When students arrived at Hammond Middle School for the first day of classes in the fall of 2009, they were stepping into three different schools: Hammond 1, Hammond 2 and Hammond 3. Across town, students at George Washington Middle School were entering GW1 and GW2. Suddenly, Alexandria had five middle schools instead of two — a reorganization that Superintendent Morton Sherman promised would create a closer relationship between administrators and students.
"I think it was a lot better before the reorganization," said Leslie York, parent of two students at Hammond. "In my opinion, it's a bad idea to mix sixth graders with seventh graders and eighth graders because the older kids are a bad influence."
The move to reorganize two buildings into five schools came at a time when the school system was in the midst of a major transformation. Sherman, who had only been in the position for a year, was cleaning house at the central administration headquarters and installing a new group of leaders. Now the five middle schools each have their own administrative structure, which supporters say offers a smaller learning environment that allows for a personalized education and one-on-one interaction.
"I would say it's been a big success," said Kellie Souza, parent at George Washington Middle School. "The principal and the staff know all of the students by name and know the parents."
ONE OF THE CHANGES that took place in the flurry of activity in 2009 was that the middle schools applied for federal money under Title One of the No Child Left Behind Law. Although the previous practice had been to limit the money — and punishment for failing to meet minimum standards — to elementary schools, Sherman expanded the program into the middle schools. That brought in about $1 million a year.
"This is a decision that was made to provide the middle schools with resources to support higher academic achievement for at-risk students," said Margaret Byess, the school division’s budget director at the time. "That’s the purpose of Title One."
Byess later left the school division after an independent accounted declared the budget office suffered from a "dysfunctional environment." Vice Mayor Kerry Donley called for the superintendent to step down, but School Board members stood by the superintendent. Since that time, three of five middle schools have been accredited with warning and two of the five principals have announced they are leaving — one is stepping down after his first year on the job and another is retiring.
"We have a not seen sustained positive achievement gains since the split," said School Board member Bill Campbell. "I believe that the best opportunity for consistent achievement at the middle-school level is single schools with strong leaders."
CAMPBELL WOULD like to see a drastic reorganization of the school system that would transform George Washington Middle School back into a high school, which it was from 1935 to 1971. That plan would also convert the proposed Jefferson-Houston School to be a middle school instead of a facility that would serve Kindergarten through the eighth grade, transform Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center into a middle school and acquire the Nannie J. Lee Center from the city to convert it back to an elementary school.
"Of course, all of this would require significant redistricting of the school boundaries," said Campbell. "It would be a hell of a lot cheaper, and it would set us up for the next 50 years."
So far, School Board members have made no decisions about what should happen with the reorganization. During a meeting late last month, board members asked the superintendent for a report outlining the promise and pitfalls of the reorganization. No proposal has been submitted to undo the reorganization, and members say the upcoming personnel changes at the school offer an ideal time to evaluate the change and see if the data support it.
"The small learning environment provides a better opportunity to know the kids," said Sherman in an interview at City Hall this week. "We lose kids in middle school, and the best way to stop the dropout rate is to focus personal attention at the middle school level."
THIS WEEK, Sherman sent board members a preliminary report detailing test data over the last 15 years. Most of the lowest scores on the chart are at the early end, when the school system was under a different administration. The vast majority of the highest scores came after the 2009 reorganization, a point that the superintendent said underscored the success of the move to split the middle schools and personalize instruction.
"The middle schools are on a good path," said Sherman. "Progress is being made."
Later this week, Sherman said, he will be sending board members a more complete report that will detail the individual performance at the five middle schools rather than lumping them together the way the preliminary report does. Elected officials say they are eager to get a complete snapshot of the test results from the schools so they can make an informed decision about whether or not the reorganization has met the expectations that were outlined when the superintendent took action four years ago.
"I'm tired of hearing about climate when we don't have achievement," said School Board member Pat Hennig. "If I want to hear about climate I'll call Bob Ryan."
SINCE THE SCHOOL BOARD asked the superintendent to compile data and report back to the elected officials last month, parents across the city have been buzzing about the possibility that the middle schools will be changed back from five to two. Board members were adamant that no such plan is under consideration, and that they are simply looking at test scores at this point.
"Right now it's just an idea, and there are no plans," said Karen McManis, president of the George Washington Middle School PTA. "But we've all seen ideas that become plans very quickly in this city, and that's created some concern among parents."