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October 1, 1998

Hippie High School

Welcome to "Hippie High," an alternative secondary school in Arlington, Virginia, which has grown from radical beginnings into a place for high-achieving, college-bound students.

In the early 1970s, U.S. educators saw a proliferation of "schools without walls" and other radical efforts to meet student demands for less structured, more relevant instruction. Within a few years, however, many experiments faded, their free-form philosophies absorbed by the mainstream or abandoned by communities intent on returning to basics.

A conspicuous exception is the H-B Woodlawn School in Arlington, Virginia. After 27 years as a suburban Washington, D.C., hippie school, it is thriving today with more than 500 students in grades 6–12. Woodlawn is officially a program, not an accredited school, and its students mingle freely with kids from their own home schools, from which they ultimately receive their diplomas. Even with an admissions lottery, a waiting list, and a county affirmative action program that has sparked court battles, local parents still fight to get their kids into Woodlawn.

Among students, Woodlawn is known as the school where they can call teachers by their first names, chew gum, take a nap on a sofa, and eat anytime or anywhere. It has independent study projects, flexible electives, and free periods. Self-direction substitutes for the tyranny of ringing bells. Through almost three decades of social change, Woodlawn has continued to offer students freedoms not typically found in other schools. It has also contended with controversy.

Rooted in the 1960s

Most people in the Woodlawn community are aware that the school's roots go back to the turbulent 1960s, says Ray Anderson, Woodlawn's chief founder and longstanding principal. But many draw a blank when Anderson alludes to the Vietnam war protests, racial turmoil, and student radicalism of the era that spawned Woodlawn.

At that time, Arlington high schoolers, like their counterparts nationwide, were expanding their horizons beyond dating and sports to such issues as protest rights, underground newspapers, dress codes, smoking courts, and free-form education. Ray Anderson was teaching high school history in Arlington and planning to attend law school. He was increasingly concerned that antiwar and antiracism protests were interfering with education. In December 1970, he wrote a proposal for an alternative school for the "bright but bored." His principal offered him 10 rooms in a new addition of his high school, but Anderson insisted that the experiment take place in a separate facility because "you can't expect two different behavior patterns" in a single space.

By coincidence, the Arlington school superintendent, Robert Chisholm, had some empty school buildings. He was grappling with a court order to desegregate Arlington's all-black schools, and his desire to preserve the empty buildings for education opened his mind to the alternative school. He told the school board that such a school would attract supermotivated students who wanted to make it work and that it might provide instructional models for conventional schools.

Anderson teamed up with activist students and worked with Chisholm to push the project through. In late May 1971, the Arlington School Board voted 5 to 0 to fund an experimental high school at the former Woodlawn Elementary, with a commitment to launch a similar alternative school at formerly all-black Hoffman-Boston Secondary School. The two merged in 1978, creating the combined name of H-B Woodlawn.

A Home-Grown Product

With 170 original students selected by lottery, the new school adopted its motto Verbum Sap Sat (A word to the wise is sufficient) to reflect that it would operate without the disciplinary measures familiar to conventional schools. Anderson says they made no effort to model Woodlawn after any existing school, preferring to create a home-grown product. They offered courses with such intriguing names as "The Unexplained" and "Mind-Altering Drugs," but for tactical reasons to impress the central office, they couched them in conventional course labels.

Daily life at Woodlawn saw students lying on the floor in small groups in jeans and bare feet. Rooms were often divided by portable chalkboards in a building that lacked even a custodian. "A student might ask, 'What will we do today?'" Anderson recalls. "I'd say, 'Read a book for an hour, help with a physics project, and then mop the floor.'" Many classes involved practical lessons, such as translating documents for immigrants who used the local hospital and fire department.

A survey taken in December 1971 was telling. Only 27 percent of Woodlawn students felt they had learned as much factual data as they had at their old school. But 83 percent felt they had learned more general ideas. By 1973, Woodlawn's achievement scores were among the county's highest.

