Students Veer From School's Hippie Past
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2001; Page VA12
When Arlington's H-B Woodlawn opened 30 years ago, it was called "Hippie
High"a groovy type of school where students could design their own courses
in intellectual pursuits such as postmodern screenwriting, or postmodern
It was a place where no student could fail for missing class and no one
needed a hall pass. Students were even allowed to paint graffiti in the
halls and on the cafeteria walls. Woodlawn was a haven for that quirky
breed of student who might be brilliant but felt suffocated under the
constraints of a traditional high school.
Today, much of that spirit still floats around the 600-student school
nestled in North Arlington on a street called Vacation Lane. Some openly
gay students still dress in drag every spring for the school's prom.
Students can still drink sodas, even eat sandwiches, in the middle of
class, while calling their teacher by his or her first name.
Actually, going to class at all is still the students' own "freedom and
responsibility," students Kat Hopper and Tony Duff noted last week as they
hung out during a town hall meeting, the school's form of self-governance.
"And if we don't like a class being offered we can still design our own
internship or independent study," Duff said. "Like, I am thinking about
studying at a Buddhist temple. That'd be cool."
Even so, a lot has changed since H-B Woodlawn opened in 1971 with a charge
to provide more educational freedom to students who didn't "fit in" at
their home schools.
Today, fewer students opt to craft their own independent study programs and
more are taking advanced placement classes.
More parents are attracted to H-B because of its reputation for rigorous
academics and small class size rather than its "hippie high school
moniker"a place where nonconformists could spend the day studying a poet,
or skip class altogether to argue about politics.
"Despite all the freedoms, I still feel it was a lot more hippie and crazy
before," said Duff, 16, and his friends agreed. "Now H-B has this
reputation as this sort of college prep school instead of this hippie
commune that it once was."
As the school celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, the H-B community
is grappling with maintaining its identity as a liberal haven for
"do-it-yourself education" and its more recent one as a school that offers
rigorous academics for stressed-out achievers.
With many of the the school's original faculty, including founder and
longtime Principal Ray Anderson, eligible for retirement within two to
three years, the debate has taken on a certain urgency. This is a time
viewed as a turning point in the school's history.
"When we started, everyone was questioning authority, especially the
students," said Anderson, whose thick hair is now white, no longer the dark
brown crown he has in the school's early yearbooks. "There was the civil
rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women's movement. Everything at once.
"We had this idea to have a school where students were given freedom to be
in charge of their own education," he recalled.
"Well, now some of the students are picking AP classes and they are more
pressured about going to college."
H-B Woodlawn's teachers, parents and students have been working on a
comprehensive assessment of the school, which has grades 6 through 12 --
and in coming months will be reexamining the school's mission and philosophy.
In many ways, H-B's shift is reflective of the way society and education
have changed. Today, much of education's focus is on testing and standards.
Students, like today's adults, are less inclined to challenge authority.
Students feel more pressured to please their parents and get into good
schools, educators said.
"The biggest change has been the pressure the kids put on themselves to get
into the right college," said Jim Schroeder, a math teacher at the school
"That was less of a concern of the kids who were coming when we first opened."
Many teachers at H-B Woodlawn said the school's philosophy of freedom and
respect for students' opinions are still intact, but questions remain over
what kind of students the school should serve.
Does the school's friendly atmosphere still offer an alternative education
for those who don't fit in elsewhere? Or, parents and teachers wonder, has
H-B simply become a magnet school for high-achieving students, who can
excel even more in the free atmosphere?
"We are serving a different population, and things have changed a lot since
1972," said physics teacher David Soles, a 1992 H-B Woodlawn graduate. "But
the question is, should a student be going here because the school has a
reputation as a place for a great education? Or should they be going here
because they would get beaten up at [a traditional] school for being a
sexual minority, and might really benefit from being in an alternative
That question goes to the heart of the long-standing debate over the
school's admissions policy. When the school opened, parents weren't exactly
clamoring to sign up their children. Today, there is a waiting list of
"Maybe people just thought we were weird," Anderson said. "But then our
reputation grew as a good school."
The school's admissions policy started as strictly a first-come,
first-served system, but it became controversial in the early 1990s when
there were more interested students than slots. Parents started to camp in
front of the school overnight to claim one of the 70 available sixth-grade
Many parents said they appreciated the school's small classes and academic
freedom. But some school board members at the time worried that white,
upper middle-class parents were trying to get their children into the
school because more low-income immigrant and minority children were moving
into their neighborhood schools.
In 1991, H-B was 75 percent white, while the county schools were 47 percent
white. The School Board decided to switch to a lottery system that gave
preference to minority students. But that plan had to be scrapped in 1997
after a federal judge declared that it discriminated against white children.
A modified lottery was also challenged. After numerous legal wranglings,
the district switched to a blind lottery with no preferences. This year,
H-B's sixth-grade class is 70 percent white, while county schools overall
are 42 percent white.
The small number of minority students concerns some Woodlawn students.
"It's like my friends aren't very encouraged to come here anymore because
they think a lot of Latinos don't come," said Claudia Gomez, 15, who was
born in Bolivia. "I tell them they should apply anyway. I love this school."
Anderson is trying to find ways to more aggressively recruit minorities.
The school is also looking into the idea of changing its admissions policy
again to give each county elementary school a certain number of slots in
the sixth-grade class.
No matter what happens, Anderson and other teachers want to make sure H-B's
core values live on once they leave.
One reason that H-B has been able to maintain its academic freedom during
the back-to-basics movement and other education trends is because its
students have continued to excel on standardized tests and other measures
of academic performance, teachers said.
Last year, for example, H-B had an average SAT score of 1150. H-B students
also, on average, took at least one AP test before they graduated, ranking
it in the top 5 percent of the nation's high schools to have such a high
number of students taking the exams.
Still, the school is beginning to be influenced by outside forces such as
the state Standards of Learning. Both the SOLs and AP tests drive
instruction and make it more difficult to include the alternative subject
matter and approaches that once characterized the school, said Randy
McKnight, chairman of the school's English department.
But McKnight believes that the school can still carry out its original
mission despite changing times.
"When someone asks me about change at Woodlawn, I want to shout that I am
not a delusional Gatsby seeking to repeat the past," McKnight said.
"I do want to hold true to a core mission and set of values that were
formed in the idealism of the 1960s, but I recognize the necessity of
growing and changing."
Students also believe they can have some blend of the old and new.
They love the fact that they can vote on, and hire, guests to teach special
classes. They still walk around barefoot and take classes such as
Existentialism and Philosophy and World War II Movies.
But they also study hard in core subjects.
Hopper, who takes five AP classes, said she first came to the school
because she wanted to drink soda in class, but that the school's philosophy
ended up becoming more important to her than the little freedoms.
"At least at H-B you can get that AP world but have another perspective
too," she said.
And with that, she walked off with friends to hang out in the halls.
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