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Letter: Fixing Flaws, Building on Successes

To the Editor:

The following open letter is addressed to school staff and residents.

When I accepted the position as the superintendent of the Alexandria City Public Schools in 2008, the School Board and I made a commitment to review all programs and to take action if needed. When the review process began, two things were evident immediately:

  • This school division is, with rare exception, staffed by caring, dedicated, and professional individuals who want the very best for each and every student

  • The systems of this school division need study and updating.

I am very appreciative of our staff’s work on behalf of our students. You work in a school division with wonderful challenges and opportunities, and which is also recognized as being on the cusp of becoming exceptional.

Our review of programs is ongoing, methodical, and transparent as we release each report to the board and community. We looked first at programs with the most critical issues. To date we have completed reviews of and began making changes in the following areas:

  • Strategic Planning

  • Curriculum; Student Progress

  • Transportation

  • English Language Learners

  • Special Education (two reports)

  • Summer School

  • Modified Calendar Schools and Intersession

  • Disproportionalities (variances in achievement among student groups)

  • Discipline

  • Annual reports on SAT, AP, SOL

  • Facilities and Capital Improvement Projects (CIP)

  • Adult Education

Each of these reports recognized ACPS’ strengths and weaknesses, was discussed with the School Board at public meetings and is available on the ACPS website.

As part of our methodical and ongoing review, I requested the most recent reports dealing with facilities and adult education. Significant systemic flaws in those areas have been revealed. I agree with these findings, and the division is taking steps to ensure that these longstanding deficiencies in process, structure, and personnel are addressed quickly. These reports found that key staff members failed to follow approved policies and procedures and did not use plain common sense, resulting in severe consequences.

Waiting on my desk when I started here were many reports and articles. Of note, Forbes Magazine in 2007 included ACPS as one of the worst bangs for the buck in America. One of our partners, Tenants and Workers United, issued a report in 2007 condemning the achievement gaps for our students of color. Also in 2007 members of the African American community challenged the achievement gap and discipline data. The federal government notified us that our special education program was out of compliance. One of our earliest reviews released in 2009 was of special education, which was similar to a 1995 report in which ACPS was described as lacking a culture and belief system that valued the capabilities of all students. In early 2010, the federal and state department s of education released a report which listed T.C. Williams as a Persistently Lowest Achieving School, having never reached the benchmarks set by state and federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

We said, “Enough!” Rather than focusing only on the division’s deficits, we established the mentality of being transparent, turning the page, looking ahead, and building on the many wonderful things that have gone on in ACPS for a very long time. We have a strong foundation, good traditions, and a culture of continuous improvement.

ACPS has made remarkable progress for which our staff, community, and school board are to be commended. While enrollments have grown from 10,600 in the spring of 2008 to over 12,400 this spring, our budgets have increased an average of only about 2 percent per year. More important, our staff has adopted a “can and should do” attitude, which has propelled T.C. Williams to the highest SOL scores ever in math, reading, and writing. At the same time, we have made progress on Virginia Standards of Learning test results, Advanced Placement participation and test results are the highest ever. Our middle school staff has led the way in moving from 17 percent of our students taking Algebra I or Geometry in eighth grade to over 51 percent with a 99 percent pass rate last year. We have increased our Pre-K enrollment seven fold, and we have seen good growth in our mathematics and writing results in the elementary schools. And so much more … fine and performing arts participation and awards, athletic success, and community service participation. With our new culture of continuous improvement, these accomplishments will only grow exponentially.

The environment I wish to create for the dedicated ACPS staff is one of working together to move ahead in a positive and supportive manner. Our accomplishments have been nothing short of amazing. Our future accomplishments will be even greater.

Ultimately, all that goes on in the school division is the responsibility of the superintendent, and I accept that responsibility and take it very seriously. When I interviewed for this position, the School Board and many members of the community and staff spoke openly about the division’s challenges — and also about its extraordinary potential. They were right on both counts. In the coming months we will be taking on a series of additional reviews, over time looking at all aspects of our school division. We can be sure that there will be additional challenges that we will need to address as a school community.

It is important for our families and community to have confidence in ACPS and its leadership and staff. Supporting all of the wonderful individuals as we improve our systems is going to be critically important work. I am confident that we are on a good path, that we will continue to have even more successes in the coming years, and that at times we will continue to find issues which will test our resolve, spirit and abilities.

Best wishes to all of you for a healthy, happy, and peaceful spring.

Dr. Morton Sherman

ACPS Superintendent of Schools