Alexandria Every spring when I was chairman of the School Board, Superintendent Morton Sherman and I would join the Tenants and Workers United to walk Arlandria neighborhoods and visit families in their homes.
The mothers and fathers who invited us into their living rooms were gracious hosts, serving us cold soft drinks or tea and cookies. And the translators for our conversations were their children — students of Alexandria City Public Schools.
We were told stories of frustrating encounters with the school system, of watching peers enroll in higher-level classes, of wishing more school officials understood their cultures and stories about how they came to live in Alexandria.
When Dr. Sherman came to ACPS in 2008, minority students were not achieving at nearly the same levels as the white students. For example, unadjusted SOL math scores were 68 percent for English Language Learner (ELL) students and were 66 percent for black students, compared to 91 percent passing for white students.* Scores in other subjects had similar ratios.
Jon Liss helped organize these neighborhood visits. He said, “I wanted the superintendent and the School Board chair to hear first-hand the stories I heard day in and day out as executive director of Tenants and Workers.”
In fact, Jon pushed for these conversations because he had already met Morton Sherman in the superintendent’s first month on the job. Jon recalls, “TWU had produced a report that showed a three (or more) track system in ACPS — a white track, a black track and an ELL, or immigrant, track. The previous school administration had denied the accuracy of the report and in fact had taken the extreme step of leafleting events that we had organized. At our first meeting, Mort said that he had read our report and was making sure his entire senior team read it. This anecdote highlights the sea change that he brought to Alexandria five years ago … no longer would ACPS be a school system in which only white students were expected to succeed.”
To say the achievement gap was troubling to Dr. Sherman was an understatement. I watched him in these living rooms, shaking his head and listening to these students and their families. When we left a home to go on to the next, he always said, “no more; not on my watch.”
In 2009, Jon Liss and ACPS signed a memorandum of understanding to improve academic achievement for all students in ACPS.
“To know that other students are going to have a better chance at achieving their dreams because of something you’ve worked so hard on feels amazing,” said Jennifer Granado, at TC Williams junior and Tenants and Workers United youth leader at the time.
The agreement called for improved cultural competency, development of Individual Achievement Plans, which were individualized roadmaps for success for all students, and fostering a culture of parent and youth involvement, encouraging parents to participate in ACPS activities.
Later in 2009, Dr. Sherman presented his administration’s goals to the School Board. The board approved a wide variety of Dr. Sherman’s proposals, which are still in effect today. They included identifying students with specific needs and strengths as “at promise,” establishing the Individual Achievement Plans (IAPs) for each student, K-10th grade, and giving more students support to enroll in Algebra in the 8th grade.
Thanks to the dedication of administrators, the leadership of our principals and the talent of our teachers, the picture changed. By fiscal year 2011-12, more ELL students were starting to pass the math SOL. Seventy-two percent of Hispanic students grades 3-5 were passing the reading SOL, compared to 68 percent the year prior. Seventy-four percent of black students in the same grades were passing the SOL reading test, compared to 69 percent the year prior. ELL students dropping out of school was 16 percent, compared to 22 percent the prior year; 12 percent of black students were dropping out, compared to 14 percent the year prior.
And another sign changes were working: 80 percent of ELL students graduated on time in 2011-2012, compared to 72 percent the year prior. Clearly, improvements were taking hold.
More recently, Jon says, “TWU had been advocating for Restorative Justice (RJ) as an approach to dispute resolution to keep students in school. After a Washington Post article cited the success of RJ, we received a call from Dr. Sherman where he said, ‘we need to do this here, too.’ Six months later we are working with ACPS to implement RJ as a pilot program in the International Learning Academy at TC.
“This commitment to fairness and innovation has been a hallmark of our five years working with Mort Sherman and ACPS,” Jon says.
ACPS still has a long way to go to serve all our students. But we are most definitely on a path of continual improvement. And perhaps even more importantly, instilled across the school system is a cultural shift to believe that indeed, each and every student can learn and succeed.
Dr. Sherman was an individual with a vision for ACPS. With partners like the School Board and TWU, he built a strong foundation for all our students to achieve at their highest levels. Of course, Dr. Sherman wasn’t perfect (none of us are) but his driving vision was that each and every student could succeed. Let’s hope his departure from ACPS represents a change in personnel but not in vision. We are beginning to see the results of five years of work; now is not the time to take a step back.
*January 2009, ACPS Division Goals, 2008 – 2010 report to School Board
Key Measures for ACPS Priorities for School Years, 2012 - 2016