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Community Supports Jefferson-Houston

Inner-city area businesses pitch in to help out Jefferson-Houston.

Being a good neighbor is important to many businesses in Alexandria. Certainly, this is true for those located near Jefferson-Houston Elementary School — many of whom send volunteers to tutor students or contribute books to the school’s library. At a special breakfast to honor Jefferson-Houston's business partners last week, the generous captains of business met with grateful school officials over muffins and orange juice.

“These businesses are showing their commitment by their presence,” said Principal Kimberley Graves. “We can't thank them enough.”

The National Society of Professional Engineers, for example, has been involved with improving the school since 1986. Since then, it has provided funds, tutors, printing and chaperones. Every year, the organization holds a fundraising barbecue in the courtyard of its building to raise funds for the purchase of books. To increase their local involvement, the association purchases books recommended by the school's librarian from A Likely Story Bookstore on King Street.

“Instead of giving them candy for Halloween candy, we wanted to give them books,” said Cherish Berna, a human-resources assistant for the association. “The ultimate goal is to improve reading scores.”

THE BREAKFAST honored a host of local businesses and associations that support the school. The Adroit Center provides funds, tutors and material needs to the school. The American Statistical Association provides winter holiday gifts to needy families. Magnus Temple No. 3 provides an annual contribution of $1,000. The National Credit Union Administration provides 15 tutors each week. The Office of Historic Alexandria conducts an after-school history club. Wright to Read conducts a Book Buddies program. And the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium provides tutors to the first and second grade. Howard Van der Sluis, a violin teacher at Jefferson-Houston and the school's volunteer coordinator, said that he was surprised at the range of abilities offered by volunteers.

“I was expecting to send people to the lunchroom,” Van der Sluis said. “But I was surprised to find the level of talent.”

James Buck, assistant to the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, said that his organization will take an increased role at Jefferson-Houston. He said that he and Pastor Duane Kay will both volunteer their time at the school, translating the community influence of their 125-year-old church on Queen Street into a mentoring opportunity at the school.

“We want to be tutors as well as role models,” Buck said. “We want to show our children that there are clean-cut African-American men in the community and that dreams can be tangible if we teach our children to reach.”

TEST SCORES at the school are improving, although they are still some of the lowest in the city. Jefferson-Houston is the only elementary school in Alexandria that is not accredited by the state, although it was able to meet the federal “adequate yearly progress” standard under the No Child Left Behind Act because it made a drastic improvement over last year’s scores. For example, last year 57 percent of the students passed the English test and 48 percent of students passed the Math test. This year, 66 percent passed English and 59 percent passed Math.

“First it was Cora Kelly, then it was Maury,” said Superintendent Rebecca Perry. “Right now, Jefferson-Houston seems to be our most challenging school.”

After their annual retreat last month, Perry and School Board members launched an ambitious plan to improve the school. The strategy includes hiring three new specialists, changing the class schedule, creating a remedial after-school program and offering tutoring services. At the breakfast, School Board member Scott Newsham said that he was proud to have sent both of his daughters to Jefferson-Houston, and he also said that he is an enthusiastic supporter of the arts emphasis that the school has had since 2000.

“I have a strong opinion of the arts focus,” Newsham said. “The arts focus has a strong benefit to the academic experience.”