To the Editor:
West Old Town Citizens Association members were honored to have District A School Board members Bill Campbell, Karen Graf and Stephanie Kapsis attend a special meeting earlier this month to discuss Jefferson-Houston School’s academic dilemma. They were joined by Justin Keating, the District B Board member who serves as the School Board’s liaison to our PK-8 school. We appreciate their shared commitment of time.
During the meeting we learned from them that Mr. Keating, Mr. Campbell, and former School Board member Helen Morris traveled to Richmond to testify on April 2 before the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on education. (Alexandria Democrat Dick Saslaw serves on this committee.)
The Alexandria trio opposed funding for S.B. 1324, the authorizing legislation which permits the Commonwealth of Virginia to take over consistently failing schools like Jefferson-Houston. Apparently they succeeded as final funding for the state-proposed Educational Opportunity Institution was slashed from $600,000 to $150,000.
When describing the Alexandria delegation’s argument, Mr. Keating explained that Alexandria seeks variable levels of state interventions — interventions which fall short of complete school takeover. Jefferson-Houston, he said, performed at a higher level than Petersburg’s schools and, because of this, less state oversight was required to correct Jefferson-Houston’s problems than Petersburg’s. We presumed Mr. Keating meant that Petersburg’s takeover school had an even worse academic record than Jefferson-Houston’s.
The Petersburg school in question was not disclosed but according to the Department of Education it is Peabody Middle School. However, a comparison of Virginia State Department of Education test data for both Peabody and Jefferson-Houston suggests Mr. Keating’s assumption may be flawed. Over a three-year period 6th grade reading and math SOL test pass rates reveal no significant difference between the two schools. The same was true for 7th grade reading and math, for which there are two years of data available to compare.
Arguably, the numbers of middle school pupils tested at Jefferson-Houston is too small to be credible, since 6th grade classes were only added in 2009-10, 7th grade in 2010-11 and 8th grade in 2011-12. So five years of Jefferson-Houston’s elementary school test scores were compared with those at Petersburg’s A.P. Hill Elementary School, which is on the state’s warning list for the third year and has been discussed as a possible takeover target in the future.
The test scores for 3rd and 5th grade math SOL pass rates again did not show a significant difference. In only one category (3rd grade math) did Petersburg pupils do worse than those at Jefferson-Houston last year. In fact, 5th grade math scores reveal that while only 21 percent of Jefferson-Houston children passed the SOL, the pass rate at A.P. Hill was nearly three times higher at 58.33 percent.
Mr. Keating’s thesis — and presumably that of the Alexandria School Board he represents — that Jefferson-Houston merits a less drastic takeover based on a comparison with other troubled schools elsewhere in Virginia is simply not backed up by data.
It’s embarrassing for Alexandria education officials to admit, but Jefferson-Houston is in a class by itself. That is why the state targets it for total takeover.
As far as demographics go, the two Petersburg schools are majority black and so is Jefferson-Houston. According to the Kids Count project of the Annie B. Casey Foundation, in 2011 about 15 percent of Alexandria children ages 0 through 17 lived in poverty while more than a third (37.7 percent) of the children in Petersburg were poor. Census results from 2010 and the American Community Survey five-year average reveal family income in Alexandria is more than double that of Petersburg ($102,000 vs. $44,000). Yet the two Petersburg schools were not measurably worse than Jefferson-Houston, they were often better.
The issue is not the politics of the takeover, but why a Northern Virginia suburb like Alexandria is letting its kids down so badly, and only a few years after Jefferson-Houston was meeting Virginia’s educational standards.