Getting the best a high school has to offer

OUTSIDE the open windows, a flowering tree blooms in the courtyard. Inside, the students plumb John Donne's poetry and his life. The teacher questions, reads, and questions again, engaging her class in a brisk, competitive give-and-take.

It is premium classes like these that make Karen White glad she goes to Jacksonville's Terry Parker High School. And it is super-achievers like Karen who give this school a reputation for asking a high price, in time and effort, from those who want the best the school has to offer.

Here you can clearly see students midstride in the sprint for top colleges, the competition in which the process of learning becomes the pursuit of a number.

For even exceptional students the race for a grade can be strenuous. For others, it can become depressing.

And then there are the students who just want to learn.

To Karen White, whose motor starts whirring at 7 a.m., the pursuit is stimulating. The slender, attractive junior talks in rapid bursts about her GPA (grade-point average), her AP (advanced placement) courses, and the IQs of her fellow students.

''You hear about a lot of schools where athletes are the big thing, and the little kid with big glasses in the corner is sort of ostracized. Here it's just the reverse. It's almost an insult to be called a jock.''

This school, once mired in one of the worst school districts in the nation, was taken under the wing of Superintendent Herbert A. Sang and primed for excellence. It also fell under the heavy arm of Florida's state board of education, which in 1977 began minimum-competency tests that ended graduation-without-education here.

Now Terry Parker wins national academic competitions, attracts commendations from the White House, and gets national press coverage as one of the schools in a district many educators see as a beacon for the nation's educational system.

The reason is not only the academic competition but the high-powered education that students like Karen White are getting.

Mary Beth Adams is not getting this kind of education here - at least not anymore.

The soft-spoken, modest young lady transferred out of this school's showcase advanced-placement classes into its standard fare because she wasn't getting high enough test grades in the tougher courses.

''I couldn't believe the difference,'' she says with quiet wonder. ''These courses are very easy . . . they are boring. I transferred to get good grades, but I'm not learning enough.''

For students in these less-advanced courses - the majority, in fact, of Terry Parker's enrollment - high school is not a matter of televised academic competition (the district's top scholars compete in school-team competition, where they answer rapid-fire questions on a range of esoteric subjects before a local television audience); it is the hard labor of acquiring discrete bits of information to stockpile against the terrible day of reckoning known as finals; and it is the unrelenting toil of getting through.

Mary Beth Adams is not entirely sorry she dropped out of the more stimulating academic program, however, even though ''they treat you with a lot more respect if you are in the higher classes.

''A lot of my friends are under a strain,'' she explains, ''because they want to get to the top of the rankings.'' Many of them ''are studying every night, because Terry Parker has to win.

''It seems like we had to learn a lot of extra things. I just don't see any purpose to it all.''

Sunfa Cheng, a Taiwanese-American senior who leads the school in academic averages, says the purpose is to add to one's treasury of knowledge. ''It's nice to know about stuff like the arts. It adds a touch of class. . . . Everything has its function. Every piece of knowledge fits in the apparatus.''

Not every super-achiever in the school would agree.

Betsy Board decided to give up this kind of pressure after her parents convinced her she was being consumed by academic competition. Betsy is still tied for third place in the school's grade averages, but her parents, she says, offered to pay her to get lower grades.

''I had just put straight A's ahead of everything else,'' she says quietly, as she sits in a conference room in the school's offices. ''I told myself I'm going to play the game and (win); if I have to stay up all night, I will.''

And she did - giving up her social life, weekends, and extracurricular activities in the process. ''Finally, I was told to stop and smell the roses or I would burn out. Before that, it was just push, push, push for the grade.''

This kind of pushing has become part of the school's social fabric. You can see it in action in an advanced calculus class, where a sign in front proclaims: ''Those of you who think you know everything are annoying to those of us who do.''

The teacher rolls over some pretty steep mathematical territory, barreling through complex calculus problems. One boy in the back can be heard muttering to himself, as the teacher speeds through the material, ''I hate calculus.'' But the rest of the students are vying with one another to stay in the fast lane.

