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Public Schools Ready for First Day

11,000 students to begin the year in Alexandria’s public schools Tuesday.

The teachers are back and, next Tuesday, Alexandria’s nearly 11,000 public school students will begin a new year.

At the elementary level, there are four new principals: Lucretia Jackson has moved from Lyles-Crouch to Maury; Marcia Baldanza has moved from Patrick Henry to Jefferson-Houston; Patricia Zissious, at Lyles-Crouch, is new to the Alexandria system and Coleen Mann, at Patrick Henry, has returned to the system from San Francisco. Mann was previously an assistant principal at T.C. Williams.

Jackson is excited about the upcoming year at Maury. “We have a terrific staff and now just want to get back to the business of educating all of our children,” she said. “Our marquee says it best … Wanted: More children to love and educate.”

Maury, once again, failed to meet the benchmarks in the federally-mandated No Child Left Behind Act. “Right now we have 130 students,” Jackson said. “I hope to reach out to parents in our neighborhood and show them that Maury is a school where their children will learn and will achieve. The staff has done a good job here. Our test scores have improved and we are going to make sure that they continue to improve.”

Not only have parents of Maury students been offered the option to transfer their children to another school but the school is also required to offer supplemental programs. “Our teachers will be tutoring students after school, we have a 21st Century Learning grant and we will have a number of enrichment groups,” Jackson said.

MAURY IS UNDER construction. “We have finished the first phase of the project and that part of the school looks great,” Jackson said.

Remaining to be done is the school’s library and media center. “The project is ahead of schedule and we don’t really expect it to have a significant impact on our children,” she said.

Jefferson-Houston has been reconstituted. “We have a very new team and our focus is on learning,” Baldanza said.

She hired new staff for the school last spring. “About two-thirds of our staff is new,” Baldanza said. “Not new to the system but new to Jefferson-Houston.”

Not surprisingly, many of the staff come from Patrick Henry, where Baldanza was principal. “I really wanted a staff who could hit the ground running and who understood my expectations,” Baldanza said.

As she said, “Our focus is on learning and student achievement. When we began the arts focus here, the purpose was to improve student achievement and to increase enrollment. Instead, both have declined. While I don’t want to begin by changing the focus immediately, we are certainly evaluating our options.

“I believe that we had a good foundation here with our arts focus. But a foundation isn’t enough: we need the scaffolding as well. Our teachers were not fully trained in how to integrate arts into the curriculum — to make art and dance and drama supportive to core subjects as opposed to making core subjects support the arts. We are not a performing arts school.

“Parents have told me time and time again that they want a school that works and they are more interested in student achievement than on an arts focus. We are certainly going to work with the community, evaluate our data and make some decisions,” she said.

One of the new programs at Jefferson-Houston is the use of laptop computers and a software program that evaluates student performance and helps teachers design a curriculum that meets the individual needs of the child. “It’s called Success Maker and it worked wonderfully at Patrick Henry,” Baldanza said. “We will begin implementing it in second through fifth grades this fall and in the first grade in January. We want to make certain that all of our teachers are fully trained and that they understand how it can work with classroom learning.”

Baldanza wants to encourage parents to come to the school and be involved. “My doors, all three of them, are always open,” she said. “And I want to hear from parents. I am looking forward to a good year.”

LULU LOPEZ REMAINS the principal at Mt. Vernon Elementary School. She has just returned from Uruguay where she spent a month participating in a Fulbright Leadership Program.

“It was fabulous,” Lopez said. “Four administrators from Uruguay had visited me and I was given the opportunity to spend time with them in their schools in Uruguay.”

She observed classroom discussions and assisted principals and teachers with teaching English by recording words and sentences in English. “I went primarily because of our dual language program here at Mt. Vernon,” she said. “We discussed bilingual education and various techniques that work.

“The schools are very different. One principal has 400 children in her elementary school and no support — she doesn’t have an assistant or a secretary and she is teaching a class. Also, the classes are much larger than they are here. It was very different,” she said.

Back at Mt. Vernon, things are moving along. “Our test scores are continuing to rise but we are not satisfied,” Lopez said. “We are always working toward improved student achievement for all of our children.”

The dual language program is now offered from kindergarten through fourth grade. “Our classes are full and we even have a waiting list for kindergarten,” she said. “Next year we will offer the dual language program throughout the school by adding the fifth grade.”

She is looking forward to an exciting and full year. “I would encourage parents to stay involved,” she said. “Children do better in school when their parents support their schools.”

GEORGE WASHINGTON Middle School has a new principal, Grace Taylor. “It’s great to be back in this community,” Taylor said. She attended George Mason Elementary School, George Washington Junior High School and graduated from T.C. Williams High School. She returned to Alexandria last year and served as an assistant principal at T. C.

“I returned to the area for personal reasons and am very excited about being at GW,” she said. “Our focus, as always, is on student achievement. We have a terrific staff and everyone is excited about the upcoming year.”

There are 19 new teachers and administrators at the school. This includes a new administrative team. Merri Jo Pape will be the sixth grade principal. “She has more than 27 years of experience as a teacher and administrator and brings a wealth of experience to this team,” Taylor said. “We were very fortunate that she was available and agreed to join the staff.”

Bill McGreevy will be the new seventh grade administrator. “He was a teacher at T. C. and then did an administrative internship in Ohio,” Taylor said. “He is enthusiastic and is terrific with students.”

Gary Steele has moved from seventh grade to be the eighth grade administrator and Keisha Boggan will be the school’s new associate principal. “It’s a new administrative team and we are all looking forward to working with the faculty and with parents,” Taylor said.

The curriculum will remain the same but Taylor is evaluating everything. “In July, I sent out an administrative needs assessment,” she said. “This week, we have discussed the results of that survey and are looking at what works, what doesn’t, recommended changes and wish lists. We have heard those results, have discussed current research into middle school curriculum and are also hearing from a panel of our students about what has worked for them.

“We are going through national accreditation this year, like all of Alexandria’s secondary schools, and now is a good time to have those types of discussions,” she said.

The accelerated reader program will continue. “But teachers are being given more flexibility about implementing it creatively,” Taylor said.

She hopes that parents will stay involved at the school. “We want parents to be a part of their children’s educational experience and visit the school,” she said. “We hope that they use our e-mail and our voice mail and want to remind everyone that the homework hotline is a resource for students and parents alike. I think it’s going to be a great year.”

Superintendent Rebecca Perry is also looking ahead. “This year, I believe every one of us must focus our energies and direction on expanding our individual and collective capacities to lead,” she told teachers and principals earlier this week. “Our mission, which states we will, in partnership with our families and communities, educate effectively all learners to succeed in a changing world — goes to the heart of our shared values as educators. We passionately believe that every child who walks through our doors will learn and grow and succeed. Together, we accept our responsibility to ensure success for every child.”