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Letter: Where Are Students Going?

— To the Editor:

As a West Street resident and a parent, I am amazed that Alexandria’s leaders – both on the School Board and the City Council – are spending nearly $45 million and probably more to come in taxpayer money for a newer and bigger Jefferson-Houston School when it looks to be just as empty as before.

The Virginia Department of Education enrollment numbers for Jefferson-Houston show that the school’s real problem isn’t recruitment. It’s retention. The numbers show a big fall off with each successive grade level. There are parents taking a chance on the school by sending their children there, but the experience must not be positive enough for them to want to keep their kids there for subsequent grades.

VDOE’s numbers show that there were 62 children in pre-kindergarten at the start of the current school year (2011-2012) — the single largest grade at Jefferson-Houston. But in the same year there were 49 children in kindergarten, 41 in first grade, and only 29 in third grade. Even if you track the same group of kids across several years, the numbers drop: there were 64 children in pre-kindergarten at the start of the 2007-2008 school year, which fell to 38 kindergartners in 2008-2009 (a 41 percent decline), and only 28 children in second grade by 2010-2011.

If ACPS is not retaining children in this school whose parents do give it a try, why do they think they will attract and keep others from the neighborhood, or across the city? Does the School Board really believe that we parents only look at the exterior of a school and not at all the other factors?

My neighbors and I asked repeatedly why the rush to build was necessary. Why not bring up academic performance first to create measurable demand from parents to enroll their children there before committing to this huge project that will up-end our community? Instead, ACPS seems to prefer to gamble with taxpayers money, aided and abetted by Council members who are unable or unwilling to ask the hard financial questions.

Whether No Child Left Behind is repealed or not, parents zoned for Jefferson-Houston currently move or send their children to private school if they can’t get a slot in another Alexandria elementary school. Are parents elsewhere in the city going to be any different? New developments are not an issue either. Those big new four-story townhouses in Potomac Greens haven’t filled Jefferson-Houston with students, and I bet neither will Potomac Yard.

The recent expansion of Jefferson-Houston to include middle school grades also appears to mask a decline in the number of kids in PK through grade 5, the traditional elementary years. There were a total of 366 children enrolled at Jefferson-Houston at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, but if you subtract enrollment in the new 6th, 7th and 8th grades, there were only 296 children in pre-kindergarten through grade 5. That’s down from a high of 382 PK through grade 5 pupils in school year 2003-2004.

There’s another question that hasn’t been answered either. This enormous new school is presumably needed because of enrollment pressure throughout Alexandria, but its well known there is unused educational space at George Washington Middle School just a short walk away. GW was overbuilt and administrators occupy the excess space. What kind of capacity shell game are Alexandria’s School Superintendent Morton Sherman and the School Board playing? Are the middle school children at Jefferson-Houston even going to get the same level of activities and enrichment that their peers will get at GW?

We heard the great line of “Build it and they will come” in the movie “Field of Dreams.” The move was a fantasy, and unfortunately, so is ACPS’s justification for this new school.

Dan Johnson

Alexandria