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Jefferson-Houston Challenges Denial of Accreditation

Troubled elementary adds hour-and-a-half to school day as part of transformation effort.

Jefferson-Houston School was built in 1970.

Jefferson-Houston School was built in 1970. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

Standing in the lobby of Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, Bea Porter is frustrated and angry. She sent her children to the school, and now her grandson is enrolled. But that may change unless the school makes drastic improvements soon.

“I don't know if it's the teachers don't care enough. I don't know if it's the students misbehave. I don't know what it is,” said Porter. “I’m very disappointed.”

Year after year, the school logs one failing round of tests after another. The most recent disappointment was a decision from the Virginia Department of Education to deny accreditation to Jefferson-Houston. Administrators are appealing that ruling, which will be ultimately determined by the Virginia Board of Education later this month. For now, though, school officials acknowledge that drastic change is needed at Jefferson-Houston.

“We acknowledge that the SOL scores especially the last few years, those result have been dismal,” said Mark Eisenhour, a central administrator tapped to help transform the school. “What I would say in response is that we are looking at the school from top to bottom.”

IN THE LAST YEAR, the school has replaced half its teachers, instituted a new curriculum and hired a new administrative team. Last week, members of the Alexandria School Board voted to extend the school day at Jefferson-Houston by an hour and a half each day. That will make Jefferson-Houston the only school in Alexandria that has an extended day, an effort school officials say will help improve test scores at the struggling elementary school.

“Having more time on task will help the students, and having more time to collaborate will help the teachers,” said School Board member Charles Wilson. “When you have struggling students, it’s important to get to them as early as possible and that’s what we’re intending to do here.”

Adding time to the school day accomplishes another important goal for school administrators, which is securing a consultant to help transform the school. Because Jefferson-Houston is in the bottom 5 percent of schools that receive money under Title 1 of the No Child Left Behind Law, it’s been classified as a “priority school.” That means it must take on what administrators call an “external lead partner” that has been approved by the Virginia Department of Education, such as Edison Learning or Pearson Education. All of the external lead partners would require an extended learning day, so school administrators say extending the day now will provide a jumpstart on the process.

“If we want to have the impact we are looking for in May on our test scores, we don’t have time to wait until January when we bring on the external lead partner,” said Eisenhour, whose title is internal lead partner. “We need to get it started now.”

IN THE LONG RUN, the 1970-era building will be demolished and replaced by a $44.2 million, 120,000 square-foot facility. Construction will begin next year on the unoccupied land next to the school. That will allow for the old school to remain in operation during construction. VMDO Architects of Charlottesville is leading the design team, and Brailsford & Dunlavey is providing management services.

“We made a commitment to the students and families in that community,” said Superintendent Morton Sherman. “And we intend to keep it.”

Bea Porter isn’t so sure about that. She’s heard year after year of promises, which are inevitably followed by another round of failing test scores. Even if school administrators are able to persuade the Virginia Board of Education to overturn the denial of accreditation, she said, she had lingering doubts as to the long-term viability of the school that her children and grandchildren have attended. And she hasn’t been persuaded that adding an hour-and-a-half to the school day is going to change anything.

“I’m not really sure how this is going to improve anything,” said Porter. “If they don’t improve the teachers teaching here, then the education is not going to get better.”