Urban model school pulls top scores, motivated students

Only a short distance from Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's office in the nation's capital is a high-school revitalization program that could serve as a model for America.

In recent reports, Mr. Bell and other educators have called for dramatic changes in the US schools. However, Benjamin Banneker Senior High School, Washington's new ''model academic school,'' already incorporates many of the proposed remedies. Its college-preparatory curriculum sets high standards.

Created two years ago, Banneker's program is unlike any other in the District of Columbia's distressed public school system. The difference is apparent from the moment a visitor walks into the entranceway, where tropical fish peer out of an aquarium flanked by lists of students named to the honor roll. Another list serves a different purpose: In an effort to deter tardiness, latecomers' names are published in a daily bulletin. The school's 300 students are sometimes required to be at school by 7:30 a.m.

But the differences go much deeper. The school's rigorous, four-year curriculum focuses on the traditional liberal arts - four years of English, a year of Latin, three years of a modern foreign language, and three years of both math and social studies. A similar curriculum was suggested in the recent reports.

Yet the program also includes some decidedly nontraditional requirements. For example, students must take a half-year typing course, because all major papers must be typed. And students must do several hours of community service each week. Most students fulfill this requirement by helping out in local elementary schools or working in the library or hospital of nearby Howard University.

While many students have had trouble adapting to the rigorous program and have needed tutoring early on, standardized test scores at the school have been high. Last year, Banneker students had some of the highest scores in the District of Columbia school system and were consistently above national norms.

Students and faculty at Banneker have been specially chosen. Teachers work long hours, often helping students before and after the school day. Even lunch hours often are devoted to tutoring or advising.

The school's students are chosen through a process similar to that used by private schools. They are required to provide two recommendations and attend an interview conducted by school staff and students. Except under special circumstances, applicants must rank in the top one-fifth of their eighth-grade class.

The selection process has brought dedicated, enthusiastic teachers and students to the school. Teachers say they enjoy working with well-motivated students, and students like the challenging work.

Betty Anne Kane, a member of the District of Columbia City Council and mother of a Banneker junior, says the opportunity to teach at the school ''is very exciting to teachers, and the students really respond to that.''

While the student body is predominantly black and female, it includes youngsters from a wide range of economic backgrounds. Ms. Kane believes that is one of the factors that make the school successful. ''Students gain an understanding that bright kids come from all kinds of backgrounds,'' she says.

Principal Mazie Wilson notes that the abundance of girls is ''great for the boys,'' but says that the lack of organized sports at the school has deterred more boys from applying.

Regardless of their backgrounds, all Banneker students share a commitment to academics and a desire to go on to college. Senior Patti Hannaham says: ''I came here because everyone wants the same thing - to excel. And Banneker is set up for the student who wants to go to top-notch colleges.''

Ms. Wilson says the school ''fully expects all of our students to go on to college. They know that.''

This model academic school is the product of almost a decade of controversy among school board members and community leaders. Two other model academic high school proposals died amid charges of elitism and fears that such a school would drain top teachers and students from other district high schools.

However, none of these fears has been realized. Wanda Washburn, a school board member who fought the model school as a parent leader at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, says she no longer sees the model school as a big threat to the quality of education in other district schools.

What kind of report card does Banneker get after two years of operation? Many feel it deserves excellent marks.

They point to high standardized test scores and the fact that Banneker students have won top prizes in metropolitan science and essay competitions. The number of applications to the school also is rising.

Less obvious is the students' sense of pride and accomplishment. Banneker will graduate its first class in 1984. Miss Hannaham, a member of that class, says many of the students ''feel like pioneers.''

However, the school has received some poor marks as well. Problems exist primarily with facilities. Banneker is housed in an aging building designed to house a junior high school, and library and science facilities are only now being upgraded to high school standards.

A lack of extracurricular activities is also viewed as a drawback. ''It is wrong to think that an academically-inclined child isn't social,'' says Mrs. Washburn. ''Banneker can be a very dull program for such a child.'' Plans are being made to expand the extracurricular offerings.

Despite the problems, administrators at Banneker say the recent proposals for educational reform highlight the school's progressive approach. School counselor Vernita Jefferson says: ''Banneker has it all academically, as far as these reports go. We are ahead of the times.''

James Guines, the district's assistant superintendent of schools, agrees: ''Banneker is a school for the 21st century.''

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