My View: Jefferson-Houston’s dirty little secret? It’s a success story

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By Arthur Peabody
Photo/File photo  

Arthur Peabody

Amid negative publicity and the threat of a state takeover, how should we be thinking about Jefferson-Houston School? What is the real story at Jefferson-Houston?
Standardized test scores that form the basis for accreditation and other state-imposed measurements of achievement do not convey the accomplishments of Jefferson-Houston’s students. The results of tests not included in the state’s arbitrary standards — and not published or referenced by the local media for all the public to see — show student growth.
For example, significant growth was made this past year in primary reading and math skills as evidenced in the data that emerged from the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, Scholastic Reading Inventory, or SRI, and the Scholastic Mathematics Inventory, or SMI.
These tests are widely accepted and adopted for use in our schools by the state. Yet this data does not factor into the state’s analysis of our schools. By these measures, Jefferson-Houston’s students are showing good progress in mastering the basic skills of reading and math — skills that are fundamental to all other learning, including success on standardized tests.
Jefferson-Houston’s PALS — or reading — scores are the best in the city. At the kindergarten level, 86 percent of students tested at or higher than the fall 2012 benchmark, on par with district and state results. By spring, 96 percent of Jefferson-Houston kindergarteners tested at or higher than the PALS benchmark — a noticeable increase. In fact, Jefferson-Houston students outperformed the district and state spring 2013 average of 92 percent.
At the first-grade level, spring results saw Jefferson-Houston students outpacing district and state averages. Ninety-four percent of students were at or higher than the benchmark compared to 86 percent at the district level and 85 percent at the state level.
In regard to SRI, another reading test, 15 percent of Jefferson-Houston students assessed fell into the “proficient” or “advanced” score ranges in fall 2011. By spring 2013, 56 percent of students assessed fell within these ranges — a gain of 41-percentage points in two years.
On the SMI, a basic math skills test, 22 percent of Jefferson-Houston students assessed in fall 2012 produced “proficient” or “advanced” scores. By spring, 61 percent of students assessed were graded as proficient or advanced.
Put differently, since Morton Sherman became Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent in 2009, the achievement of Jefferson-Houston students in reading and math has improved dramatically. These students are gaining basic skills necessary for future achievement.
Virginia’s waiver of No Child Left Behind’s benchmarks for measuring student achievement still imposes rigid numerical requirements. Most educators believe a growth model more properly measures an individual student’s increased achievement — or educational growth — from year to year.
Though Richmond proposed a growth model of testing, it was rejected by the federal Department of Education as inadequate. As a result, Jefferson-Houston is still being evaluated by rigid numerical goals that do not reflect the individual growth of students.
Why don’t we adopt a measure that shows student growth from year to year? This would be a real measure of achievement. And by this measure, Jefferson-Houston is a success.
This success at Jefferson-Houston is due, in large part, to the initiatives that Sherman — with the full support of the school board — has implemented during the past four years.
For example, the school day has been extended to provide more time for meaningful educational interventions and to enable academic success for all students. Every teacher has been individually selected based on their skills, expertise and commitment to students. Class sizes are as small as 13 students. Kindergarten readiness classes are held while the district provides preschool opportunities — for 4-year-olds who would not otherwise attend preschool — without a waiting list.
Jefferson-Houston, which expanded to house students from kindergarten through eighth grade, also is in the process of implementing the International Baccalaureate Program, which reflects the international standard for teaching.
Mentors are involved in after-school programs. Local dentists have volunteered their time to address the oral health of students. Social workers interact with families and search out students who are absent from school. Seventy-three percent of Jefferson-Houston students are eligible for — and receive — a free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch.
All these facts belie any suggestion that there has been any neglect of these students. To the contrary, significant resources have been devoted to the students at the school.
The real question as to the possible state takeover of the school is what would the so-called leaders in Richmond do to improve the school? The list of initiatives — and their resulting successes — indicates that reasonable steps have been taken and are underway. A long-term, continuing commitment of the kind we have demonstrated here in Alexandria is what is required.
The answer to the question of what the state should do is straightforward: send money. Presently, only 14 percent of the district’s budget is supported by state dollars.
Finally, the oft-repeated description of Jefferson-Houston as a failure in all respects is a disservice to our community — but more so to the families and students who are rising to the occasion and showing progress. It also is a disservice to the many teachers and members of our community who support these efforts. We need to continue our conversation as to how we can better serve all students, enhance support systems and otherwise advance their achievement.
The students at Jefferson-Houston have shown that they can perform when judged by standards designed to show growth and achievement. We need to support the full realization of their dreams for a rich and rewarding future.

The writer served as a member of the Alexandria School Board from 2006 to 2012 and was chairman in 2006 and 2007.