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Correcting Jefferson-Houston

Bold plan hopes to bring accreditation to the troubled school next year.

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Classrooms at Jefferson-Houston Elementary school are grouped in the kind of open-air "pods" that were popular when the building was constructed in 1970.

Anyone walking through the halls of Jefferson-Houston Elementary School would be hard pressed for evidence that this school, located one block from the King Street Metro station, is in a state of crisis. Administrators are friendly and knowledgeable, kids are smiling broadly as they dart through the pod-shaped classrooms and the teachers are energetic as they speak into the headset microphones. But beneath the surface — in the testing data administered every spring — the numbers show serious problems. Jefferson-Houston has never met federal standards under No Child Left Behind, and this year the Virginia Department of Education threatened to deny accreditation.

Last year’s batch of low scores set off a chain reaction leading to federal and state sanctions, and now administrators have crafted a "corrective action plan" detailing a set of measurable goals. Last week, the Alexandria School Board unanimously approved a draft version of the plan, which was then submitted to state officials now overseeing the school’s progress from Richmond. The 22-page document contains a series of measurable goals and explanations as to how school officials hope to work toward each of them. Ultimately, however, the plan’s boldest goal — if successful — would be a success story like few others.

Administrators hope to hang a blue and white "this school is fully accredited" sign there next year.

"Is it going to happen? I believe you have to believe," said Isabel Crocker, a member of Northern Virginia League education committee. "Sure the plan sets a high standard. But we need to start by believing that this is a school that can be accredited and move from there."

A DEMOGRAPIC PROFILE of the school presented at the outset of the plan indicates that the vast majority of the students at the school are poor and black — with more than half of the students living in the public-housing projects near the Braddock Street Metro station. Administrators say that one of the keys to building a culture of success at the elementary school is getting parents involved in the parent-teacher association and at report-card conferences. Yet one statistic indicates that 47 percent of students last year were late four or more times.

"I think this is a statistic that shows we have some problems with parental involvement," said Bill Campbell, president of the Jefferson-Houston parent-teacher association. "We need to see more direct communication — like a visit from the principal to the house of a student who is perpetually late."

Administrators say they are willing to visit homes, make telephone calls and organize after school tutoring sessions to accomplish the mission of their corrective action plan. Most of the goals outlined in the document correspond to benchmarks set by the Virginia Department of Education to meet accreditation standards. For example, one of the goals outlined in a section labeled "mathematics instruction" listed a goal requiring 70 percent of students to pass the Standards of Learning test in math — the same threshold state administrators look for when they grant accreditation every year. Other parts of the plan create new initiatives such as bringing on board a new literacy coach, launching a new effort to encourage appropriate behavior and creating a "power hour" of intense literacy instruction for grades 3 to 5.

"We hustled to get this plan to you," said Assistant Superintendent Cathy David, adding that the school’s oversight committee was still hashing out details in the days before the plan was submitted to the School Board. "But, at the same time, we want to stress that this is a working document."

SCHOOL BOARD members were critical of some parts of the plan. Scott Newsham said that parts of the plan were written in what he called "eduspeak" — densely coded language favored by administrators. For example, he said, part of the plan called for school officials to implement a math program "with fidelity." Newsham said that he thought the language was superfluous because none of the other programs mentioned in the plan indicated that they should be implemented "with fidelity." But David responded that the language was needed to ensure that the program was administered as it was designed.

"If it means ‘as designed,’" Newsham shot back. "We should say that."

One part of the plan that struck Chairwoman Claire Eberwein was a listing of the previous three years of testing data, which indicated that the scores rose dramatically in 2006 last year then fell again in 2007. For example, Eberwein noted, the African-American pass rate in English was 58 percent in 2005, up to 63 percent in 2006 and then down to 56 percent in 2008. This is a trend that was also evident in the pass rate for History, which was 57 percent in 2005, way up to 91 percent in 2006 and down to 79 percent in 2007. Eberwein wondered why former Principal Annette Shupe, who served a one-year stint at the school, left when the test scores clearly improved under her leadership.

"Perhaps that person should have stayed around longer," said Eberwein. "Clearly she was doing something right."

David responded that Shupe’s departure was a confidential personnel matter, then explained that Graves is now in her second year at Jefferson-Houston — the first principal to stay at the school for consecutive years since 2003. She expressed confidence that current leadership team at Jefferson-Houston would be able to meet the goals outlined in the plan, and explained that she would be acting as chairwoman of an "oversight committee" to make sure that the actions set forth in the plan were implemented in a way that would dramatically change the troubled elementary school.

"We want to successfully achieve accreditation by the end of the year," said David. "And we think that can be done."