My daughter graduated from high school a couple of weeks ago and, like so many of her classmates, is headed in the fall to one of the best universities in the country. Her class includes the brightest, most talented group of young people with which I have personally ever been involved: They were offered more than twenty million dollars in college financial aid, and twenty-two of them were National Merit Scholarship finalists. But what many people would consider the most remarkable thing about their accomplishments is that Walnut Hills High School, the place from which they graduated, is public.
Since my older daughter was also part of an extremely successful class there, I’ve spent some time over the years wondering about the difference between Walnut and all of the failing public schools about which we continue to hear. Here are a few of my observations:
Size matters – Walnut’s ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student population is fairly large at roughly 2,200 kids in grades seven through twelve. This affords sufficient critical mass to allow the school to offer twenty-eight different AP courses and maintain a robust arts program including a jazz ensemble and several theater classes. It’s likely that these types of important specialized classes could not be filled or justified in a school with a smaller student body.
The faculty, staff and administration seem delighted to be part of the experience – The school’s tradition of excellence makes it a place where people are genuinely excited to come to work. Over the years I’ve heard numerous teachers thank parents for the opportunity to instruct their thoughtful, motivated kids. And one night while picking up my daughter after play practice, I watched the principal take time to walk through the flower beds gathering trash before heading home after a very long day. The quality of the students at Walnut inspires the adults who, in turn, inspire the students. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Parents are involved – “Meet the Teacher” nights at Walnut Hills are routinely standing room only. Last year when the call went out for volunteers to help clean up and landscape the grounds before school opened there weren’t enough tools to go around for everyone who showed up. This level of parental involvement is pretty typical at Walnut. I also sense that the majority of parents whose kids go to school there know how fortunate they are to have such a wonderful opportunity and actively work to make certain their children live up to the school’s lofty expectations.
In all fairness, Walnut Hills High School does have a couple of key advantages over a “typical” public school: For one thing, it’s a magnet school, so it draws engaged families from all over the district (and beyond), and to be considered for admission students do have to score 70% or better on the Terra Nova standardized test. That being said, what ultimately seems to set Walnut apart from so many other schools is that the students, teachers, administration, staff and parents are all equally dedicated to ensuring its ongoing success, and that’s a formula that can be replicated by any community willing to make the commitment.