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Fixing Jefferson-Houston

New principal is working to turn around challenged elementary school.

Annette Shupe, the new principal at Jefferson-Houston, has been asked to turn around the elementary school, which has failed to meet state and federal standards for years. Its scores are some of the lowest in the division, and its reputation sends parents scrambling to find other schools.

"I am very committed to the school," Shupe said, adding that she is often in her office until 9 p.m. "I think we need to stay the course."

But her course will be a demanding one, and the school's reputation in the city has been tarnished by years of poor performance. David Englin, the Democratic candidate for the 45th District of the House of Delegates, confronted Jefferson-Houston's reputation head-on in 2003. That's when he was researching schools for his son, who began Kindergarten in 2004.

"When we bought our house, the Realtor told us that we were in the zone for Mount Vernon Community School," Englin said, adding that his house is one block from the dividing line. "When we talked to people in the community about it, we kept hearing that Jefferson-Houston had problems. We also heard that there was a lot of optimism about the future, but my kid needed a school now."

In the end, Englin opted out of Jefferson-Houston, sending his son to the program for Math, Science and Technology at Cora Kelly Elementary School.

LAST WEEK, the Upper King Street Civic Association held a special meeting to talk about the future of Jefferson-Houston. The meeting addressed some of the lingering problems with the school, and made an attempt to combat the negative impression held by many members of the community. The panel discussion included Shupe, Superintendent Rebecca Perry and School Board member Melissa Luby.

"This school will be accredited," said Luby, who is a former Jefferson-Houston PTA president. "My gut feeling about Shupe is that she's the right person for the job, and I'm expecting great things from her."

Luby called for community members to get involved in the school, volunteering to tutor the students or help plan events. She said that the Del Ray Civic Association was instrumental in improving Mount Vernon Community School, and she challenged the Upper King Street Civic Association and the Inner City Civic Association to improve Jefferson-Houston.

Luby also said that the recent reconstitution of the school was the first step toward turning the elementary school around. Perry agreed, saying that Jefferson-Houston is on the right path to improving its scores.

"Our mission is to see that all of our children are successful," Perry said. "Anything less than that is educational neglect."

Several members of the City Council were present for the meeting, and Perry did not want to miss an opportunity to stress the importance of the budget process.

"We have smaller class sizes than almost any division in Virginia," she said, adding that the average class size at Jefferson-Houston is 14 students. "Council members, remember that."

THE ARTS FOCUS of the school permits students to opt in or opt out of the school. Also, the school's failure to meet federal standards allows parents "school choice," giving them an option to place their children at another elementary school. Last year, 103 students opted into Jefferson-Houston and 111 students opted out.

The school's mission statement includes a commitment to "a strong academic curriculum interwoven with the visual and performing arts." Arts specialists at the school teach with core content teachers using art, music and dance for instructional purposes. Despite criticism from some community members, who say that the school's focus is a distraction, administrators appear committed to keeping the arts at Jefferson-Houston.

"Everyone doesn't learn the same way," Shupe said, adding that she supports keeping the arts focus. "I think it really gives depth to the learning."

Perry agreed, saying that the arts focus is not the problem.

"Some people say get rid of the arts," she said. "Well, it's not as simple as that."

TEST SCORES UNDER No Child Left Behind indicate that school administrators have an uphill battle. Black students scored lower than other blacks in the division and the state in every category. Disabled students also scored below other disabled students in the division and the state in every category.

Disadvantaged students, whom the No Child Left Behind Act was specifically designed to help, had some of the lowest scores at the school. Because 80 percent of the school's students qualify for free and reduced lunch, their scores are closely monitored by federal education officials: 52 percent for English, 41 percent for Math and 59 percent for Science. Jefferson-Houston is one of six schools that did not meet federal standards this year.

Virginia accreditation scores were not much better. The school failed to make accreditation in three categories: Math, Science and History.

"There were some bright spots," Shupe said, adding that grade 5 writing scores improved from 15 percent to 82 percent. "That shows it can be done."