Good isn’t good enough for Thomas Wootton High School.
Last spring, Wootton was ranked the 17th most rigorous high school nationally, in a Newsweek magazine analysis based on the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate students take.
Dr. Michael Doran, the school’s principal, said he was disappointed at how little recognition Wootton got after the Newsweek ranking — there are almost 28,000 high schools in the United States — but that the achievement doesn’t mean Wootton is done trying to improve.
“What the school does is it doesn’t kind of rest on its laurels. It’s always looking at what it’s doing and not just sliding by on our reputation. … It’s never satisfied with what it’s doing,” Doran said. “I have no problems with saying, in some regard I think absolutely we deserve to be 17th in this country. But if you ranked us on a different criteria, we could be number one or we could be in the 30th thousand.”
The school will open two new “academies” this year, specialized programs in which student take a sequence of courses similar to college major or minor within high school. The new academies in education and information technology are in addition to the existing DNA academy.
Doran said that the technology academy is a big step toward addressing a formerly weak technology program.
“How do you beef it up? Call it an academy. Attract the best teachers. Get kids exited about it,” he said. “I would suggest that if that gets up and running, and it will, we’re already a better a school than we were last year.”
And as an educator, he said that the new education academy is particularly special.
Meanwhile, the school has recently completed several facilities upgrades and hired several new coaches in an effort to bring Wootton’s athletic program up to the level of its academics.
“Our sports programs really weren’t on par locally in the same way. People wouldn’t want to go up against our PSAT sores, but they’d love to play us in football,” Doran said.
That’s a problem, because Doran said that one of Wootton’s strengths has been having something for everyone — having genuinely strong programs in every area where students might become engaged and excel. If a student is a top-notch wrestler but doesn’t have a quality team and coach giving him a chance to compete, the school is in some ways failing that student, he said.
A major focus this year will be finding ways to catch the students that are falling through the academic cracks. Special education and English as a second language students have resources in place to help them. Failing and combative students are easily identified. But there’s a less salient group, Doran said, the students who are disengaged from the school and are sliding by with low but not failing grades.
“The group that worries me is that group that is not involved in clubs and activities that is … not doing really well in a school where everybody seems to be doing well. … and after some years start to kind of drift away,” Doran said. “They’re just kind of going through the motions and we’re not reaching them in a way we need to be.”
There is no single solution to engaging those students, but Doran said the first step is finding them. Then teachers and administrators can try different strategies to give them a lift. Reversing years of apparent underachievement isn’t an easy task, he said, but often the spark provided by opportunities like the education academy — where a student interested in children might find career guidance and a sense of purpose — does the trick.
“What I like about this school is yeah we’re not crowing about we’re great. I think this is a very good school. But we try to get better. I think that’s really cool,” he said.