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Uncertainty Haunts Jefferson-Houston Groundbreaking

Questions linger as officials prepare ceremonial shovels.

View of the proposed new Jefferson-Houston School from the play field along Cameron Street.

View of the proposed new Jefferson-Houston School from the play field along Cameron Street.

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Jefferson-Houston School was built in 1970.

City leaders and school officials are about to break out the ceremonial shovels and turn the earth at Jefferson-Houston School, the long-troubled facility near the King Street Metro station. Test scores at the school have been so bad for so long that state leaders are about to take over the operation even as city taxpayers are about to fork over $45 million to demolish the 1970 building and construct a massive new structure in its place. That's led some neighbors in the Parker Gray community to wonder why such a grand scale is needed and why school leaders don't focus on improving performance first.

"I will be uneasy donning that stupid hat and smiling for the cameras as we put the shovels in the ground," said School Board member Bill Campbell, who lives near the school. "I don't think that we are where we need to be yet in terms of the surety of what this building needs to look like from a design perspective and what its use is going to be."

Although the school currently has an enrollment of fewer than 400, the 130,000-square-foot facility approved by City Council last year can accommodate 800 — more than twice the number of students than are currently enrolled at the school. School leaders say the extra capacity will give the division some space to accommodate the crunch at other schools, many of which are already pushing the limits. But parents and neighborhood residents question the size and scale of the new building, especially at a time when performance has fallen so low.

"A lot of energy is being focused on the building and not as much is being focused on figuring out what the core problems are and addressing them," said Daniel Schuman, who lives across the street from the school. "Nobody wants to send their kid to a school that's at the bottom of the bottom in the state, and no new school building is going to make a difference in that kind of problem."

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Grades have plummeted at Jefferson-Houston in the last three years.

THE SCHOOL HAS BEEN in a tailspin since 1999, when the Alexandria School Board adopted a redistricting plan that created a racial imbalance at the school. In one year, the school went from having 50 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch to 77 percent. Since that time, the school’s enrollment had plummeted from 486 in 2000 to 361 students today — and that’s after adding sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes to the school.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Bea Porter, whose grandson is in the third grade at Jefferson-Houston. "That building is going to be too large for the amount of kids that are going to be here."

Since Morton Sherman was appointed superintendent in 2008, test scores at Jefferson-Houston have fallen even lower. In the last three years, English performance for students with disabilities has slipped from 60 percent to 46 percent. In that same period, Math performance for black students has plummeted from 77 percent to 29 percent. Test scores have been so low for such a long that Jefferson-Houston is the only school in Northern Virginia that qualifies for state takeover under Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's Educational Opportunity Initiative.

"In the period since we've been discussing a new building, we've seen the steepest declines," said Leslie Zupan, president of the Old Town West Civic Association. "The building is not the cause of the academic problems."

"The Virginia Constitution says a local school board will run the local educational system, but that's not what's happening here."

— State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30)

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST unanswered question is what will happen to the school next year, when a new board of appointed leaders will take control of the school under the Educational Opportunity Initiative. The legislation signed by the governor gives board members three options. One would be to transform Jefferson-Houston into a public charter school, which would make it the first charter school in Northern Virginia. A second option available to board members would be to reorganize the school and return it to Alexandria City Public Schools. Then again, board members also have a third option — they can oversee the school themselves. And it's unclear when — or if — the school would be returned to Alexandria City Public Schools.

"A lot of us were very much against the bill because of a lack of clarity over when and how the school would be returned to local control," said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30). "The Virginia Constitution says a local school board will run the local educational system, but that's not what's happening here."

During the time that Jefferson-Houston is under the dominion of the Educational Opportunity Initiative, it will no longer be a part of Alexandria City Public Schools. That means that the per-pupil allocation for the school will be sent to Richmond, where the new statewide school division will determine how the money is spent. For Alexandria, that poses an expensive problem — when the new $45 million facility opens its doors, it may not be under the control of city leaders. And it's unclear when the keys would be handed over.

“I would say that Thomas Jefferson himself would be opposed to that,” said Alexandria School Board Chairwoman Karen Graf in February. “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.”

JEFFERSON-HOUSTON is the first Alexandria school that serves grades Kindergarten through the eighth grade — a model that the superintendent wants to replicate at Cora Kelly Elementary School and Patrick Henry Elementary School as well as implement at a new school at a location yet to be determined. But some School Board members are beginning to question that course. Even though the groundbreaking for Jefferson-Houston is about to take place, doubts are mounting that putting middle school students in the same building as Kindergarteners is the best course of action.

"Let me see some data," said School Board member Pat Hennig. "I have yet to see any study or report that says this leads to increased achievement."