Officials break ground on new Jefferson-Houston

By Melissa Quinn
Alexandria officials broke ground on the new Jefferson-Houston School on Tuesday, confident the state-of-the-art building will ease capacity woes plaguing the district.

Jefferson-Houston, with a student body of 361, has faced low enrollment for several years — a condition some in the community attribute to the school’s persistently low test scores — despite the district’s growing pains. The new building, scheduled to open for the 2014-15 school year, will house more than 800 students, more than double the enrollment this year.

“The capacity of the new building being built is going to save the district [in terms of overcrowding],” said Karen Graf, school board chairwoman.

Since 1999, enrollment at Jefferson-Houston has dropped from 486 students to 361 students, a trend that persisted even after administrators expanded the school to house sixth, seventh and eighth grades. But Graf is confident the new building will draw more students.

The building also will serve the expected influx of students stemming from Potomac Yard’s redevelopment, she said.

According to plans for the new school, the building will feature 10 early-childhood classrooms and 21 classrooms for first- through eighth-grade students. With more than 130,000 square feet of space, it will stand in stark contrast to the Cameron Street school, which was built in 1970.

Though Graf and Jefferson-Houston principal on assignment Mark Eisenhour are hopeful the structure will ease capacity issues elsewhere in the district, school board members have not ruled out redistricting, which last occurred several years ago.

“Eventually we’re going to have to look at [it],” Graf said.

Fellow board member Ronnie Campbell agreed. But Graf and Campbell said redrawing district lines would not occur until the Jefferson-Houston project wrapped up.
Still, opponents of the school’s construction argue a new building will do little to boost low test scores that left Jefferson-Houston without accreditation — and at risk for a state takeover.

But Jefferson-Houston administrators believe the state-of-the-art building, coupled with principal Rosalyn Rice-Harris’ leadership, will not only attract students, but improve the school academic performance.

“[She] has been the driving force behind turning the school around,” Eisenhour said. “Between the new building and her, the school will turn around.”

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