Parents debate possible state takeover of Jefferson-Houston

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By Melissa Quinn

Parents and administrators at Jefferson-Houston are campaigning against an education bill that allows state officials to take over failing public schools — including the Cameron Street school.

The bill, approved by the General Assembly on Monday, creates an Opportunity Educational Institution and gives state officials the ability to shift control of struggling local schools to the new entity. Though the legislation has not yet been signed into law, parents are urging residents to ask Gov. Bob McDonnell to veto it.

“I have no confidence the state would even know what they’re doing,” said Beth Coast, a Jefferson-Houston parent. “There’s a lot more to a school than test scores.”

Jefferson-Houston, which has struggled to meet government-mandated benchmarks based on the Standards of Learning exams for years, recently lost its state accreditation. In an effort to revive the school, Superintendent Morton Sherman and the school board have instituted programs such as Success for All.

Parents, like Coast, argue these programs are improving students’ scores and cite research demonstrating state intervention does little to help ailing schools.

A state takeover would remove control from the taxpayers and instead give it to a loosely defined institution, Coast said. Parents would have little input on the direction of the school.

“I am very dismayed and very upset about Gov. McDonnell’s decision to even entertain the bill at all,” said Coast, whose children are entering their fifth year at the school.

“I will not let the state run my school,” she said. “If the state takes over, we will not send them there. I’m not going to advocate for a state takeover whatsoever. It would be a circus at that point.”

Coast and a coalition of parents have written and called the governor, urging him to toss out the bill. They also have reached out to counties home to schools that the state has given warning statuses. Jefferson-Houston is one of four schools statewide that lost its accreditation last year.

But while Coast believes state intervention will harm Jefferson-Houston, its students and staff, others think a takeover would represent a last-ditch effort for a continuously failing school.

“[ACPS] has tried a multitude of turnaround efforts over the past few years, and there really hasn’t been a significant change in the quality of the test scores coming out of the school,” said Elizabeth Trigg, whose children are zoned for the school.

Her son spent less than a week at Jefferson-Houston before Trigg and her husband opted for a private school, citing the public school’s extended day and low test scores as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Still, she is unsure if she would send her children to Jefferson-Houston following a state intervention. Trigg would need to see an improvement first.

“Everyone can easily say they’re doing all they can and really making a great effort to be more successful, but when you look at it, the fact that it’s gotten to this point is reprehensible,” she said.

Parents against the legislation argue there is more to a school than test scores, but those on the other side don’t see another way to measure the academic levels.

“How else are you going to judge that?” Trigg said. “It’s just one metric, but it’s a pretty important one.

“They are throwing different solutions at a problem in an effort to see if they work. They aren’t working; there hasn’t been a significant change in the past five to seven years. At what point do you draw the line and say enough is enough? I think we have reached that time,” she added.