Yorktown High School
The campus of Yorktown High School sits in an upper-middle-income Arlington suburb amid brick Federal-style and white clapboard homes. It is a prosperous burgh, and the school reflects that: Yorktown occupies two three-story brick buildings (one old and one new) and features an open design style, with plenty of benches and central space for socializing. Between classes and at lunch, the common areas quickly fill with wholesome, preppy types who talk boisterously and laugh—no doubt at the foibles of their classmates. The culture is mainstream suburbia, mostly: Think flip-flops, khaki pants and loafers. You won’t find many slacker skateboarders or pierced malcontents.
Yorktown’s facilities are the envy of many schools. To serve its 1,500 students, the school has seven computer labs, three freshly Astroturfed sports fields, two darkrooms and one swimming pool. Unlike Woodlawn or Thomas Jefferson, Yorktown is known for its successful sports programs as well as its yuppie and jock atmosphere. The football team is typically one of the best in the northern region, and the team made the district semi-finals last year.
Many big high schools with robust sports programs tend to have a fairly average academic reputation. Not so, Yorktown. It has been deemed a National School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education, and it’s easy to see why: Yorktown’s SAT average is 1,724, and based on collective student grade point average, the school has been listed among the top five public high schools in the nation.
Yorktown has staked its reputation on advanced placement classes. The school offers a whopping 29 APs, which reflects the ambitions and talents of the student body. Even students not typically considered AP material, such as those with lower GPAs or previous discipline issues, are encouraged to take at least one AP before graduation. “Some may take more than one, but we encourage all to take at least one in the area in which they are interested,” explains Dr. Raymond Pasi, Yorktown’s principal. Last year, nearly half of the student body, including freshmen and sophomores, took an AP test. “We try to provide a level of rigor that makes students of all ability reach beyond their grasp,” adds Pasi. “I think that is a key factor in the kind of atmosphere we have here.”
Some research has shown that AP courses promote college enrollment, and Yorktown has made this its mantra, hoping that the more challenging academic classes will push its students to greater achievements. AP exams are graded on a scale of one to five, and a score of three or higher is considered satisfactory—meaning the student will receive a college credit for the class. Last year, says Pasi, 73 percent of students taking an AP class got a score of three or higher. Students can begin taking AP classes as sophomores, and there are no limits on the number that upperclassmen can take. “Here at Yorktown, a lot of kids take three or four APs,” says Courtney Ziegler, a senior who is taking two and says she is looking at colleges in New Hampshire.
In 2006 CNN Money ranked Arlington the most educated city in America, and many of its public schools reflect that phenomenon. “We have a lot of parents who are well educated and who understand that education is key to success later in life,” says Lynette McCracken, a Yorktown guidance counselor. More than half of the area’s residents are college graduates, and one-quarter hold advanced degrees. That makes college more of an assumption, as opposed to an ambition, for the Yorktown student body. “Students are beginning to think about college in 10th grade, but you see a lot even in ninth grade,” says McCracken. “Parents begin thinking about it much earlier than that.” She says Yorktown’s teachers “weave social and emotional motivation into academics,” and adds, “Students here aren’t afraid to stretch. I do think that makes a difference.”
At Yorktown, there is a lot of emphasis on planning. Freshman students have a one-on-one meeting with their guidance counselor to establish a four-year academic plan. By sophomore year, most have attended a school-sponsored college admissions workshop and have taken the pre-SAT—a test created by the College Board but administered by the high school. Says Jimmy Khorsandi, a senior who is looking for a college with a good soccer program, “The first month of school, our counselors all came in and talked to us about options and what we’re thinking of doing.”
There has been a movement in recent years to ease the tension of high school students. Some experts worry that students are pushing themselves too hard, leading to increased stress. Unlike most high schools, Yorktown students are no longer ranked by GPA, and teachers are mandated to assign minimal amounts of work over winter, spring and summer breaks. “We’re the only school in the county that has a rule about teachers not giving mandatory homework in the summer. It helps relax us,” says Khorsandi. “It makes [the breaks] really like a vacation.”
That’s surely a good thing. But don’t expect the students—or their teachers or parents—to ease up on the expectations when school resumes. Yorktown is known for its overachieving students and hyper-competitive athletics—and that’s not likely to change. As Ziegler says, “It’s very competitive here.”
Principal Pasi agrees, but he emphasizes that the school’s primary goal is “to encourage students to compete against themselves and not against their peers.” Few could argue with the results.