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State May Takeover Struggling Alexandria School After Decade of Failure

Increasing pressure for progress at Jefferson-Houston School.

A decade of efforts to improve Jefferson-Houston School have failed, and now state leaders are increasing pressure on Alexandria City Public School leaders to turnaround the turnaround. Because the school was denied accreditation last year, administrators were forced to bring in an outside consultant this year to help draft a corrective action plan. And members of the General Assembly are considering a plan that could have state authorities take control of the school.

“I would say that Thomas Jefferson himself would be opposed to that,” said Alexandria School Board Chairwoman Karen Graf. “That’s bold, but he wrote a lot about education and he felt that place where education should be decided was at the local level.”

Graf said that Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Educational Opportunities initiative is little more than a promotion of charter schools, which she criticized as a way for the state to seize control of low-performing schools from local officials. One of the chief critics of the governor’s plan in the House is freshman Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45), a former member of the Virginia Board of Education. He says the House version of the bill would allow a state takeover of Jefferson-Houston and require local tax dollars to create a charter school with no local oversight.

“I recognize that there are schools in the commonwealth that need to have outside help,” said Krupicka in a written statement. “But this bill seems more focused on creating a new bureaucracy than on helping kids succeed.”

TEST SCORES AT THE SCHOOL have been failing for years, with the school failing to meet accreditation standards for 10 out of 11 years. Recent years have seen an increasing decline. In the most recent set of test scores, for example, only 29 percent of black students showed basic proficiency in Math. And only 46 percent of students with disabilities at Jefferson Houston could demonstrate basic English skills. That’s become cause for alarm in Richmond, and a desire to see some oversight outside Alexandria City Public Schools.

“You have an entire generation of kids that have been failed by the Alexandria city school system,” said Virginia Board of Education member Chris Braunlich during a recent discussion of Jefferson-Houston in Richmond. “We’ve talked a lot here about flexibility, but a school system that has allowed this to happen for 10 out of the last 11 years has earned no flexibility.”

When officials in Richmond denied accreditation at Jefferson-Houston last year, administrators attempted to appeal the decision. Their appeal was denied. Instead of selecting one of the vendors state officials had already approved, leaders in Alexandria decided to issue their own request for proposals, which has delayed the selection of the required “external lead turnout partner.” Late last year, school officials chose Washington-based American Institutes for Research.

“The line was drawn,” Jefferson-Houston Principal Rosalyn Rice-Harris told School Board members last week. “Ten years is too long, and we have to make changes now.”

THE LAST DECADE has seen many changes at the school, which has seen a revolving door of administrators and corrective action plans. The most recent change has been the addition of middle school classes, making Jefferson-Houston the first school in Alexandria to offer Kindergarten through the eighth grade. More recently, Rice-Harris instituted new school uniforms at Jefferson-Houston — burgundy tops and khaki pants.

“Sometimes she’s been hugged,” Superintendent Morton Sherman said of Rice-Harris. “Other times, she’s not been hugged in the work that she had undertaken. But has done so with a passion and a fury on behalf of the children.”

Late last year, members of the Alexandria City Council approved a plan to demolish the 1970 building and construct a $45 million new facility expected to open in August 2014. Although the school currently has about 400 students today, the 130,000-square-feet school has been designed to accommodate 800 students. School officials are hoping that the coming years could see a turnaround for the moribund turnaround efforts.

“I think we should rename the school,” said School Board member Bill Campbell. “Jefferson-Houston has too much baggage. Perhaps we could honor former School Board member Ferdinand Day or the original landowner of the site.”