Woodlawn staff and students knew it was coming, and approached the transition with fear — fear that a new principal would come in and crack down on a school with traditions of openness and freedom for its students. At Woodlawn, students can plot their own course of studies, they can finish the year with art or community service projects taking the place of papers and their schedules may allow free time for thinking outside of study hall.
“There was this panic in our hearts,” said Dave Soles, a high school chemistry teacher and 1992 graduate of Woodlawn, “that they would bring in someone to straighten this place out.”
Woodlawn principal Ray Anderson, 63, who wrote the original proposal for Woodlawn’s alternative high school program and has served as the school’s principal since its inception in 1971, is retiring at the end of this school year.
<b>BUT FEAR SUBSIDED</b> last week, when School Board members named Woodlawn’s new principal – the school’s second. Frank Haltiwanger, a former Woodlawn teacher and parent currently serving as middle school administrator, will take the reigns from Anderson at the end of the year.
Haltiwanger started his teaching career at H-B Woodlawn, teaching math from 1981 to 1988. After a stint working as special education coordinator for the county, he returned to the school in 2001 to become middle school administrator.
At the same time, his sons gave him a parent’s eye view of Woodlawn. Haltiwanger’s oldest son Sam graduated from H-B last year, and his younger son is a freshman at the school this year.
His history with H-B means Haltiwanger is already in synch with the school’s individual culture, said Anderson. “He’s had all those roles, so he really understands what we’re all about. He is really sympathetic.”
For his part, Haltiwanger said he saw no need for sweeping changes. “I really trust in the founding principles of H-B Woodlawn. Those are going to be my beacons.”
<b>WHEN HE PROPOSED</b> H-B 34 years ago, Anderson wasn’t sure he’d stay with it for three years, let alone three decades. After watching the protests of the late 1960s, Anderson wanted to find room for students who were being squeezed out at other county schools, students who “in one way or another were questioning the status quo,” he said. “When I proposed the school, it was to take those people on the edge, who were not fitting in in regular, comprehensive high schools and put them somewhere else.”
It was an experiment, and Anderson himself wasn’t sure it would succeed. “I wasn’t sure I could stay in a comprehensive high school. So I took the LSAT,” the Law School Admissions Test, he said.
By the time the School Board approved the alternative school on Ma 27, 1971, Anderson had already gotten accepted at several law schools around the country. “I opted to go to [George Washington University] law school at night,” he said. “I thought the school might be around for a couple years, then I will be a lawyer.”
<b>BUT THE SCHOOL</b> was enormously successful, with applications for the countywide high school program overwhelming available slots by the second year of Woodlawn’s existence.
Success continued in 1978, when the Woodlawn alternative high school program merged with the Hoffman-Boston alternative junior high, putting seventh through 12th graders in the same building.
At the same time, the focus of students was changing. In early years, true to Anderson’s aim, students spent their time debating politics. When area high school students were given a day off on Jan. 20, 1973, to celebrate President Richard Nixon’s second inaugural, Woodlawn students voted to stay in school.
By the late 1970s, though, the focus had shifted to drama, and in the early ‘80s, Woodlawn’s auditorium played midwife to the Washington punk scene. “Minor Threat played here,” said Anderson, “but we had all kinds of groups play: Experience Unlimited, the big go-go band, the Road Ducks, kind of a Lynyrd Skynyrd band. Their idea was, you’re supposed to have fistfights [at the show]. They didn’t do that here.”
In the last decade, the success of Woodlawn students has drawn more ambitious parents and students to the program. “Suddenly, everybody wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer,” said Anderson.
But in recent years, he’s seen the school come full circle. “It’s back to politics this year,” he said. “We had a fellow who went up to New Hampshire, to campaign for Clark.”
<b>WATCHING THAT CYCLE</b> roll around again, Anderson decided it was finally time to retire. Rumors that he was ready to leave have flown through the county over the last few years, and in 2001, they were almost true.
“I had thought at one point of retiring when I was 60,” said Anderson. “But I wasn’t really ready to let go.”
This year, however, he looked at the teachers coming into the school, and looked at who was retiring. Many of the school’s earliest teachers are gone, and the rest are soon leaving — it was a natural moment for transition, Anderson said.
He and his wife will continue to live in Arlington. But he wants to travel, and will begin with a tour of Eastern and Central Europe with his wife in July. They will also visit their children: Anderson’s oldest daughter Lynne is a local, his son Peter lives in Chicago, and daughter Heather lives in Los Angeles.
There will be some legal volunteer work, putting his law degree to use, and Anderson will start a part-time business with partners, counseling high school students about how to choose a college, and how to get in.
And 33 years after politics led him to open a school, Anderson will finally get personally involved. “I called the Kerry campaign, and volunteered to be on their legal team.”
<b>SOME CONCERN LINGERS</b> about the transition and new principal Haltiwanger’s style.
“Middle school students, students who have only dealt with him as a middle school administrator, they’re worried,” said Soles. As middle school administrator, Haltiwanger has occasionally been a rare source of discipline in a school that stresses freedom.
But he’s no disciplinarian, said Ann Tutundjian, co-chair of the school’s Parent Advisory Committee. Middle school administrators play a necessary role in the Woodlawn culture. “He gave a little more discipline to the middle schoolers, but that’s a good thing,” she said. “H-B’s the kind of place where freedom is earned over several years, and high schoolers seem to deal a lot better with the freedom.”
For his part, Haltiwanger said he rarely had to crack the whip on misbehaving middle school students.
“In some schools, the assistant principal is a disciplinarian. I don’t think I’ve done that,” he said. “I don’t think there will be that many students to win over because of that.”
Still, Haltiwanger said he knows he’s got a big job ahead of him. “In some ways it can seem daunting,” he said. “I’m only the second principal in 33 years.”