Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

What Should Alexandrians Know about Jefferson-Houston?

A week ago I attended a program presented by Agenda:Alexandria regarding Virginia’s new OEI law (OEI stands for “Opportunity Educational Institution”), and what a state takeover of one of our schools would look like.

David Foster, president of the Virginia Board of Education, gave a very helpful overview of the OEI law’s current status. (As background, “the law requires any school that has been denied accreditation and permits any school that has been accredited with warning for three consecutive years to be transferred to the Institution and remain in the Institution for five years or until the school achieves full accreditation.” http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?131+sum+SB1324)

In effect, the Institution is a new statewide school division. The Institution has its own nine-member board that was recently appointed by Governor McDonnell. An ACPS parent is among the appointees to the OEI board. During the time that a school is operated by the OEI, both the local and federal per pupil funding for that school are transferred to the state. Lawmakers appropriated $150,000 to the OEI but, according to Foster, that amount falls short of what the OEI needs to operate and is not enough to cover even the cost of hiring an executive director. As a practical matter, the OEI is not going to get off the ground unless and until the legislature appropriates it a larger sum of money.

While one in four schools in Virginia are currently in the “accredited with warning” category, six schools fall under the OEI’s mandatory takeover criteria: Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 School in Alexandria, two schools in Petersburg and three schools in Norfolk.  This summer, the Norfolk City School Board and the Virginia School Boards Association filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the OEI.

When asked whether Alexandria tax dollars could be used to improve schools in Norfolk or Petersburg, Foster stated only that it was the intent of the legislation to use the local funds for the local school; he didn’t say whether or not the law explicitly prohibits the transfer of funds from one jurisdiction to another. In Alexandria, the average per pupil expenditure is around $17,000, compared with about $11,900 in Petersburg and $9,200 in Norfolk.

Charter school focus

Foster’s presentation was followed by two panelists who talked about public charter schools in D.C. One of the speakers was from FOCUS, the leading advocacy organization for public charter schools in D.C.; the other was from KIPP DC, which operates 12 public charter schools there.

Almost half of D.C.’s 82,000 public school students attend public charter schools. These schools are not governed by the same laws, rules and regulations as D.C. public schools and are not bound by collective bargaining agreements. They cannot hand-pick their students, but because parents have to apply, the student body is selected from a pool of students whose parents are more proactive on behalf of their children.

On average for low-income students, the public charter schools outperform traditional D.C. public schools, but not all public charter schools outperform all traditional schools.

As interesting as the charter school presentations were, it might have been more useful to have at least one speaker talk about other reform models. Even if Jefferson-Houston is taken over by the state (which assumes that the legislation is deemed constitutional by the courts and that our next governor agrees to a budget that includes meaningful funding for the OEI), it’s not clear that the taken-over schools would become charter schools.

Several members of the Alexandria public school community (including the Alexandria PTA Council) asked the program organizers to include a panelist from Alexandria, but the organizers preferred to have the speakers bring an outside perspective.

The inside perspective

An outside perspective can be very beneficial, but that assumes that the audience is already familiar with the issue from the inside. As it happens, several of the reform strategies that are hallmarks of KIPP DC schools have been implemented at Jefferson-Houston in recent years: a longer school day (Jefferson-Houston students have an 8-hour school-day, compared to 6-1/2 hours for other ACPS elementary students), Saturday School from November through May, parent engagement programs, and a dedicated data specialist on campus.

Here are 10 other things that I would have liked for audience members to have learned about Jefferson-Houston:

1. Jefferson-Houston is an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program Candidate School. Its teachers have participated in IB training for the past four years, and the PYP program is integrated into daily instruction in grades K through 5.

2. About 3 out of 4 Jefferson-Houston students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, higher than the school-division average. The city’s largest homeless shelter for families is located within the school’s boundaries.

3. A long-overdue new school building will be open for the fall of 2014. For the first time in several decades, Jefferson-Houston students will have classrooms with doors, adequate natural light and proper ventilation, replacing the failed “open-classroom” design of the 1970s.

4. The school has a growing and dedicated PTA. Twice a month, PTA President Shanelle Gayden offers a Friday-morning program to support and encourage parents. The PTA also recently received $5,000 in grant funding from a community member for field trips.

5. Jefferson-Houston staff members and volunteer tutors work with students in Saturday School. Part-time paid tutoring positions are also available. For more information, go to http://www.acps.k12.va.us/houston/tutoring.php.

6. While not all academic benchmarks have been met, the number of students who are far below grade level in reading and math has been significantly reduced.

7. Last year, kindergarten, first- and second-grade students outperformed ACPS and the state in the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS).

8. Every current first-grade student finished kindergarten in June 2013 reading at a first grade level or higher. Most current fifth-grade students, who were reading at the kindergarten level two years ago in third grade (and thus were three years below grade level), are now reading on grade level.

9. Last year, JH sixth-graders outperformed the state on the Math SOL. Algebra I students also surpassed the state and district average proficiency score with an 88% pass rate.

10. Struggling first- and second-grade students read to therapy dogs once a week. Students who participated in the “Reading to Rover” program in the spring of 2013 increased their reading fluency significantly and left their grade reading at grade level.

There’s more work to be done at Jefferson-Houston, but under Alexandria’s jurisdiction and Principal Rice-Harris’ direction, the school is headed in the right direction, and a work group of parents, teachers and administrators is currently in the process of coming up with additional recommendations for the coming year. I did not hear a compelling case at the Agenda:Alexandria program that transferring control of the school to the state would result in better educational outcomes for JH students.

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