In 1978, the program moved into a larger building, a former junior high that had chemistry and physics labs. The radical students were becoming more scarce, and the national mood was swinging back to educational basics. Classes that used to meet twice a week began meeting three and four times. Advanced Placement courses became commonplace, and a limited learning-disabled program was introduced. And when Arlington County switched to middle schools in 1990, Woodlawn's new 6th, 7th, and 8th graders got their own administrative office and attendance policies that phased in the freedoms a bit at a time.

High Achievement in the 1990s

The school that began as a free-form refuge for alienated hippies scored in the 87th percentile in the Stanford-9 Achievement Test in 1996–97, higher than the county's three conventional high schools. Woodlawn's average combined SAT score of 1253 is the county's best, and its placement rate in four-year colleges, which in 1996–97 hit 93 percent, is often the county's highest. Recent graduates have been placed at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, along with such alternative colleges as Antioch and Reed.

In 1996–97, Ray Anderson won his district's Principal of the Year award. And this year, Washington Post education reporter Jay Matthews ranked Woodlawn eighth out of the country's top 100 high schools on the basis of its high percentage of Advanced Placement students.

"At the moment we have good scores," says Anderson. "But academics have nothing to do with success at H-B. It's attitude and approach. I've had very able students who barely graduate. I'm happier having average students who are a good match [for the school]."

The students have the run of hallways in which the trophy case awards are not for sports, but for chess and Latin competitions. Woodlawn's cafeteria walls are given over to youthful graffiti, organized by the graduating class.

"Visiting parents often ask why all these kids are roaming the halls," Anderson says. "This tells me they're uncomfortable." Such parents probably shouldn't have their child in a program that, as spelled out in its mission statement, "offers no continuous adult supervision." Although administrators recommend class attendance and keep records, "Woodlawn differs from normal schools in that we have no such administrative response as 'three absences and you fail,'" Anderson says.

Parents of the nearly 80 new students admitted by lottery every year sign a pledge to "accept the philosophy and structure of H-B Woodlawn and try as best they can to make its unique program work for the applicant." Some families choose Woodlawn because morning classes don't start until 9:20 a.m., Anderson says, whereas others choose it because their best friends liked it, or because they heard something bad about their neighborhood school. "Ask 50 people and you get 50 answers," he says. "The school system has never tried to regulate the motivation."

The Parent Advisory Committee is Woodlawn's equivalent to a PTA. Woodlawn parents have traditionally shunned membership in the state or national PTA, explains Betty Gibbon, cochair of the Parent Advisory Committee. Parents are active in the grade-by-grade parent networks, which meet, says Woodlawn parent Suzanne Davis, to "touch base and discuss problems of kids at particular ages—rules for driving a car or summer volunteerism for kids too old for camp."

Many students who envisioned themselves as the Woodlawn type have been forced to rethink. Every year, about 5 to 10 percent of students leave before the 9th grade, some of them longing for such conventional high school institutions as a marching band. The self-selection of Woodlawn's enrollment produces students and teachers who display strong loyalty. "Being at Woodlawn made me a more interesting person than if I had gone to an ordinary high school," says Josh McDermott, a 1994 graduate who went on to Harvard University. "It was great academically, but it offered more room for personal growth without the social pressures."

Student Power

Student power at Woodlawn is most pronounced in the town meeting, the decision-making body that addresses everything from school charity proceeds to the daily rates of outside teachers brought in for special electives. The biweekly gatherings are even more powerful than the Parent Advisory Committee. Over the years, they have discussed everything from disinvestment in South Africa to decisions about who can act in school plays.

Woodlawn's egalitarian style is also evident among teachers. The instruction itself is not that unusual, says longtime English teacher Ellen Kurcis. The Woodlawn course list includes the same math, science, social studies, and English requirements of conventional schools. "But the teachers who come to H-B want more personal relationships with students, and they are comfortable with using first names. In other schools, it becomes more like 'us against them.'" All Woodlawn administrators, including principal Anderson, also teach at least one class, and students serve on the committees that interview prospective teachers.

