Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Time for Action

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Time for Action

As the schoolbell rings around town, more than 15,000 Alexandria public school students face a disappointing reality. Even though per student spending is among the highest in the Commonwealth, our school system is rated among the worst performing. One would think an affluent city ($89,134 median household income), a well-educated city (62 percent of Alexandrians older than 25 are college degreed compared to 36 percent of Virginia adults) and a highly literate city (recently ranked three years in a row by Amazon as “best read city in the USA”) would both demand and enjoy excellent public schools. Sadly, this is not the case.

The Virginia Department of Education has developed “standards of learning” around four core subjects: reading, math, science and social studies. These standards for Virginia public schools establish minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade or course in these core subjects. All items on these tests are reviewed by Virginia classroom teachers for accuracy and fairness and teachers also assist the Virginia Board of Education in setting proficiency standards for the tests. These quantitative metrics reveal a shocking trend here in Alexandria: a systemwide 71 percent reading score, math 66 percent, science 68 percent and social studies 76 percent. All four subject scores were lower this year compared to last year. Both the scores and the trends are unacceptable. At the same time, our neighbors in Arlington and Fairfax have continued to produce solid results. For example, Arlington public schools enjoyed 87 percent reading, 86 percent math, 86 percent science and 88 percent social studies test scores while Fairfax County earned 84 percent reading, 83 percent math, 86 percent science and 90 percent social studies scores. We are getting D’s and F’s while our neighbors earn A’s and B’s.

The Virginia Department of Education has standards of accreditation to encourage appraisal of school programs and establish a means of determining the effectiveness of schools. Just 68.7 percent of Alexandria public schools are fully accredited. Arlington County has twice as many schools and 100 percent are fully accredited while 94 percent of Fairfax County’s schools are fully accredited. 86 percent of all public schools in Virginia are fully accredited. Our 68.7 percent accreditation rate is embarrassing. Equally shocking is the persistently low student achievement and performance at Jefferson Houston Elementary in Old Town that has been denied state accreditation for the past six years.

The stark differences in test scores and accreditation ratings would suggest significant underlying differences between the school systems. This is simply not true. According to the School Report Card and School Quality Profiles at the Virginia Department of Education, the Alexandria school system shares similar dimensions with our nearby peers such as comparable student demographics, similar student-teacher ratios, per-student spending, teacher pay and teacher credentials. Our School Board has decried funding and spending levels, yet our per student spending is among the highest in Virginia and our teachers are among the highest paid in Northern Virginia. Any emergency needs to fix and improve physical facilities and expand the capital budget stem from an utter lack of leadership, planning, and accountability from our elected members of the School Board and City Council. There has been no sense of urgency. They have been asleep at the wheel and shamefully deflect any responsibility. They have embraced radical political issues at the expense of our childrens’ education. Our school system has misguided priorities.

We must demand quality learning as well as innovative solutions to efficiently deliver and monitor learning and teaching. Let’s smartly deploy our considerable financial resources while demanding measurable results. By several metrics, we are shortchanging our children and ourselves. Fairfax and Arlington have figured out how to generate high quality results, and we can too. Strong public schools will bolster residential home prices, attract leading companies and make our city a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. We are an educated, affluent city and should demand accountability and a world class school system full of blue ribbon schools rather than one full of weak test scores, embarrassing accreditation rates and ineffective leadership. Its time for action.

Dr. Sean Lenehan

Chairman, Alexandria Republican City Committee