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Raising Standards, Scores

School administrators report on "State of the Schools."

Parents and teachers mingled with principals and administrators earlier this week in the cafeteria of Mount Vernon Community School earlier this week, munching on Hershey’s kisses and homemade brownies. The event was the annual State of the Schools forum, hosted by the Del Ray Citizens Association. The message was that city schools are strong and getting stronger.

“We’re teaching more students at a higher level than ever before,” said Cathy David, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, adding that 14 out of 16 city schools are accredited by the Commonwealth of Virginia. “We feel really good about the gains we are making.”

David also touched on the schools' difficulty meeting federal standards. Ten out of 16 schools met the “adequate yearly progress” standard set forth in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, and David said that the bar is raised every year. For example, the target for reading scores will be increased from 69 percent to 73 percent this year, and the target for math scores will be increased from 67 percent to 71 percent.

“More students will be tested this year, and the benchmarks will be higher,” she said. “We have very high targets, and we’re meeting them.”

David also reminded parents that the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement a 100 percent target in 2014, a virtual impossibility. So as the targets rise — moving the high-stakes testing toward an unfeasible goal — more schools will fail to meet the federal standards. Nevertheless, she said, efforts are being made to raise test scores, including new math specialists, smaller class sizes and increased pay for teachers.

“We need to pay our teachers more,” David said. “And we ask for your support as we move through the city’s budget process.”

The city’s school system employs 349 teachers with a bachelor’s degree and 902 teachers with a master’s degree — all of whom will get a raise under the School Board’s $4.8-million plan to increase salaries.

“We have a lot of dedicated teachers who come very early in the morning and stay very late into the evening,” said Tonya Green, a third-grade teacher at Maury Elementary School.

The $181 million budget also doubles the salary of School Board members and adds a net total of 8.5 positions to the payroll even though student enrollment is projected do decline by 565 students in the next year. Overall, the School Board’s budget represents a 6.9 percent increase over last year. This fits within the target of 7.3-percent growth target set for the schools by City Council last year.

THE LAPTOP INITIATIVE was also a topic of discussion at the event, and David defended the $1.7 million annual cost of the program. The initiative provides a laptop computer to every student in grades 9 through 12. They are allowed limited access to the Internet at school and two hours of dial-up access at home. Some School Board members want to re-name the initiative “the technology integration project.”

“It’s kind of like the artist formerly known as Prince,” David said.

But a laptop initiative by any other name would still be a major issue for school administrators — including criticism from two School Board candidates who attended Monday’s event. Peter Smeallie, a candidate for the central district, disagreed with the School Board’s decision to spend $61,586 on a consultant to study the laptops.

“Instead of hiring expensive consultants, why don’t we just ask the teachers?” asked Smeallie, who is the parent of a public-school student in Alexandria. “A lot of teachers feel like they weren’t consulted when the laptop initiative was implemented, and we need to listen to our teachers.”

Elynn Simons, a candidate for the central district and parent of two public-school students in Alexandria, said that she thought students needed more opportunities to use the laptop computers. She said that the way the current program is structured, students have very limited options about where and when they can have access to the Internet.

“I would like to see kids be able to use the laptops at any Wi-Fi spot,” said Simons, adding that dial-up access isn’t feasible for many families. “Parents are uneasy about tying up their phone lines for hours at a time, and more people are going with cellular phone service. So dial-up access isn’t going to be helpful to them.”

Randolph Mitchell, principal of Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center, said that his school’s cafeteria is routinely converted to an Internet café, where students can use their laptops to browse Internet sites that have not been blocked by school administrators. He invited parents to visit his school and see for themselves.

“Stop by and see how quiet the cafeteria can be,” he said.