Superlatives haven’t been kind to Roosevelt High School. As I laid out in a January cover story, Roosevelt has the lowest enrollment of any neighborhood high school. It has the most test-takers who scored “below basic” in math on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, and the worst “math and reading growth” figures.
But now D.C. Public Schools is hoping to add a new superlative to the mix: most international.
School and neighborhood advocates told me that if Roosevelt—-located in the increasingly wealthy Petworth area—-is to see its fortunes rise with those of the surrounding neighborhood, it’ll need to establish special academic programs to set it apart from other schools. DCPS seems to have found one such program.
In a press release, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced a proposal to “transform Roosevelt High School into a new international relations focused school.” The school, temporarily located at the shuttered neighboring MacFarland Middle School, will move back into its old building after renovation is complete in the fall of 2015. Henderson’s proposal is tied to opportunities presented by the new building, whose design she hopes will contribute to international programming.
“When we modernize our schools, we don’t want to just stop at the building,” Henderson said in the release. “The modernization gives us a chance to take a look at what’s happening inside and outside.”
The change would take effect when Roosevelt moves into the modernized building and could include dual-language programming, international travel for students, and classes in business, finance, and “international culinary arts.”
That could make Roosevelt a draw for some students who might otherwise have avoided the struggling school. But at a school that’s already having difficulty with basic math and reading skills, there’s some question about whether a conversion to an international relations focus might be too much of a jump. As D.C. activist Ken Archer tweeted after the press release went out:
With a 20% math & reading proficiency rate, I'm not sure International Relations is the programmatic focus Roosevelt High School needs.— Ken Archer (@kenarchersf) May 14, 2014
DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz dismisses that line of criticism. “I think that the nature of skeptical people is to be skeptical,” she says. “I am not going to let people who are skeptical get in the way of our excitement about this project.”
Dan Gordon, who manages high school planning and design for DCPS, says that the school’s international student body and its location—-along, naturally, with the rest of the school system—-in the nation’s capital make international relations a logical choice, even in a school with low math and reading scores. “I think it’s a false choice to say that you have to either work on helping the students who struggle to read and do math at grade level or have robust programming,” he says. “The two can coexist.”
Salmanowitz emphasizes that nothing is set in stone; this is simply a very early stage of planning, subject to community input. “This is a suggestion we’re putting out to the community,” she says.
This post has been updated to include comment from Salmanowitz and Gordon.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery