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Commentary: Jefferson-Houston’s Journey through Re-Segregation

“Alexandria quietly is making plans for a model community-centered facility to replace its least integrated elementary school, Charles Houston,” The Washington Post reported in January 1968. “But present indications are that the new Jefferson-Houston Elementary School will be as segregated as the old one.”

To what extent is today’s new school facility, the ongoing construction and failing academics a continuation of yesterday?

“The new building is now on the drawing boards and expected to open in 1969,” The Post continued. “It could provide an opportunity for the city to redraw attendance boundaries and promote integration, if it chooses … [but] … Alexandria school authorities have no plans to cross the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad tracks that have been the traditional boundary between the city’s Negro district and white, middle-class neighborhoods to the west. The tracks abut the Jefferson-Houston site on the west.”

“Instead the city is planning to equip the ‘fantastically expensive’ school with special facilities,” The Post concluded. Jefferson-Houston’s tagline: a school within the projects. The adjacent 69-unit Jefferson Village, “constructed on property originally belonging to the Public School Board,” opened the previous year.

Officials also suggested that “the Jefferson-Houston building, located in a housing project, might be used as a Head Start center to care for pre-school children of working mothers.” The site specific, all-white Thomas Jefferson School was torn down rather than remodeled because, if integrated, the re-fashioned middle school “would draw from census tracts designated as ‘poverty stricken.’”

In 1968 the Great Society’s Head Start Program was three years old; Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, Robert Kennedy on June 6; NAACP counsel, Alexandria’s own Samuel W. Tucker won the Green — or second Brown — decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law. The Fair Housing Act resulted in the mass exodus of black middle class from both segregated Alexandria neighborhoods and the city itself.

Ferdinand T. Day, the sole black member of the Alexandria School Board, then described Alexandria as “a typically southern town.” When Jefferson-Houston Elementary School opened in 1969 it had 927 students; 50 or 5.4 percent white and 877 or 94.6 percent black. By comparison George Mason Elementary School had 496 students; 483 or 97.4 percent white and 13 or 2.6 percent black.

In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, VA the U.S. Supreme Court decided “the Court had not merely the power, but the duty, to render a decree which will so far as possible eliminate the discriminatory effects of the past, as well as bar like discrimination in the future.”

“School boards,” the Justices wrote, “were clearly charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch. [Furthermore] school officials have the continuing duty to take whatever action may be necessary to create a ‘unitary, nonracial system.’” Yet in 1999 Ferdinand T. Day was spotted wearing a Jefferson-Houston T-shirt which said “No More! Resegregation.”

There is, for federal purposes, “a difference between ending segregation and achieving integration.” In 1968 Jefferson-Houston Elementary School was built as a “replacement of the ‘racially identifiable’ Charles Houston Elementary school.” Soon after the feds decided Jefferson-Houston was a “de jure segregated school” whose elementary purpose was “tailored to a black neighborhood.”

“Improvements in facilities and equipment,” the Green decision concluded, “have been instituted in all-Negro schools … in a manner that tends to discourage Negroes from selecting all-white schools.”

Today’s replacement Jefferson-Houston School includes an observatory and rooftop classrooms.

In 1972 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare asked Alexandria school officials to promptly notify it of their plans to “eliminate the last vestiges of the dual school system’ at the elementary level.” Alexandria’s 15 elementary schools had racial ratios from a low of 1.9 percent black at the 825-pupil Charles Barrett School to a high of 94.7 percent black at the 925-pupil Jefferson-Houston School.”

“Racial balance in the elementary schools is a fundamental issue, but it seems the school board wants to submerge it,” then ARHA-Chairman A. Melvin Miller said in 1972. “It is not a question of busing, it is a question of … honestly confronting the issue of racial balance.”

Samuel W. Tucker’s law partner, Richmond’s Vice Mayor Henry Marsh III, explained Alexandria’s problem as “the failure to deal with predominantly black elementary schools and what he said was a silence on program quality.”

To understand the city’s shell game one has to first understand School Board vocabulary: magnet school and focus school. A magnet school is a school that attracts; has an academic curriculum so fulfilling students allegedly will flock regardless of home or school location. It developed in response to the city’s 1973-1982 federal busing plan; an end plan which resulted “in a gradual trend toward re-segregation.”

The 1965 Immigration Act, the growing number of nonblack minorities, complicated integration. Bi-racial gave way to multi-racial except in traditionally black elementary schools like Jefferson-Houston, Cora Kelly and Lyles-Crouch. It was the 1980s elementary schools were 51 percent black, 35 percent white and paired schools were passé.

“Cora Kelly Elementary School, in the city’s mostly black neighborhood of Lynnhaven, [became] the Washington metropolitan area’s first elementary magnet school for math, science and technology,” The Post explained in 1984. “It did so as part of a 1984 redistricting proposal.” In 1986 the headline read: “Magnet School Lacks Drawing Power: Inadequate Funding, Promotion Among Problems Cited.”

The school developed mathematical muscle about the same time President Obama announced his STEM initiative, Educate to Innovate in 2009.

Focus schools were born of low state-test scores, beginning in 1998 with Virginia’s Standards of Learning. In 1999, as part of a controversial redistricting proposal, “two local principals sought to promote cultural diversity and improve the district’s low state-test scores by [introduc]ing focus elementary programs,” the Gazette reported. “Lyles-Crouch opened a Traditional Academy, Jefferson-Houston the Millennium School of Performing and Visual Arts. The arts plan relied on a more visual hands-on learning experience than most elementary schools.”

Margaret Delia, a third-grade teacher at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, worried the Alexandria School Board was about to take a giant step backward. When she arrived at the school in 1972 there were close to 1,000 black students and only three white ones. Full integration was not implemented until 1973 when busing began.

“The Board’s plan to redraw elementary school boundaries,” Delia asserted, “effectively returns Jefferson-Houston to the days of segregation of 1972.” In fact the 1999 redistricting plan left Jefferson-Houston lopsidedly black, underused, and underfunded.

The Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy succeeded, in part because portions of the elementary school’s disadvantaged black population were redistricted; added to Jefferson-Houston’s troubled lot. Once integrated, now resegregated, Jefferson-Houston Elementary School repeatedly failed state and federal testing, SOLs and Adequate Yearly Progress. School Superintendent Rebecca Perry achieved both in 2008-2009 then abruptly departed.

Today Jefferson-Houston School is the city’s only preK-8 school. Focus blurred, under new construction, it again performs poorly. The statistics are no longer wholly comparable, but the trend line K-5 leaves Jefferson-Houston wanna-bes unimpressed. No later than 2005 Jefferson-Houston parents were voting with their feet. The school’s student population has dropped dramatically, from a total of 927 in 1969 to 305 in 2014. Still the school system cannot satisfactorily educate the remaining one-third, 91 percent of whom are of color.

“Alexandrians would rather drink Clorox than remedy a Jim Crow wrong,” former city manager Vola Lawson concluded in 2010. Another redistricting saga awaits.