What's Wrong With Wheatley?

It has history, it has heritage. But does Wheatley High School have a real future?

The extent of the problem is made clear when it's realized that the TAAS test is designed to measure minimal skills in reading, writing and mathematics. The reading test, for example, requires a student to interpret the meaning of words such as adversities, subsequent and tingle in context; the math test requires students to solve problems using formulas, add fractions, read graphs and solve some very basic algebraic equations; the writing test requires students to identify fundamental problems in grammar, syntax and punctuation, and to write a short persuasive essay. For a school be acceptable by state standards, only 30 percent of students must be able to pass these tests. And even passing the tests doesn't assure mastery of a skill.

Williams has predicted that Wheatley's scores will be significantly better this year than last, and preliminary data indicates that scores were up this spring. But can he get the scores up and keep them up? What, exactly, does it mean to turn a school around? And what would it take to restore Wheatley to its former glory, to assure that future classes will perform well?

Hard questions, none with easy answers. At the end of a tour of his school, Williams returns to a glassed-in conference room just off the central office where students come with their problems and teachers come for their mail. He is plainly visible here, and students come to him.

One is Sharon Dixon, petite, bright-eyed, confident, the school's valedictorian, with a better than 4.0 grade point average. At first she was scared of coming to Wheatley, she says. But she learned it wasn't as bad as the rumors made it out to be. Dixon has a scholarship application for Williams to sign. He scans it, points out a typographical error and sends her on her way.

Another student comes by, this one with discouragement spelled out in his body language. His eyes are downcast. He's the complete opposite of Sharon Dixon. He has a note for Williams. The student is going to be out of school for a while for reasons that Williams can't divulge, but he wants his place in class back when he returns.

"This is a kid who wants to make sure I know where he is," Williams says, "and why he is going. They know whether you're sincere. They have good BS detectors."

Williams says that when he arrived at Wheatley, he found that teachers were buying clothes and shoes for students, so he set up a fund called Caring and Sharing. He had a ninth-grader, a model student who came to school without a jacket; Caring and Sharing bought him a jacket and found out he had been living alone in a house with no electricity after his mother had died. It's just one of the tales of hardship heard at Wheatley.

It's also one reason why talk of Wheatley's storied heritage can only go so far. When he first sat down to discuss Wheatley, Williams withdrew into a spacious room off the school's central hallway. Called the alumni room, it's furnished with Queen Anne chairs, polished dining tables and sideboards and upholstered sofas. This is where Wheatley's alumni meet to plan their class reunions, elaborate affairs often held in the summer that bring in Wheatley's scattered graduates so they can reminisce about the glory days. But once the reunion is over, they scatter. The president of the alumni association, Nellye Punch, says her organization hasn't done as much as it once did to help Wheatley's students. "We're getting old," she says.

One of the ministers involved in The Metropolitan Organization's efforts is fond of invoking the African phrase in vogue with the Clintons, "It takes a village to raise a child." It's a nice phrase, a meaningful phrase, but a phrase that requires more than pointing out a problem, making a demand and then heading to a home far from the child's village. Sitting in the comfort of the alumni room, enveloped in the essence of Wheatley, Williams says he couldn't remember the last time the alumni had used their special enclave. Maybe once, he recalls, last fall.

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