Jefferson-Houston arts plan nixed

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As part of a plan to raise the level of education at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, Alexandria City Public Schools suspended the arts focus in a School Board vote of 8 to 1 on Oct. 18, so teachers can increase efforts in core subjects such as reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

“I think it’s broken and we need to do something drastic to fix it,” said board member Ronnie Campbell, noting that the arts focus hasn’t worked out as well as planned. “I want us to put all our energies into the basics,” she said.

School Board Chair Claire Eberwein went into the history of the arts focus, which dates back to 2000 when board member Blanche Maness was the principal. Through the years, some have blamed a redistricting that took place, but Eberwein noted that 24 different scenarios were examined, holding up the current district map that wasnt as gerrymandered as some have stated.

It would be pretty hard to say that it was gerrymandered, she said.

The suspension of the arts focus isnt the only thing were doing, its just a side bar, added Assistant Superintendent Cathy David.

David went through a list of other steps, which included incorporating a professional learning community, word study, targeted intervention, community and family outreach, and instructional coaching. The suspension of the arts focus is to give the teachers the time, David added.

We need to make a decision about Jefferson-Houston sooner rather than later, Euille said. Euille suggested several options at this weeks City/school meeting, including selling the property.

School Board Chair Claire Eberwein cautioned city officials about any hasty solutions, particularly selling property. She reminded them of Cameron Station, where free property under BRAC was refused and the City later had to purchase property for Samuel Tucker at market value.

“While there are many options that we are considering, our current emphasis is and has to be on the children who are there now and how we make the school successful for them, Eberwein said.

Redistricting brought changes to all of the Citys elementary schools. Children who were being bussed to Jefferson-Houston from the West End were placed at the new Samuel Tucker Elementary School. The schools attendance zone essentially became its surrounding community, which was the goal for every school. The complex and sometimes competing goals were to create diversity and encourage parental involvement in every school. Jefferson-Houstons attendance zone includes public housing and middle class families who reside on the borders of Rosemont and Del Ray.

Since 2001, JHAA has had five different principals and test scores have steadily declined. Also, over the past six years, arts specialist positions have been eliminated. At the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, only one such position remained funded and last weeks Board vote will make that individual a first grade teacher.

Under the redistricting plan, the student population at JHAA was 17 percent white, 55 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and eight percent other. As of October, 2007, the student population is 74 percent black, 10 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic and two percent unspecified. This year, 194 children opted out of JHAA and 50 children opted in. Twenty-nine children opted in because of the arts focus, eight of those children from Macarthur Elementary School. Of the children who opted out of JHAA this year, 92 did so because of the arts focus and 55 left to attend other focus schools. Nineteen children left because of the failure to meet AYP and 11 children left because of special education placements elsewhere.

The lone dissenter in the vote to suspend the arts focus at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School was Arthur Peabody, on the grounds that suspending the arts was just a Band-Aid solution to a much deeper problem. Peabody attended the meeting with parents a week before, which was well attended despite a widely supported opinion that the lack of parental involvement was a major factor in the schools demise. The problem is deeper than parental
involvement, Peabody concluded.

“We have to be committed to fixing this, its a time to renew our commitment, he said. They will view this as stepping aside.

Jefferson-Houston Principal Bill Campbell agreed with Peabody. We need to look at much deeper things, he said.

Trey Hanbury, whose child might someday go to Jefferson-Houston, in an e-mail called the suspension a sideshow to the much bigger problem facing the school.

For arts focus integration teacher Kate Graham, the big day is Oct. 25, when she takes over a first-grade class instead of concentrating on the arts program.

“Im excited, Ive worked with those students before, she said.

Now the School Board has to decide several issues on transportation, opting out and the No Child Left Behind status. Once the school becomes accredited, school officials will consult with the community and decide whether to reinstate the arts focus.

Superintendent search
The superintendent search was another item on the agenda at the Oct. 18 meeting. The city and ACPS hired a research firm, Ray & Associates, to help with the search, and several members were on hand to present the top 10 criteria for the search, laid out from a recent meeting with citizens. They started with 32 quality characteristics and came up with the top 10, plus three additional characteristics.

The board voted to make the additional three characteristics a part of the criteria, and they will whittle down the search from there. The criteria list will begin the process of screening candidates at what I call the 50,000-feet level, said Alvin Johnson of Ray & Associates.

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