the local high schools on the basis of test scores and place them in a rarefied environment of one elitist school for the county. On the other side of the coin, Monmouth County, N.J., handpicked top students through tough admissions procedures and concentrated them at High Technology High School that ranks fourth among your Gold Medal schools. Won't your model of elitist schools purloin the most talented students of public and nonpublic high schools and result in an overall dilution of standards in the broad base of remaining students? Or will the synergy of focused talent in the "chosen" schools create intellectual incentives for other schools to emulate? The attempt of U . S . News & World Report to commence the national ranking process for high schools is certainly encouraged as a means to stimulate competition and heighten standards. I look forward to the refinements and embellishments of your methodology.

Frank Heelan, Edison, N.J.

As the superintendent of Copenhagen Central School District in New York State, I thank you for completing the rankings. We are very proud of our achievements for a K-12 rural school of fewer than 600 students. I believe that many things that small rural schools do for students tremendously help them. I think it would be interesting to look at how smaller/rural schools affect student achievement. Your rankings help me with the argument that is currently beginning in New York State with consolidation of small schools. Much research, including some Harvard studies, will show you that consolidation damages students and their achievement rates. In our district, only three schools made your bronze award, and they are all small schools. With the fiscal crisis in New York and throughout the nation, state governments need to know that consolidation has a cost!

Mary-Margaret Zehr, Copenhagen, N.Y.

What a pleasant surprise to read "An Ohio School's Strong Foundation [December 15-22] about Walnut Hills High School and its alumni, as I am a member of the 1955 class. The story opened a Pandora's box of memories about my classmates, which I would like to relate. Mike Glueck and I sang together in the school chorus as we memorized Handel's Messiah for a Christmas concert with the Cincinnati symphony. After graduation, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and for 35 years worked to return the assets the Nazis took in their rise to power. Even in high school, Reed Larsen wanted to become a medical doctor. After Walnut Hills, he went to Princeton but transferred to Harvard a year later. He retired as head of the Cardiology Department of Harvard Medical School. Today, he travels and teaches throughout the world. Wayne Hall also went to Princeton with a burning desire to study Russia. He was with Richard Nixon in Moscow at the famous kitchen debate with Nikita Khrushchev. He worked in Washington for Voice of America as an editor of a publication emphasizing problems about communism. Wayne's father was Joe Hall, who was handpicked by Barney Kroger to lead his grocery business. Wayne returned to Cincinnati to learn about Kroger. He took this knowledge to Russia to help modernize operations there. I hope these profiles of my classmates show the depth of their experiences and loyalty to the Alumni Association to maintain a superior level of education for the current student body.

Robert L. Faulwetter, Pfafftown, N.C.

Best High Schools' 'To Do or Not to Do' List

I think that some tremendous high schools have been missed based on the fact that they have not bought into the AP or IB systems [Editor's Note: What Makes a Best High School'?" December 15-22]. Many of the rural schools in central Illinois are working with the local community colleges to award dual credit. Students have the opportunity in our school to take over 40 hours of college credit before graduation, in a variety of topics. Many of our students graduate with one full year of college under their belt at a reduced rate, which parents love. Most of the credits transfer with no problem to four-year universities and fully transfer if the students continue their education at the community college and receive their associate degree. Please add this criterion to your list in the future since it is easily accessible through the Illinois State Board of Education.

Richard C. Wherley, Principal, Eureka High School, Eureka, Ill.

As a teacher at one of your top-ranked high schools (Pacific Collegiate, No. 3), I think the rankings are a good starting point for a national conversation about the relationship between policy and leadership. I think the tremendous success of the Advanced Placement program provides a clear answer to the question: What should we teach? The harder question is: Where do we find strong leaders who can actually make this reform happen? Even if we got the whole nation on the same page about what to do, we still wouldn't have the leaders to make it happen. Our school is currently looking for a principal, and we've had to confront some hard truths about the job market for educational leadership. Our school has made all the right decisions about policy reform, but it remains an enormous challenge for us to attract a leader who can implement that policy. Policy is important, but we can settle policy issues, and we'll still be in crisis if we haven't found a way to persuade strong leaders to enter education instead of business and politics.

Hal Hansen, Santa Cruz, Calif.

I was really surprised at the second step in the qualification of a top school. I understand the first step where you factor in economically disadvantaged students—makes sense. But I was really surprised in the second step where you define least-advantaged kids as black, Hispanic, and low income. So, a rich black or Hispanic family is classified as "least advantaged"? Where we have a black president-elect, I am not sure being black, or Hispanic, for that matter, makes you disadvantaged. Are you implying that there is something inherently in black or Hispanic children that makes them disadvantaged? I still believe that "all men are created equal." I would think a child's ADD or some other learning disability, not the color of his skin, would be a disadvantage worth taking into account. I view the whole study to be worthless.

Jim Songey, Danville, Calif.

Specifically, in the United States, there is a recognition called the Malcolm Baldrige Award (http://www.quality.nist.gov/). This is the highest honor and award in the land that measures the overall quality of an organization and is bestowed by the president of the United States. In all, since the criteria were made available for public schools in 1999, there have been only four national Malcolm Baldrige Award recipients. However, not one of those districts made your list. I question the methodology and the measures utilized to determine if a high school would, could, or should make the list. If your measures are simply a snapshot of test scores, you are missing a much broader measure of a top high school. While some districts may show rather positive results on a single test measure, if they have limitations to the overall opportunities for students in terms of AP courses, college in the school programs, along with services tailored to meet student interests, both short and long term, are they really top schools? I would urge you to consider broadening or changing your methodology.

Klint W. Willert, Superintendent of Schools, Marshall Public Schools, Marshall, Minn.


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