Looking for a reversal


The Alexandria School Board continues to wrestle with the issue of what to do about Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics.

At the retreat last weekend, Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry and Dr. Michael Romanelli, director of special education for the system, made a suggestion that surprised everyone. 

Perry told the Board that nothing that has been tried so far has worked to turn the school around. It became an arts focus school in 2000 and, since that time, has had five principals; has met Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act only once, and has never achieved full accreditation under Virginias own Standards of Learning test. Perry told the Board that , this year, when the school was accredited with warning, the state suggested removing the arts focus and returning the school to a standard curriculum. The Board will begin that discussion on Oct. 4, and will vote on the matter on Oct. 18.

That is a short-term solution to the problem. As a longer term solution, Perry suggested moving all of the children who currently attend Jefferson-Houston to to other accredited elementary schools in the city and using the school to house some Central Office staff and self-contained special education classes for children with severe disabilities who are currently being educated in Arlington and Fairfax counties, at St. Colettas School in Washington, D.C., and at other out-of-state institutions.

Fairfax County refused to take any additional children for this school year and has told ACPS that they may be unable to take any children at all next year because of the number of special needs children in their own system. 

Board Member Ronnie Campbell objected to the proposal because of the federal requirement to place special needs children in the least restrictive environment and mainstream them in regular classes when ever possible. Romanelli assured her that none of the children who would potentially be placed in such programs would be appropriate for mainstreaming. 

I do think this is something we should consider because it could save a significant amount of money, said Board Chair Claire Eberwein. However, it is important that we make it clear that this would not affect any of the children with special needs who are already placed in citywide programs within ACPS.

The school systems facilities committee will begin discussing this matter and other options for Jefferson-Houston at the Oct. 11 meeting.

This is an interesting option and it should be given careful consideration, said Facilities Committee chairman Scott Newsham. However, nothing will be done without significant input from the community.

Traditionally, the School Board retreat is an opportunity for members to present a variety of options to a wide range of Alexandria City Public Schools issues and explore them further at a later date.

Closing the achievement gap was the first item of discussion, and the need for more parental involvement was cited as a big contributor in this area. The board was looking to the Parent Leadership Training Institute for ways to get parents involved. We have to explore what theyre doing and replicate that, said Deputy Superintendent Cathy David.

Every year there is staff turnover, and the board was looking for ways to keep teachers, citing the cost of housing in the area as a big factor, with some experiencing sticker shock at the housing and rental rates.

We do have an agreement with Fox Chase, for discounted rents for new teachers, said Jim Loomis, a human resource specialist with ACPS. Loudoun County is getting contracts with new teachers in early spring, while ACPS is dependent on the city budget.

Cheryl Ross-Audley, assistant superintendent for human resources, looked at a system that is not as cumbersome, she said, but also one that holds people accountable. Its got to happen, said Superintendent Rebecca Perry.

The next day, the board addressed the coming budget, putting some focus on the timeline. The boards final budget must be submitted by Jan. 31. The City Council then makes its revisions, and the final budget is submitted in May.