Anderson recalls a period in the mid-1980s when surplus teachers from other schools were assigned to Woodlawn and balked at the philosophy. They couldn't accept the demand that each teacher take on six courses rather than five, which, coupled with the teacher's double role as guidance counselor, is Woodlawn's secret for keeping class sizes small. "The teachers are volunteers, so they too must match the style," Anderson says. If kids feel a new teacher isn't doing a good job, they often line up outside Anderson's office, demanding an investigation.

Diversity and Controversy

In the 1990s, Woodlawn's insulated world of "Hippie High" began to wince under the harsh glare of countywide politics. As one of several choice schools the county offered, Woodlawn was attracting a heavily white student body. The school board grew con- cerned that the alternative schools should reflect the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the county population. To African Americans, Woodlawn had long seemed "a bastion of elitism and privilege," says Arlington school board member Frank Wilson, noting that the campus is located in a mostly white neighborhood. The board instituted a policy requiring racial weighting in the admissions selections.

Anderson recalls that "the baby-boomer parents during the 1980s had begun their search for competitive academics. Many parents were focusing on making money to compete with Japan, Inc. These forces made Woodlawn seem like the only option for people who wanted out of their neighborhood schools. We at Woodlawn never held ourselves up as a prep school, but some people saw us that way."

Parents began toting sleeping bags to the steps of the county's magnet schools to camp out and secure a place for their children. By the early 1990s, this method had become so arduous that the school board stepped in with the lottery. The result was a student body that went from 83 percent white in the early 1980s to about 60 percent today.

With affirmative action under siege at the national level, however, soon some white parents whose children had been denied admission to the magnet schools filed a lawsuit challenging the race-weighted lottery. In May 1997, a district court judge struck down the lottery as unconstitutional.

Determined to push its diversity policy, the school board sought legal advice. In January 1998, it adopted a new lottery policy—replacing the weighting by race with a minority outreach effort and extra weights for minority races, low-income families, and families with English as a second language. That, too, provoked a lawsuit. In May 1998, the same district judge struck down the new weighted lottery, prompting the school board to redo the lottery on a random basis. A subsequent compromise allowed admission for some students by expanding the number of slots in the 6th and 9th grades—over the objections of some Woodlawners who treasure the intimacy of their program.

Inevitable Critics

The affirmative action flare-up that brought attention to Woodlawn also brought out more critics. Some local teachers question its academic standards. According to Eric Christenson, a retired Arlington English teacher who now coaches high school seniors writing essays for college applications, the writing instruction at Woodlawn lacks rigor.

There has also been ongoing talk that Woodlawn is a "white flight" school for parents who want to avoid neighborhood schools where the percentage of low-income students who get a subsidized lunch is more than triple that of Woodlawn's. Indeed, some critics feel that the premise of choice in public schools weakens the fabric of neighborhood schools. "Woodlawn siphons off all the active parents from the neighborhood PTAs," says Judy Sullivan, former PTA president of Ashlawn Elementary.

"Woodlawn may have been great for the 1970s, but it is not relevant today," says an Arlington mother whose son was denied admission, she believes, because of racial weighting in the lottery. "What is really needed is a science and technology alternative."

Proposals to abolish Woodlawn come up every five years or so, Anderson says, "not usually because of what we're doing, but because another person brings it up. But we'll be okay as long as students want us and we're fulfilling an educational function." Colleges, he points out, "love our kids."

Not Just a Passing Fad

The key to Woodlawn's staying power may well be the reluctance of its leaders to tout the program as the next big solution to education's problems. "I don't like to take one slice of an idea and then say, 'Now everyone should be like me,'" Anderson says. "For too many, education is like religion; there is orthodoxy and heresy. This partially explains educational fads. But I do see what we do as having insight for education. Our worldview is that all kids are different. Hence, we don't need a singular belief system."

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