Later in the day, in a quiet corner of the school's open courtyard far from the academic fast lane, Linda Blankenship - a student who gave up her goal to go into nursing because she found math too hard, and thought she would have to take too much math to qualify - talks wistfully about what math and education at Terry Parker mean to her.

''I love math,'' she says softly, ''but I'm not good at it.'' She still takes as much math as she can, however - much to everyone's amazement. ''People just don't understand why I would love something so much that I don't get A's in.'' OVER 1,000 miles north in Hartford, Conn., the squat, modern buildings of Bulkeley High look a bit like an armory. The windows are covered in graffiti. A group of Hispanic and black students hangs around outside talking, in front of a scrawled call to ''Strike School,'' while classes go on inside.

In one of these classes, a teacher talks about American history. A girl in front puts her head down on the desk, listening with earphones to a stereo. The kid behind her drums loudly with his pen. A boy in the back of the room reads the Hartford Courant. No one seems to be learning anything.

Bulkeley High exhibits some of the worst, and best, traits of urban schools. It is a good place to come if you want to get the feel of life in the crowded halls of such schools. The place is big, imposing, institutional. While few of the classes seem to fall to the level of that history course, many trudge along with mind-numbing routineness.

But there is more than one way to take a school like this. And Peter Tait has found the better way.

The 16-year-old sophomore, who wears short-sleeve shirts that make his arms look more slender than they are, has no illusions about the reality of life here. ''If you don't throw your weight around, you're going to be all right,'' he says, referring to the school's overblown reputation as a place where one can easily find a fight.

Peter, like many students here, was apprehensive about coming to Bulkeley. But after two years in an accelerated program, he found that there can be nourishment for the mind in an urban high school.

''I have to do well if I'm going to get into a good college,'' the B-average student says earnestly over a school lunch that doesn't look appetizing. ''Plus I don't want my parents to think they've raised a dummy.''

There seem to be few worries on that score. In an American literature class, among a small gathering of advanced students, Peter Tait holds his own as the teacher leads them quietly and competently through the nuances of character in ''The Rise of Silas Lapham.'' In the process, he gives a picture of himself as a quiet, unassuming fellow who just wants the most out of his high school education.

He thinks he's getting some of it here. But he's not sure he couldn't do better if he were somewhere else.

''I feel comfortable with the teachers,'' he says. ''This is a good place to go to school. The work's not too hard, and it's not too easy - only, there's no calculus class here. I'm in an accelerated program here. Next year, I'll be through with senior math.''

After that, he won't have anything else to do in math, he says, until he can get enough students together to make up a class.

The calculus situation may be peculiar to Peter and a few others, but the general predicament is not: At a school like Bulkeley, the demand to turn over an annual student population of 1,800 brings about a mass-merchandising approach to many classes.

In some, like the American history class described earlier, things have deteriorated to an academic standoff. In others, teacher and class are shoved from several directions at once.

In a Spanish class, for instance, the students have a mixture of language backgrounds. Many of the students speak Spanish at home but lack the grammar and refinement required in a high school language course. The rest have to learn the rudiments of the language. The teacher is trying to accommodate the needs of both kinds of students while noise from a film in a nearby classroom makes the job harder.

During the class, Carmello, a meticulously dressed dandy, pays almost no attention to the class, conversing instead with some of his Hispanic friends. Many of the English-speaking students seem bewildered by the proceedings.

Meanwhile, the teacher becomes increasingly irritated, as students fail to translate questions with tricky combinations of tenses, questions about marriages and automobile purchases, and many other things that seem very remote from this corner of the world.

The constant push and pull between two sides makes learning a nearly insurmountable task.

Peter Tait feels that an educational environment like this one ''teaches you discipline. That's really the important thing. The discipline.''

But even the doggedly optimistic Peter acknowledges that there is a feeling of getting lost in the whole convoluted process:

''Mostly, you really don't know what's . . . going to happen to you in school. All the decisions are made for you.'' It might be helpful, he adds, to ''give the students a bit more say in (their schooling). Then, they'd be forced to make decisions, instead of having them made for them.''

Tomorrow: Elementary school.

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