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All Eyes on Jefferson-Houston

August test scores could mean an end to sanctions — or they could lead to more.

Now that the students at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School have put down their number-two pencils and gone home for the summer, their tests have been sent to Richmond for review. Next month, when the Virginia Department of Education releases the results of the standardized tests students took in May, school officials will be faced with the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

It’s all or nothing at Jefferson-Houston, which is now at a tipping point. Meeting the federal standards next month would free the school of sanctions. Failing to meet them, however, would bring more punishment to the school under No Child Left Behind.

The elementary school at the southern edge of the Parker Gray neighborhood is in what federal bureaucrats call "Year 2" of "Title 1 improvement" — meaning that the school is under sanctions for not meeting benchmarks since 2004. The federally mandated punishments include offering "choice" to parents who want to abandon their neighborhood school in favor of other schools with better test scores. Three other Alexandria elementary schools once offered parents the choice to opt out, but the sanctions was removed after scores improved at Maury Elementary School, Patrick Henry Elementary School and John Adams Elementary School.

Jefferson-Houston is the only school in Alexandria to currently offer "choice," with school officials sending postcards to notify parents them an option to ditch the school.

"We’re hoping that we won’t have to send those postcards this year," said Cathy David, deputy superintendent. "We’ve been working hard all year."

During the school year, David oversaw weekly meetings at the school in which administration officials would meet with assistant principals and teachers to review progress. The "consultation team," as the group came to call itself, had a single-minded determination to meet the federal standards. They coordinated teacher training with standardized pacing guides and quarterly benchmark tests. Because the students were tested every nine weeks, school officials already have a good indication of how well the students have internalized the curriculum.

"The teachers I’ve been speaking with seem to be extremely optimistic about Jefferson-Houston making AYP this year," said Bill Campbell, president of the elementary school’s parent-teacher organization. "Our fingers and toes are crossed."

IF THE AUGUST SCORES reveal that the school met federal standards, sanctions against the school will be lifted — a scenario that would be welcome news to administrators, parents and teachers who have been engaged in a yearlong effort to improve the school. Last summer, Superintendent Rebecca Perry brought new leadership to the Jefferson-Houston, hiring Kimberley Graves to take over for outgoing Principal Anette Shupe. Graves was the fifth new principal in the last four years — an unusually high turnover rate at the division’s only arts-focus school.

"We’ve had so much transition and change at Jefferson-Houston that I don’t think the arts-integration program has had an opportunity to grow and develop," said Graves. "My focus is on academics."

Earlier this year, Superintendent Perry and School Board members agreed to remove a band and orchestra instructor from the budget — a decision that they said streamlined the school’s arts focus by changing the focus from offering expanded art classes to creating arts-integration opportunities in the curriculum. But tweaking the school’s focus wasn’t the only change that happened this year. Deputy Superintendent David’s weekly meetings with the consultation team implemented a flurry of strategically deployed resources to use the quarterly test data to target students who have fallen behind.

"We were looking for who needs help and how we are going to help them," said David. "The quarterly tests aren’t perfect, of course, but they do tell us where we need improvement."

IF THE SCHOOL does not meet the federal standards, it will enter "Year 3" of "Title 1 improvement" — meaning that it could face additional sanctions. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the school would have a number of options to choose from: replacing staff deemed responsible for failure; implementing a new curriculum; decreasing authority of building’s management; bringing in an outside expert; extending the length of the school year or school day; or some other significant restructuring.

"Schools have great latitude in how they could accomplish Year 3 improvement," said Charles Pyle, director of Communications for the Virginia Department of Education. "All the options fall under the category of corrective action."

Under the "safe harbor" provision of No Child Left Behind, schools that make significant improvement over a previous year’s scores can make the grade — even without achieving the target pass rates. Pyle said that Jefferson-Houston qualified for the "safe harbor" provision last year because of its greatly improved pass rates last year.

Yet he pointed out several key areas where the school did not meet federal benchmarks.

For example, he said, although the benchmark for English scores last year was a 69 percent pass rate, only 63 percent of the black students at the school were able to pass the English test. And even thought the benchmark for Math scores was 67 percent, only 53 percent of black students were able to pass the test. Nevertheless, the dramatic improvement over the previous year’s pass rates were an indication of success.

"This school had a 10 percent reduction in the number of students who failed the test, so it qualified for safe harbor status" said Pyle. "It could qualify for safe harbor again this year if it reduced its failure rate by at least 10 percent."

UNDER THE BYZANTINE rules of No Child Left Behind, schools that are under sanctions can be freed from them if they make "adequate yearly progress" two years in a row — even if they do so under the "safe harbor" provision. Because the school made AYP last year, this year’s scores take a heightened importance at Jefferson-Houston. Meeting the federal standards would be a huge achievement for Perry and School Board members who have spent the last year working to turn the school around. Failing to make the cut could be a devastating blow to school administrators who have invested a great amount of time and effort on raising test scores at Jefferson-Houston.

"We’ve put in a lot of interventions and support," said David. "In August, we’ll find out if it worked."