By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun
4:22 PM EST, November 23, 2011
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who says he has seen a broad spectrum of the nation's schools, from successful to struggling, left Wilde Lake High School this week singing not only its praises but those of the Howard County school system.
During a roundtable discussion at the school, Duncan posed questions to Wilde Lake students about whether the system known for its diversity works for all of its students.
Columbia's Wilde Lake, where school officials say more than 90 percent of students pass high school assessments before the 12th grade, has one of the county's most diverse student populations, with no ethnic group totaling more than 41 percent of its enrollment. It typifies a school system whose students hail from 86 countries and speak 60 languages, officials said.
"You guys are sort of the microcosm of the diversity of the country," said Duncan. "We as adults love to talk about celebrating diversity, but that's really hard to do. Cliques form, and you start to pull toward people who are more like us than not like us.
"I'd like to ask the students: How does that manifest itself here," Duncan added, "and what is the school trying to do so they don't have the AP kids with AP kids and kids from this country not with kids from other countries?"
Students say barriers are broken down because many students not only participate in events where diversity is celebrated but most of them pursue more than one interest, interacting with those from other backgrounds.
"I don't think you can find an athlete that doesn't do drama or participate in debate," said student Thomas Klotz. "I'm not sure where that motivation is coming from, but it's always been there. ... No one has ever said to me, 'No, you're just an athlete; you can't branch out like that.' It's just accepted, and that's the bottom line."
The roundtable discussion also focused on the needs of students with disabilities.
Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, joined Duncan at Wilde Lake. The two also visited classrooms and heard about how Wilde Lake prepares its students for college and careers after graduation, and makes certain that they take advantage of its opportunities and resources.
Wilde Lake student Donovan Tyson, who sat on the panel, said that he hoped Duncan walked away from the discussion primed to "improve the national situation for special education."
Duncan called Wilde Lake "an inspiration" for students who must grapple with diversity issues in the real world after graduation.
"I just think not just academically but socially, these students are going to be extraordinarily well prepared to be successful in a diverse global economy," said Duncan. "These are students who will be comfortable and confident in those situations, and that's hard to teach in class. You can do it through the school culture, and I think his community has done an amazing job of doing that."
Wilde Lake is among several schools that have drawn the education secretary's attention recently. In September, he announced the state's schools that earned National Blue Ribbon honors, including Lime Kiln Middle School in Howard County, Mount Washington Elementary School in Baltimore City, Severna Park High School in Anne Arundel County and Towson High School in Baltimore County.
Last year, Duncan visited Manor View Elementary School at Fort Meade after it received a library makeover courtesy of Target and the Heart of America Foundation.
"This is an opportunity for the county to display what we do every day in making sure that we treat all students to the best of their abilities, and to the best of our abilities provide educational services," said Howard school Superintendent Sydney Cousin about Duncan's visit to Wilde Lake.
Wilde Lake High Principal James LeMon said he got word that the school system office had news involving the school recently, and he braced himself to hear about it.
"I thought it was some negative news, but they said, 'No, the secretary of education is coming to Wilde Lake.' I was shocked," he said. "I've been singing the praises of this school's community since I've been here, so to have the opportunity for the secretary of education and the assistant secretary for special education [to] visit was phenomenal for us."
And Wilde Lake students who were on hand for the roundtable discussion with Duncan relished the moment as well.
"I thought it was an honor to participate in this," said Wilde Lake student Brianna Xiomi Baleno. "I thought that it was amazing that out of all the people in the school, I was one of the students that were chosen."
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