This school year, West Potomac High School wants to delve deeper. “Students can read the words,” explained assistant principal Nancy Kreloff, “but many times they are not getting the deeper meaning and they’re not able to critically analyze what they’re reading.” She stressed that this was not simply a problem at West Potomac, but a growing concern nationally, as more and more students get their information from a computer screen, not a printed page. To give students the tools and the desire to unpack ideas instead of being content to skim over them, the school plans to focus on “authentic literacy” in every class.
According to results released last week, West Potomac achieved the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks in reading and math mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At West Potomac, 86 percent of the students passed the state’s Standards of Learning reading test. This was slightly below the county average of 89 percent and above the state average of 84 percent as well as the federal passing benchmark of 69 percent. West Potomac students also performed above the state average (76 percent passing) in their SOL math test with an 81 percent passing rate last year. This is just below the county’s average of 82 percent and above the 67 percent rate required by federal standards.
But Principal Rima Vesilind said the school will push beyond the ability to mark the right bubble on a standardized test. Teachers will be asked to set aside time in class for students to read, write and think critically about the material being presented. The school will also begin a new schedule that gives students more opportunity to structure their own learning. Students will have a new “flex” period once every two days. Some may decide to use the period to review material in classes they are failing, while others will be able to use the time to pursue an advanced project in subjects they have already mastered.
Vesilind said the school will ask students to take a deeper look at the norms that define their community. They will have the opportunity to meet in focus groups to explore the values they believe in and the expectations they wish to set for one another. The school is implementing the county’s Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) program “to develop those ethical core things that we want all our students to have,” said Vesilind. Kreloff stressed that the school’s cultural philosophy is based on one concept: “respect.”
“We’re a place of learning, and one of the things kids have to learn well is how they can behave in society.”
Student participation in society is also what’s inspiring the school’s focus on authentic literacy. “You have to have an educated, critical population in order to have an effective democracy,” Kreloff said. This means that in history class, for example, the administration does not want students simply reading out of textbooks. Rather, students will consult primary sources, then be asked to form their own opinions and discuss them with their classmates. “It’s not the small facts,” Kreloff said. “What is crucial is that our students think about the facts.” Vesilind added that students will be asked to evaluate the information they get from magazines and the Internet, acquiring skills of discrimination that they can use later in life, “those higher-level thinking skills that our students are going to be using all the time.”
BUT WITHOUT IMPLEMENTATION, these goals are merely words. Vesilind said teachers will begin receiving in-service trainings on how to facilitate an environment that examines the processes of learning as well as the facts to be learned. Teachers will be asked to provide more time in class for Socratic dialogues and seminars. Vesilind said the school will also work to encourage communication between peers. Teachers will be meeting with their same-subject colleagues every week to discuss the techniques of classroom instruction and to coordinate big-picture goals. Kreloff added that students will soon have access to their own version of the online bulletin board that teachers have been using to post information to one another.
Tania Ryan, the new president of West Potomac’s PTSA, also emphasized communication. “One of the most important things, I think, is to have a real connection between parent and parent, and parent and teacher,” she said.
Ryan, who was a principal of the lower school at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes for 10 years, and has been director of the Meeting House Cooperative Pre-School for the last seven, said that one of the two big priorities she envisions for the PTSA will be “to examine how fundraising is done at a public school.”
She said that although the PTSA’s first mission is to support teachers and students, fundraising is of critical importance to many school groups, and the way it is being done now is inefficient. In the uncoordinated environment in which every individual team or club raises its own money independently, she asked, “How do you make sure that one population isn’t short-shrifted, or in fact maybe one is monopolizing something?” Ryan also said lack of communication means many organizations end up treading on each other’s toes in their fund-raising efforts. “You can’t have five booster clubs selling pizza.”
But Ryan was optimistic that a solution could be found. “It’s really just about coordination, so that each really integral part of the school knows what the other part is doing, so that intelligent decisions can be made or be negotiated.”
Ryan said the second focus of her PTSA tenure would be the school’s infrastructure, specifically, trying to get a sidewalk built on the west side of Quander Road. Vesilind also focused on Quander Road and some of the school’s other infrastructure needs. “We need some serious help with creating the front of our school into an attractive, welcoming place,” she said, mentioning the need for a new sign on the street and landscaping for the traffic island in front of the main building. “It’s 45 minutes and two strong boys to change the letters of that sign,” she said. And inside, the school is “packed, absolutely packed,” Vesilind added. “If we get one more science class we are going to have to have trailers.” The school has about 2,000 students enrolled.