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High Schools Aiming High

Madison and Marshall prepare for another year of shaping local youth.

With the 2006-07 school year soon to begin, school administrators are at work preparing for students’ return on Sept. 5.

At James Madison High School, that means more students. In 2000, the school had about 1,500 students, said Principal Mark Merrill. By last year enrollment was up to more than 1,870, and this year, about 1,920 students will attend the school. Madison is meant to hold 1,850 students, and that’s after extensive renovations in 2003.

“It’s going to be a little uncomfortable inside,” said Merrill, who is entering his sixth year as Madison’s principal. However, he said, “I’m really looking forward to it. We’re going to be fine.” He added that, as a “Vienna guy” who grew up in town, he was glad to see more young families in the area. The school already had three trailers out back, which it will continue to use.

Eighteen of the school’s 139 teachers will be new this year, and a former history teacher, Susan Robeson, will replace a retiring assistant principal. Because Madison has only three assistant principals, students are assigned to an assistant principal by the first letter of their last names. Robeson will be in charge of the first third of the alphabet.

"We spent the whole summer trying to find new people. We feel pretty good about the people that are coming in," said Merrill.

He said the school continued to perform highly on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests (SOLs) last year, ranking in percentiles in the mid- to high 90s across the board, although no official data is yet available. “But I don’t think that’s a very good measure of who we are,” he said.

One thing that sets Madison apart, said Merrill, is its part in the Town of Vienna’s sense of community. “In everything we do, the town is extremely supportive of us,” he said. “It sets us apart from many of the high schools in the Washington area.”

He said Madison and other schools in Fairfax County Public Schools’ Cluster 2 are continuing to work on the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) program, now in its fourth year. According to the program, teachers at each grade level in each department work together to decide how all of them will teach the curriculum to their students. This way, no one teacher should be considered more or less difficult than another teaching the same course, said Merrill.

EACH TEAM of teachers then gives their student body common assessment tests, and lagging students are given additional help. To this end, Madison has a student assistance period following its first block period, from 8:55 to 9:30 each morning, during which students can request teachers’ help, or teachers can require students to drop by for extra tutoring.

The school continues to offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

This year, Madison will have a new Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) president, Town Council member Edythe Kelleher, who was president of the Vienna Elementary PTA a few years ago. Kelleher said two projects the PTSA will be undertaking this year will be the formation of a senior scholarship program and the consolidation of programs that fund unbudgeted efforts of educators at the school.

The senior scholarship program had been conceived last year but never quite got off the ground, she said. Six scholarships of $500 each would be awarded to graduating seniors. Kelleher said parent volunteers — probably not parents of seniors — would be needed to develop an application form, inform seniors about the program and evaluate applications.

Three separate groups that raised funds to support special projects undertaken by the school's teachers and guidance department will be merged into one organization, called Academic Boosters.

"Otherwise, it will be the same, good old stuff the PTSA has always done," said Kelleher.

James Madison High School will hold a back-to-school night Tuesday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.

TO DEVELOP the PLC program at George C. Marshall High School, much of the faculty will be putting in extra time this year, said Marshall Principal Jay Pearson. When Fairfax County schools were asked last year to apply for Teacher Leadership Development grants, “we were bold and ambitious and asked for, really, our entire staff to go on extended contracts,” he said.

The school was awarded the grant, and most of its teachers are now on a 203-day contract, giving them an extra week to work on their PLC programs. Marshall’s faculty year will begin Aug. 21. A few teachers — the PLC team leaders — are on 208-day contracts, allowing them to do some work over the summer. The grant is good for three years.

“We really felt the grant was the vehicle for us to move our work to the next level,” said Pearson, who is entering his second year as the school’s principal. “Having only a few teachers on extended contracts, we didn’t feel would meet our needs.”

Rather than leave a half hour after first period for students and teachers to have more individualized access to each other, Marshall has an hour-long “lunch and learn” to fulfill the same purpose. Half an hour is for lunch, and the other half is for students to get academic help or to attend such “enrichment opportunities” as lectures by guest speakers, poetry slams, film showings or other activities.

“One of my goals is to have more structured enrichment opportunities during 'lunch and learn' this year,” said Pearson.

Enrollment at Marshall, still the smallest high school in the county, is holding steady at about 1,340 students, which Pearson said puts the school close to capacity.

About 15 of Marshall’s 125 teachers will be new this year.

As far as last year’s SOLs, Pearson said the unofficial data shows increases across almost all areas, with the school generally reaching the mid- to upper 90th percentile in each subject.

Rather than offering AP classes, Marshall continues to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program — a broad, challenging, two-year curriculum — the diploma for which is recognized by colleges and universities around the world. A student is also free to take one or a few IB classes. Marshall is one of seven high schools in the county to offer the program.

The school also offers an array of vocational and technical programs through the Marshall Academy, from Chinese to auto repair and from cosmetology to engineering physics.

A freshman potluck dinner will be held at Marshall at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 30. Sept. 1 will begin with freshman orientation at 9 a.m. and end with the school’s first varsity home game, against Washington-Lee High School, at 7:30 p.m. Back-to-school night will be Sept. 28 at 7 p.m.

(Next week: Back-to-School preview on Oakton High School.)