“A Happier Environment”

H.B. Woodlawn High School

Referred to sometimes as “hippie high,” H.B. Woodlawn High School in Arlington has a reputation for being low-key and offering its students more freedom than other top high schools. A magnet school that serves Arlington County students in grades 6-12, as well as offering a comprehensive English as a Second Language program for recent immigrants, Woodlawn puts little emphasis on rules and regulations. That means no dress code, no bells and no formal titles for the staff or principals. Decisions are made on an ad hoc basis, at a weekly attendance-optional meeting for all staffers and students, and everyone from an 11-year-old sixth grader to a 20-year teaching veteran gets an equal vote.

     Like everyone at Woodlawn, junior Amy Hazzard has heard the jibes from students at other schools. “We’re hippies, druggies, smoke a lot of pot, smoke pot with our teachers,” she says facetiously. “We don’t go to class.” She views the digs as nothing more than jealousy. “Our friends do envy us. “They think we don’t do any work. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh’”—she rolls her eyes—“‘you go to H.B.’”

     Despite the stereotyping and the scoffing, Woodlawn has the same competitive environment, and wins the same accolades, as do its much more strict and traditional counterparts—and often even outperforms them. In fact, Woodlawn has consistently ranked among the top 20 on Newsweek’s list of top public high schools in America, and last year was ranked the number 1 school in northern Virginia.

     For a northern Virginia public school with seven grades, Woodlawn is relatively small, with only about 1,800 students. Its curriculum is similar to that of other schools, with several levels of classes offered in all major subjects. The school offers 18 AP classes, and about 80 percent of upperclassmen take at least one. Nearly every senior (97 percent) goes on to college.

     While it is a magnet school, Woodlawn is not a school for the gifted. Anyone whose name is drawn in a lottery may attend, no matter what his or her performance at a previous school. The school first admitted students on a first-come-first-served basis, but there were complaints that upper-middle-income white students constituted a disproportionate percentage of the student body. So the entrance system was changed to a lottery. Nowadays, each Arlington County elementary school is given a certain number of application slots. Prospective students are then accepted at random. Only one out of four who apply get chosen.

     Frank Haltiwanger, Woodlawn’s principal, says the school’s philosophy centers on cultivating individual responsibility in young people. “They are [expected] to learn how to manage themselves without somebody leaning over them, reminding them of the rules, reminding them that their homework is due,” he says. The objective, he adds, is for students “to be self-directed rather than other-directed.”

     Woodlawn students do have more free time than their counterparts at other schools. An upperclassman—junior or senior—can have up to 15 hours a week of unstructured time during the 8:20 to 4:00 p.m. school day. At any time of the day, there are students leaning against lockers or sprawled on the floor, talking in the hallways, reading on a couch in the cafeteria. Some spend their free time doing homework; some spend it talking to friends or favorite teachers.

     Junior Mary Dodson thinks the more relaxed environment leads to greater student motivation and is the reason for the school’s success. “It’s definitely not a school for everybody. But we have more motivation to go to school—it’s a happier environment.”

     Woodlawn’s laid-back, liberal atmosphere might invite discipline problems or dropout issues among the student population, but Haltiwanger says neither is a concern. There are, though, occasional imbroglios with the nearby Yorktown high school, a more traditional public school known for its preppy environment and successful sports teams. Woodlawn has no official sports teams. There are a few academic clubs, started and run by students.

     Despite the idiosyncratic nature of the school, most of the graduating seniors move on to attend conventional state schools such as the University of Virginia, James Madison University or Virginia Tech. Some go to smaller private colleges.

     Haltiwanger explains what he thinks students are looking for at Woodlawn: “I think, for the majority, we offer an opportunity for self-exploration that they might not get at a comprehensive school. There is another part of the population here; I will characterize them as more sensitive. And they have a very difficult time when it comes to enlarged authoritarian middle or high schools, where rules are important but seem arbitrary. And the smallest group here [comprises] the real idiosyncratic personalities. And a lot of them are just lucky to get in on the lottery. They really march to the beat of a different drummer. They look different, dress different, act different, have different interests. They are different. And they are tolerated really well here.” Given the sometimes devastating peer pressure at big high schools, that is a good thing. Call it the Woodlawn difference.

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