Columbia Heights’ Bell Multicultural School ranked 37th best High School in US by Newsweek

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

Great news from the Columbia Heights’ listserv:

Fourteen Washington-area high schools are ranked among the 100 best in the nation by Newsweek.
To make the list, schools had to challenge students with advanced placement college-level courses and tests.
Just 6 percent of all public schools in the nation are on the list.
Here are the local high schools and their rankings in the top 100:

H.B. Woodlawn in Arlington – 27
Richard Montgomery in Rockville – 33
Bell Multicultural in D.C. – 37

36 Comment

  • Congratulations! Although, a little odd to not see any of the typically well-ranked high schools on there.

    • It’s because they’ve slipped, big time.

    • These three are only the single highest ranked high schools in each of the three local jurisdictions, DC, MD, and VA. In all, 14 local high schools made the top 100 list.

    • Read the FAQ on the methodology. Not to slight any of the teachers, administrators, or students at Bell, but these rankings have everything to do with the methodology employed, the same Jay Mathews has used for the WaPo over the years, which favors taking — not passing — AP and IB tests. I’ve never found it that compelling. If you look at the numbers, for instance, while there are 5.5 of these tests taken for every graduating senior, less than a quarter of Bell seniors actually got a minimal passing score on even one of these tests, much lower than all but two other schools in the top-100. Kind of fails a straight-face test to say that it’s a great result that so many tests are taken and so few pass.

      • For DC this is major. Change is made in baby steps for improving school systems. If residents see Bell (along with School Without Walls and Wilson) as viable high school options more people may be willing to put down real roots in the City.

        This will also motivate people to get involved at the school since everybody likes a ‘winner.”

      • Anonymous, this is correct. It is a positive step in the right direction but this does NOT mean that Bell is as good a school or even comparable with Thomas Jefferson (TJ) in Fairfax, BCC, Whitman or Blair in Montgomery, etc.

        The way these best high schools are judged is HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL for the reasons you cite. People who follow this blindly simply do not understand that Bell is not as good a school as Wilson.

        It is VERY smart on the part of the principal though and a great PR move, but if you know about schools this one is a shrug.

        • Neener, I have one issue. The students in Thomas Jefferson (TJ) BCC, Whitman are the children of college educated parents so the ‘raw material’ those school’s work with is more advanced.

          If you sent TJ’s Freshman class for the next 4 years to Bell and Bell’s class to TJ what do you think the results would be? Bell > TJ.

          • i don’t really understand your point.
            you’re saying it has little to do with teachers and resources and environment? just the home experiences of the child?
            and if thats what you’re saying, then so what? some schools are still better than others.

          • And so what? As 5:56 notes, the raw material is a big part of the quality of a school. Teachers are somewhat pointless without students. I commend teachers who take on less advanced students and don’t compromise their expectations for them, but it just strains your credibility to say that the baseline preparation of the students doesn’t impact the overall quality of the learning environment.

          • Um… are you saying that Bell’s students are not the children of college graduates? Why suggest that?

            I met this woman from El Salvador not long ago on the playground. She moved here in the 80s and got a degree from UDC in the 90s and has an MBA from GW. *I* don’t have an MBA from GW!!! You look at her walking down the street and you’re like “Salvadoran Lady.”

            I am from Montgomery County. I am college educated. My kids go to DCPS.

            I don’t know what Bell is like inside, but what neighborhood are you talking about?

          • Neener, I completely agree.

            Part of having a Top 100 school to actual parents is having Top 100 students as well. Clearly this school has a ways to go until it has top 100 students.

            It’s a very interesting approach to schooling, but Top 100? Probably not.

            And Joe Esq 74 is correct. There’s a limit to what you can do in a HS with a set of kids that isn’t properly prepared.

        • Neener, perhaps you should do something productive about it instead of just making uncalled for comments/labeling.

  • i dont know jack about school ratings but this sounds great! congratulations to the students faculty and staff!

  • Unless this is based on a sneak peek of the 2011 edition, this listserv post seems to be a fabrication. No DC school made the US News Top 100, although four made the “silver,” “bronze,” or honorable mention categories: Banneker: Hyde; Thurgood Marshall; and Washington Math/Science/Technology.

    Not sure if this is related, but, as 4:32 noted, these are the top three schools in the WaPo “challenge” rankings for schools that have a high percentage of students taking AP and IB classes.

  • Like a commenter above, not to slight the teachers there — I know a few who work at CHEC and they’re some of the smartest, most hard-working folks I know — but the ranking is a PR scam. They make EVERYONE take the AP tests, but few pass (let alone are prepared for it, or capable of passing it, or even know they’re taking the test until the day of.) It’s laughable, really — but will be touted and replicated until every student in DC is taking college-level classes, and failing. Mission accomplished!

    • At least the students now know what they don’t know. If they are never challenged they cannot grow.
      AP courses are harder than H.S. regular history, biology etc. courses and the test is no walk in the park either.
      I’m sorry the D.C. schools aren’t better preparing the students for the tests, because if you get a 4 or 5 on it, once you get into college you can use a test for college credit. Can come in handy when you 1) want to skip Intro to Western Civ or whatever and take a harder or more specialized course 2) have to drop a course during a difficult semester – you can use the credits to graduate on time.

      • I think I was able to skip out of Intro to Western Civ. now that you mention it. It really does help open up opportunities in college in terms of minors, study abroad, avoiding the professors that sink your GPA. 😉
        Good to see continued good news coming out of DC public schools.

      • yes, you are correct, it’s nice that DC students know what they don’t know.

      • Sorry, but if they’re not passing, there’s no way to know that they’re being taught advanced material. Most of the them failing the test strongly indicates they’re not being taught the advanced material.

