At the State-Of-The-Art H.D. Woodson, Education Is What Matters

Woodson interior: Interior of the new HD Woodson school.

Last August, the new facility for H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast opened to much fanfare. Mayor Gray and various city officials attended a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the $102 million dollar building. With state-of-the-art classrooms, a 1000-seat auditorium and a swimming pool, this impressive facility has brought together Deanwood and the broader DC community for athletic events, music productions and science competitions. Despite the draw of the impressive facilities, what’s been happening inside the school is what’s truly noteworthy. In just one year, H.D. Woodson has established a reputation for its innovative academic programs and the high expectations for student achievement, which can make a profound impact on the broader community.

The Campus – Then and Now

The original H.D. Woodson High School, a nine-story concrete structure referred to as the “Tower of Power,” was built 40 years ago. Over time, the heating and cooling systems and the once-impressive escalator broke down; as the building fell apart, the students’ confidence in the city’s investment in their future also started to crack. The new H.D. Woodson facility embodies the city’s reinvestment in this community and has the power to inspire a renewed hope in what’s possible for Woodson students.

In addition to a new facility, the school is offering an innovative academic program: STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Inspired by President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address and American’s waning global economic power, this program offers students the chance to develop skills in high-demand areas. An integral part of the STEM program’s interdisciplinary, project-based approach is ensuring that students have a clear career path, so the material they’re learning provides relevant motivation.

The nine science labs feature an integrated learning space, several of which are separated by a moveable wall to allow students to collaborate, an ideal teaching method for kinesthetic learners. Every classroom at Woodson features a Promethean Board, a type of interactive white board that capitalizes on teenagers’ attachment to and proficiency with technology. In addition, the school has 40 laptop carts.

Fostering Success

An enthusiastic proponent of the STEM program, Principal Thomas Whittle feels “all [academic] pieces should be integrated for students to become lifelong learners.” To foster students’ intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills, instructors must “teach students how to think.” As Principal Whittle pointed out, “We need to raise our standards for everyone at Woodson,” because, as he said, he’s “never seen anyone rise to low standards.” Supported by the adults in their lives, students have worked to reach high expectations, and they’ve also learned the importance of self-advocacy. One sophomore reflected, “I learned to consistently ask for help when I needed it,” while another noted, “I learned that if you are failing, don’t give up. I also learned how to do more challenging work instead of doing nothing.” In fact, on the DC CAS, a year-end standardized test that students take at nearly every grade level, the sophomores at H.D. Woodson achieved 5.3% overall growth this year.

One of the ways H.D. Woodson is helping its students is through partnerships with approximately 35 businesses and organizations, such as the Carnegie Institution for Science, Texas Instruments and CISCO, which offer high school students internships and grants. Several Woodson students have summer internships (some of which are paid) with various organizations, including BET, Nationals Park, and the Department of Transportation. Through the Microsoft IT Academy Certification Program, 21 of 25 students passed the Microsoft certification test for this program and received laptop computers. In addition, the T.A.P.S. program, which stands for Teens and Police Service Academy, will partner with H.D. Woodson next spring to “help at-risk teenagers develop a healthy relationship with students to keep them on the right track,” according to Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander.

Woodson and the Community

Once known as a sports school, Woodson is making a name for itself by hosting several STEM-related events, including the Solar Flare event, a Robotics competition qualifying event, which 1000 people attended, and the STEM Fair, where Woodson earned four awards and a $1000 Federal Grant from the EPA which can be replenished yearly. “These events are a boost for the entire community,” said Councilmember Alexander, who feels “proud of the students at Woodson.” The new facility is conducive to hosting these kinds of events, and the new curriculum is enabling students to distinguish themselves and their school.

Having just completed his eighth year as a member of the Woodson faculty, Mr. Aris Pangilinan reflected on the many academic successes his students achieved this year. As the 10th grade cohort coordinator, Mr. Pangilinan oversaw the 10th grade academic program, collaborated with the faculty and helped manage weekly assessments that checked students’ understanding and progress. Mr. Pangilinan noted that, while the new STEM program demanded more work from the faculty, the “parents are proud of their children, and students have confidence in their ability to achieve. Using the STEM curriculum, students will get more job opportunities and the whole community will benefit.”

A modern building is just the first step to inspiring confident students. Parental involvement is integral to a school’s success. Principal Whittle noted that, in order to make disciplinary action meaningful, he meets with students and their parents. “I bring the parent in to have a conversation. They welcome that. They want to know if their child isn’t coming to school. The parents come in and see that success is here for their child, and a partnership with the school can make that happen.” In fact, Woodson’s increasingly positive reputation means that parents want their children to attend this high school, with many families applying from out-of-boundary wards.

“More people are returning to public school,” according to Councilmember Alexander. For the 2012-13 school year, enrollment at H.D. Woodson is 980 students, but Principal Whittle anticipates the school’s actual enrollment will be closer to 1100 students. While increased interest in Woodson speaks to the school’s improving reputation, the gap between projected and actual enrollment means the school is operating at a budget deficit and functioning with a lack of resources. Other potential challenges facing the school include both staff changes and a few issues with the new school starting to appear such as the outdoor track not draining properly and leaks in the field house. More importantly, Principal Whittle will be leaving H.D. Woodson after making a profound impact in his short, two year tenure. “He always has the interest of the kids at heart,” according to Mary Jackson, Ward 7 ANC Commissioner, whose four children attended H.D. Woodson. As Mrs. Jackson pointed out, the “school can only be successful with support at all levels,” and hopes that the problems arising will be addressed.

Looking Ahead

Tony Robinson, the Director of Public Affairs in the Office of the City Administrator and an alumnus of H.D. Woodson, feels the new building will “change the mindset of the students.” When he was at Woodson in the late 1970’s, the school was the “envy of other students in the district. Students came from across the city to attend Woodson. Woodson students had a sense of pride in themselves and their school,” a pride reflected in the school’s colors: black, red and green, which are the same colors as in the Pan-African flag. This sense of African-American pride extended beyond the towering school. Mr. Robinson noted that students at Woodson followed “guiding principles of how you conduct yourself, in and outside of the school.” At this new school, “academics must be on par with the facility” as a “catalyst for the development of the community.”

Councilmember Alexander is hopeful about Woodson’s future and feels the school is a good model for area schools. “We need to focus on the middle schools to prepare students for high school,” she says. Mr. Pangilinan hopes for the best, as well. “If Woodson continues to use the STEM curriculum, students will get more jobs and opportunities, and the community will benefit.”

H.D. Woodson High School, 540 55th St. NE, Washington, DC 20019; Phone: 939-2030


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