As a former principal of Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics, School Board Vice Chairman Blanche Maness understands o the problems the inner city school faces. It may be only one block away from the King Street Metro station, but it might as well be a million miles away from plain view — its test scores dismally low and its principal’s office a revolving door of names and faces.
“The school has obviously gone awry,” Maness said. “The leadership hasn’t stayed, and we know that’s part of the problem.”
With the announcement that last year’s new principal — Annette Shupe — would now head the Title 1 programs at the schoool district's main office, the school’s community was meeting yet another new leader — Kimberley Graves. She is the fourth principal to lead the school since Maness left the school in 2001.
“Why didn’t these people stay?” Maness asked. “To me, that’s the big question.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Bill Campbell, president of the school’s parent-teacher association. “Most of the parents I’ve talked to don’t think that one year is enough time for a full assessment.”
TEST SCORES at Jefferson-Houston are the lowest in the city. Last year, 100 percent of third-grade Hispanic students failed the reading test, 77 percent of fifth-grade students with disabilities failed the mathematics test and 55 percent of fifth-grade black students failed the history test. Administrators say that preliminary results from this year’s tests — scheduled to be released in late August — show that the school had made moderate improvements. But not enough to meet the federal standards or repair the dysfunctional image of the school.
Shortly after becoming chairman of the School Board last month, Peabody learned that the superintendent would be making a recommendation to bring a new principal to Jefferson-Houston. He said when board members met in closed executive session on July 27 to approve of Perry’s recommendation, it was clear that drastic measures were needed at the school.
“This issue came to us on our 27th day in office,” Peabody said. “We agreed that a plan was necessary.”
A few days after the closed executive session, Alexandria City Public Schools issued a press release that announced a new direction for Jefferson-Houston. It explained that the new School Board asked Superintendent Rebecca Perry to develop an “action plan” for achieving full accreditation. Peabody said that the review will include an examination of the school’s arts focus as well as a review of the 36-year-old facility.
“Working together with the superintendent and Ms. Graves, involving teachers, parents and interested citizens in the community, identifying problems and developing practical solutions provide the best means of improving Jefferson-Houston for all students,” Peabody said in a written statement regarding the school’s new direction. “The issues at Jefferson-Houston have our attention. The school is a top priority for improvement. We will put the appropriate processes in place to ensure students attending Jefferson-Houston receive a quality education.”
SCHOOL RECORDS show that Jefferson-Houston has one of the most economically disadvantaged populations in the city. The vast majority of students — 80 percent — qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. The school is overwhelmingly black, 78 percent, with a 9 percent white student population and an 11 percent Hispanic population. Some parents discussing the elementary school’s arts focus say that these demographics do not lend themselves to the elementary school’s arts focus.
“I don’t think the arts focus was appropriate for the school’s population,” said Melissa Luby, a former Jefferson-Houston PTA president who later served on the School Board. “Because these children are academically at-risk, there’s not enough time in the day for drama and violin classes."
Other Inner City neighbors agreed that Jefferson-Houston’s problems have been a drain on the community for years. Sarah Becker, a longtime neighborhood activist, says that improving the school should be the lynchpin in the city’s attempts to revive the Parker Gray Historic District.
“This neighborhood is never going to stabilize until Jefferson-Houston stabilizes,” Becker said.
THE SCHOOL’S REPUTATION has been lagging for years, as test scores have consistently fallen below expectations. In 2004 Superintendent Perry named Marcia Baldanza principal at Jefferson-Houston, putting her in charge of a plan to fire and rehire all of the school’s employees. Perry announced the decision in a March 23, 2004 press release.
“Dr. Baldanza, who will lead the reconstitution of the Jefferson-Houston staff next year, has demonstrated her ability to improve academic achievement and create a nurturing learning environment for all students," Perry wrote in the written statement. “Her work with the Patrick Henry community over the last five years gives me confidence that she will be equally successful in building a cohesive and supportive school community at Jefferson-Houston.”
Baldanza led a reconstitution of the school — getting rid of underperforming staff members and bringing in a new team of dedicated professionals. But she left in 2005 when her husband accepted a job in a different state. Perry then brought Annette Shupe on board last summer. Shupe is one of 10 turnaround specialists who participated in the Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program created by former Gov. Mark Warner in 2004. A private/public partnership set up the program at the University of Virginia. it is designed to help expert principals turn around consistently low-performing schools in the commonwealth. In a June 17, 2005 press release, Perry explained the leadership change.
“Dr. Baldanza is an exceptional principal and has made incredible progress at both Patrick Henry Elementary School and Jefferson-Houston since she came to Alexandria in 1999. We are very sorry to lose her," Perry wrote. “She has paved the way for Ms. Shupe, who, I am confident, will take Jefferson-Houston to the next level.”
But a year later — with preliminary test scores showing only slight improvement — Perry recommended yet another change at the school. School officials say Shupe will now oversee the Title 1 programs under No Child Left Behind at the city’s central administration on Beauregard Street. In a July 31 press release, Perry focused on the school’s newest principal.
“Ms. Graves has not only proven to be an outstanding leader, but she is also an excellent communicator and places a high priority on family and community involvement,” Perry wrote. “She will be a great fit at a critical time for Jefferson-Houston.”
A NATIVE OF Virginia Beach, Graves graduated from Green Run High School in 1993. She received a bachelor’s degree in government from the College of William and Mary before taking a job teaching social studies at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg. In 1999, she moved to Alexandria to accept a position teaching world history at Minnie Howard Ninth-Grade Center.
“I moved to Alexandria because I wanted to provide opportunities to kids with a background that is similar to my own,” Graves said. “I grew up in a house with a single mother, so I know the disadvantages that come with being in an at-risk environment.”
In 2004, she took an administrative position as assistant principal for the eighth grade at Hammond Middle School. During the summers, she oversaw the division’s Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Science Academy.
“My decision to go into administration was based on a desire to have a larger influence,” Graves said. “As assistant principal, I worked to provide teachers with what they needed.”
As principal at Jefferson-Houston, Graves acknowledges that she has very serious challenges ahead. The school’s most recent Standards of Learning scores show that students are falling behind: 57 percent passed the English test and only 48 percent of students passed the math test.
“We are not where we need to be, but the school has made great strides,” Graves said. “I’m going to work with the School Board, the superintendent and the community to put together a plan to do what’s best for Jefferson-Houston.”