  • This is a giant load of BS. I wish Bell was a great school b/c I live in Columbia Heights and plan to stay here. It would be nice if my kids could go to school there. But, as it stands now, yes, AP classes are required for everyone, but only 1 or 2 students actually do well enough on the exam to get AP credit. Its a scam. The kids are no where near well enough prepared to take AP classes.

  • Quality, affordable education for any kid in DC will require a paradigm shift away from the current public school model. Don’t see that happening any time soon.

  • I think you definitely have to dig into the numbers, but I won’t call it a scam. No, the vast majority of their students bomb the AP tests, but I think it’s great that they’re exposing the students to that level of rigor. Contrary to what was portrayed in Stand and Deliver, it took Jaime Escalante 8 years to build up his AP Calculus program (not two). And most of his kids didn’t pass it when he first taught the course. It takes time, dedication, hard work and patience to build an AP program. I teach both regular and AP science classes in a low-income DC area high school, and we don’t do nearly as good a job at exposing students to rigorous courses as they do at CHEC. With that said, Bell has much bigger issues with teacher turnover (around 50% or higher for the last couple of years). They need to work on improving that.

    • There’s a reason why they have such a high turnover. It’s probably not attributed entirely to the issues mentioned above, but when teachers are forced to teach AP classes (primarily) to boost their rankings instead of tuning into the needs of the students, it becauses an incredibly frustrating and overwhelming uphill battle. I get the idea that exposing kids to possibilities is a good thing, but what’s the point in teaching AP English to a class filled with mostly recent immigrants who speak no English at all? I’m not being facetious; a close friend used to teach AP English at Bell and 90% of the class was filled with students who should have been taking ESL classes, not AP English. This leaves you with the choice to either a) teach the AP curriculum for the 1 or 2 studenst who are placed their appropriately, and in effect leave the rest of the class frustrated and alienated because they can’t understand the words let alone the content, or b) teacher basic English to fit the needs of the majority, but waste the time of those students who could actually benefit from AP classwork.

      This sort of mentality – make the the school look good on paper but margainialize students and mismanage the talents of teachers – is an irresponsible and wreckless approach to education. While Bell may provide great opportunities for a few students, it certainly does not do so based on the needs of the student population.

  • From the list author’s methodology FAQ:

    To send a student off to college without having had an AP, IB, or Cambridge course and test is like insisting that a child learn to ride a bike without ever taking off the training wheels. It is dumb, and in my view a form of educational malpractice.

    This seems pretty biased to me. AP courses and test participation are growing exponentially, but still–millions of people have gone to college without ever taking them, and done quite well. Both in college and in their career.

  • I know someone who made it through the 11th grade at Bell (and then dropped out) without ever even hearing of “World War II.” That was 10 years ago, though.

  • I know of several kids in DCPS that can not even read. Are you telling me that if they attend Bell, they would subject to AP classes as well? That would make no sense. Far better to shore up their deficiencies that prop up test scores. Most of the students from DCPS are not going to college. That is not a bad thing. Most shouldn’t. But to allow them to leave after 13 years and be unable to do basic reading and math is a travesty.

    If you focus on the wrong thing (AP/IB exams) instead of focusing on the real problem, you will never solve it. We will continue to gloss over this issue in hopes of gentrification solves it for us.

  • When I was in high school, taking a full load of AP classes was something reserved for highly qualified students. If you were further down the academic ladder, you took at most 1 or 2 AP classes, ever. Forcing all students to take APs might be a recipe for improving your place on the ranking lists, but it must be a nightmare for teachers to deal with a large group of unqualified students who don’t have the background.

    AP classes are difficult. If you can’t get at least a 3 on the AP exam, you shouldn’t have been taking the class in the first place.

    • This is a very good point. When I was in high school, my school required you to get special dispensation to enroll in more than 2 AP classes at a time, on the rationale that the workload and demand of just 2 of them, on top of 4-5 other college prep courses, was simply too much. I took a total of 5 AP classes in high school, and I was at the very top of my class. These stats suggest kids at Bell are taking more than that ON AVERAGE, across the entire student body. That is not a challenge for them; it is an impossibility.

      These rankings are absolutely useless. Beyond that, apparently, they appear to be providing a perverse incentive to fail DCPS kids even further in the interest of exonerating DCPS administrators who are able to get their school in these rankings (“We’re #37 … who cares if half these kids can’t write a cogent paragraph??”). As one of the posters above said, that borders on travesty.

  • I’m all for challenging the students with AP, but it hardly ranks “TOP 100” when most fail. It’s good that DCPS has a school like this, but they should be siphoning off kids from the rest of the district that are putting academics first, rather than serving the immediate neighborhood. I think most middle class parents are smart enough to sniff out BS and calling this a Top 100 school is BS. Like Neener said, having a top 100 school is also about having Top 100 students and DC is not there yet.

    That said, kudos for the district for experimenting and trying new things and working in the right direction. I’m not sure the excitement for change will survive the mayoral election.

    • Perhaps CHEC is trying to establish a school that draws kids from other areas in order to benefit from its challenging curriculum. It may not have reached that point yet (and Top 100 school it is not), but it hardly borders on travesty. I don’t know if other DCPS high schools offer as wide a selection of AP curriculum (Do Wilson or SWW?)
      I think what qualifies more as a travesty has been the longstanding lack of challenge many students face (i.e., teachers not expecting much if anything from them). And if CHEC students can’t read by the time they get to high school, I think the problem is with the middle schools that advanced them and not the high school curriculum.

  • Just to clarify Bell is an admission based school not a neighborhood school – yes there are a few DCPS that are admission only.

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