Although senior Mike Howell enjoys the "street cred" he gets when he tells people he goes to West Potomac, he does not think the school's reputation reflects its reality.
"Everybody always asks, 'West Potomac? Are you crazy?'" he said. "Academically, though, I think it's better than [private high schools] Bishop Ireton or O'Connell."
On Jan. 18, Howell sat in a room with 10 other members of the West Potomac High School community — parents, teachers, administrators, and past and present students — and discussed the way the school is perceived. The group was one of nine others that met that evening on subjects such as minority achievement, start times and engaging the community, in a joint effort between the PTSA and school administration to open a school-wide dialogue about issues affecting West Potomac.
"These are stakeholders in the school, and we want to get their insights," said PTSA president Diane Brody.
Howell's group talked about some of the negative perceptions surrounding West Potomac and how to change the way people think about the school.
West Potomac has struggled academically, said principal Rima Vesilind. The school is fully accredited, she said, but did not meet its adequate yearly progress in reading and math for the 2003-2004 year. While West Potomac has a strong record in its science classes and honors program, said Vesilind, it needs to improve achievement levels for minority students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. According to a school improvement plan for West Potomac, these three groups failed to make adequate yearly progress in math for the 2003-2004 year. Students with disabilities did not make adequate yearly progress in reading.
"We need to find ways to help our disadvantaged students," she said.
Freshman Alvaro Salinas, 15, said that the problem with West Potomac was that while students who want to succeed can do very well, it is fairly easy for others to fall through the cracks.
"We need more strictness here," said Alvaro. "If people are going to do nothing, the school is going to do nothing about it."
Alvaro compared West Potomac to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Annandale, which his sister attends. According to Alvaro, a new principal and stricter rules at J.E.B. Stuart helped the school a great deal, and the surrounding community has seemed to benefit as well.
WEST POTOMAC is a challenge for principals, said West Potomac Academy administrator Carlton Carter. "There's a very diverse population here," he said. "When you come here, you are wresting with a gorilla because you are trying to cater to a lot of different people."
Out of the more than 3,000 students who attend West Potomac, over half are minority students and 35 percent speak English as a second language, said Vesilind.
The school's diversity is one of its strengths, said PTSA vice chairman Becky Brady, describing research that shows students who go to diverse schools have an advantage come college admissions time. "You have your ideas challenged," she said. "You're not going to have your ideas repeated back to you the way you would at a more homogenous high school."
But according to Alvaro and Howell, a discrepancy exists between the students in honors and Advanced Placement classes and in regular classes. The honors and AP courses are attended by mostly white students, they said. For minority students, said Brady, there is an "implied disincentive" to take advanced classes, both from their peers and from students in the classes themselves.
"We are trying to get a lot more diverse kids in AP and honors classes," she said.
Alvaro wants to begin taking AP classes in the next couple years, but said he wondered what the experience would be like. "I've taken honors, and I'm pretty sure I will be the only Hispanic in the AP classes," he said.
MATH TEACHER and football coach Michael Ladwig described a program launched by the math department to decrease the number of students receiving final letter grades of D's and F's.
"Many students think, 'D is good enough,'" said Ladwig. Now, students cannot advance in math classes unless they have a final grade of C, and teachers have begun to take personal and individual approaches with students who have received D's and F's in the past. He has seen 10 fewer F's come across his desk between this semester and the previous one, he said.
Changing the public perception of West Potomac is not so much a concerted public realtions effort as it is simply taking ownership of the school, said Judy Neason, a future West Potomac parent.
"It's finding something, getting kids to take ownership of some success," she said. Sometimes, said physics teacher Garret Hubbard, this means simply correcting people when they make a negative remark about West Potomac.
Ray Bowers graduated from West Potomac in 1986, and although he never thought he would come back to Mount Vernon, will soon be heading up the school's 20-year reunion. West Potomac alumni could come back and speak to or mentor current students, he said, and current students could gain volunteer hours by working with alumni programs.
"I want to find a way to use our alumni, and have the kids see something to accomplish," he said.