Opinion Your Views — 06 June 2013
Academically, Jefferson-Houston is in a class of its own

To the editor:

West Old Town Citizens Association members were honored to have District A school board members Bill Campbell, Karen Graf and Stephanie Kapsis attend a special meeting last month to discuss Jefferson-Houston School’s academic dilemma. Justin Keating, a District B school board member who serves as the body’s liaison to our preK-8 school, joined them. We appreciate their shared commitment of time.

During the meeting we learned that Mr. Keating, Mr. Campbell and former school board member Helen Morris traveled to Richmond to testify April 2 before the Virginia Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on education. (Alexandria state Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35) serves on this committee.)

The Alexandria trio opposed funding for SB 1324, the authorizing legislation permitting the state takeover of consistently failing schools like Jefferson-Houston. Apparently they succeeded as final funding for the state-proposed Educational Opportunity Institution was slashed from $600,000 to $150,000.

When describing the Alexandria delegation’s argument, Mr. Keating explained that Alexandria seeks variable levels of state interventions — interventions that fall short of a complete school takeover. Jefferson-Houston, he said, performed at a higher level than Petersburg’s schools, and because of this, less state oversight was required to correct Jefferson-Houston’s problems than Petersburg’s. We presumed Mr. Keating meant that Petersburg’s takeover school had an even worse academic record than Jefferson-Houston’s.

The Petersburg school in question was not disclosed, but according to the state Department of Education, it is Peabody Middle School. However, a comparison of the state education department’s test data for Peabody and Jefferson-Houston suggests Mr. Keating’s assumption may be flawed.

Over a three-year period, sixth-grade reading and math SOL test pass rates reveal no significant difference between the two schools. The same was true for seventh-grade reading and math, for which there are two years of data available to compare.

Arguably, the number of middle school pupils tested at Jefferson-Houston is too small to be credible, since sixth-grade classes were only added in 2009-10, seventh grade in 2010-11 and eighth grade in 2011-12. So five years of Jefferson-Houston’s elementary school test scores were compared with those at Petersburg’s A.P. Hill Elementary School, which is on the state’s warning list for the third year and has been discussed as a possible takeover target in the future.

The test scores for third- and fifth-grade math SOL pass rates again did not show a significant difference. In only one category — third-grade math — did Petersburg pupils do worse than those at Jefferson-Houston last year. In fact, fifth-grade math scores reveal that while only 21 percent of Jefferson-Houston children passed the SOL, the pass rate at A.P. Hill was nearly three times higher at 58.33 percent.

Mr. Keating’s thesis — and presumably that of the board he represents — that Jefferson-Houston merits a less drastic takeover based on a comparison with other troubled schools elsewhere in Virginia is simply not backed up by data. It’s embarrassing for Alexandria education officials to admit, but Jefferson-Houston is in a class by itself. That is why the state targets it for total takeover.

As far as demographics go, the two Petersburg schools have a majority black student population and so does Jefferson-Houston. According to the Kids Count project of the Annie B. Casey Foundation, in 2011 about 15 percent of Alexandria children, ages 0 through 17, lived in poverty while more than a third — 37.7 percent — of the children in Petersburg were poor.

Census results from 2010 and the American Community Survey five-year average reveal family income in Alexandria is more than double that of Petersburg ($102,000 versus $44,000). Yet the two Petersburg schools were not measurably worse than Jefferson-Houston — they were often better.

The issue is not the politics of the takeover, but why a Northern Virginia suburb like Alexandria is letting its kids down so badly and only a few years after Jefferson-Houston was meeting Virginia’s educational standards.

- Leslie Zupan
Past president of the West 
Old Town Citizens Association

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