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Rainy First Day

Jefferson-Houston’s new principal welcomes students on the first day of school.

On a wet and soggy Tuesday morning, Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics opened for the first day of school. Children pounced in puddles outside while parents shook off the rain in the school’s lobby. The low roar of another downpour could be heard above as Kimberley Graves, the school’s new principal, shook hands with parents and hugged teachers. She was all smiles despite a restless Monday night.

“I’m always nervous before the first day of school,” Graves said. “So I didn’t sleep well last night.”

In the cafeteria, Izaia Maddox was mentally steeling himself for the first day of third grade. Although he had a great time during the summer — visiting Six Flags and playing with his neighborhood friends — Izaia seemed to be eager to meet his new teacher. When asked how he felt about returning to school, he glanced toward the rain pelting the windows of the cafeteria.

“I feel good,” he said shyly. “My favorite class is P.E., so I’m looking forward to that.”

Jeffrey Maddox, his father, praised the teachers at Jefferson-Houston for their hard work and determination. Although he said that he would prefer to keep Izaia’s second-grade teacher, he was eager to see his son’s new classroom and meet its inhabitant.

“Every week, he comes home telling me something new that he learned in school,” Maddox said. “We’ve got a little Mr. Magoo here.”

All over the school, proud parents hugged their children. In some classrooms, they were still lingering well into the first hour of the day. Graves greeted them one by one, reassuring them that Jefferson-Houston would offer a welcoming environment.

“We’ll take care of your babies,” she told a group of parents leaving a second-grade classroom. “The parents sometimes have just as hard a time letting go as the kids do.”

THIS YEAR MAY prove to be a time of transition at Jefferson-Houston. School Board members recently launched an initiative to improve the elementary school, where test scores have been the lowest in the school district for years. Even though the school failed to meet federal benchmarks this year, it was designated as having made adequate yearly progress under the “safe-harbor” provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. This means that the school made significant improvement over last year’s scores — even if it didn’t meet the annual measurable objective.

“This school had a 10 percent reduction in the number of students who failed the test, so it qualified for safe harbor status” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. “Safe harbor is a way to reward schools that make progress, even when they don’t meet the benchmarks.”

Last year’s test scores at the school were the lowest in Alexandria — 57 percent of the students passed English and 48 percent passed Math. This year’s scores are much better, with a 66 percent passing English and 59 percent passing Math — the kind of improvement that the safe harbor provision was designed to recognize. But it still doesn’t meet the federal benchmarks: 67 percent of students passing English and 69 percent passing Math. Next year, those benchmarks will be higher, and Jefferson-Houston will have to improve its performance significantly even if it wants to invoke the safe harbor provision again.

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

Many subgroups at Jefferson-Houston are in need of dramatic improvement. For example, 54 percent of fifth-grade males passed Math, 57 percent passed English and 46 percent passed Science. Last year was the first time that fourth-graders were tested, and their scores were the lowest of any grade at the school: 56 percent passed English and 40 percent passed Math.

“Typically, scores from new standardized tests are low,” Pyle said. “It takes a while for teachers to adapt.”

AT 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. School Board Chairman Arthur Peabody told board members that he wanted to make Jefferson-Houston a top priority in the coming year.

“The issues at Jefferson-Houston have our attention,” Peabody said. “It’s time to marshal the resources.”

Because test scores at the school have been low for several years, Jefferson-Houston has been forced to implement a series of federally mandated sanctions. The most damaging punishment requires administrators to allow parents to opt out of sending their children to the school. Jefferson-Houston is the only school in Alexandria that is currently offering “school choice” because of failing test scores under No Child Left Behind. Graves said that about 60 students have opted out of attending Jefferson-Houston under the federal punishment, leaving the school with only 250 students.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to work with smaller groups of kids,” Graves said. “So there’s a positive side to this too.”

School safety is also a concern of administrators. According to state records, incidents of violence involving blood rose from nine in 2004 to 32 in 2005. It’s a trend that Assistant Superintendent Cathy David, addressed during the annual School Board retreat last month.

“The school is not in bedlam by any means,” David said. “But it need a consistent application of discipline.”

Administrators at the school’s central office on Beauregard Street plan to hold weekly meetings with Jefferson-Houston’s leadership team to monitor its progress. The goal of the “consultation team,” as School Board members call participants in the weekly meeting sessions, is to monitor test scores and assess needs. Later this month, she plans to schedule a community meeting where parents and concerned neighbors can discuss the future of the school and the School Board’s initiative to improve it.

“If the first day of school is any indication, we’re going to have an amazing year,” Graves said.