OUR VIEW | How Do We Help Johnny Read and Graduate?


As Alexandrias families settle back into their routines following spring break, they are greeted with daunting data from the Virginia Department of Education regarding graduation and drop-out rates. Specifically, Alexandria ranks below the state average in graduation rates and the citys dropout rate is higher than the state average. Only 76.4 percent of students expected to graduate in the past school year actually matriculated on time which is a significant 6 percent below the state average and worse than any Northern Virginia locality other than Manassas City.

Equally troubling is the terrible performance of Alexandrias Hispanic students. How can only 58 percent of Hispanic students graduate on time, with a whopping 25 percent dropout rate? To his credit, Superintendent Morton Sherman has reacted appropriately, saying there is no blame (which is magnanimous as he inherited this situation) but also no excuses.

Dr. Sherman has cited the school systems Strategic Plan and 2008-2010 Division Goals as steps in the right direction. Many items in these Division Goals do appear to be promising, such as enhancing the K-7 math curriculum so that more 8th grade students take algebra, better utilizing reading assessments for K-3 students so that more students make significant gains during the school year, and making sure that all elementary schools have adequate science resources and teacher training.

Other items in the Goals are less impressive. Dealing in euphemisms such as students who are at promise (rather than at risk) probably isnt going to help an underachieving student learn to read more quickly. Also, striking in its absence is any reference to special efforts to raise the performance of Hispanic students. While one could argue that the Division Goals are supposed to raise the performance level of all students, the fact that Hispanic students underperform their peers by such a large margin they graduate at a rate almost 20 percent lower than the average Alexandria student seems to indicate that special measures are needed.

Dr. Sherman on his blog recently said that lack of parental involvement should not be an excuse for poor student performance. While that is true, it is equally true that having an adult actively participate in a students academic life usually makes a big difference. Preferably that adult would be a parent. But if a parent cant or wont become involved, then tutoring or mentoring programs though not a panacea can help raise achievement levels. In this edition of the Times, educator Sissy Walker shares her experiences in tutoring two children through the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium and cites the tangible academic gains of these children.

It is said that with every challenge comes an opportunity. Alexandria has an opportunity in these next few weeks leading up to its school board elections to have a constructive dialogue on how to raise the graduation rate of students overall and Hispanic students in particular. We have heard a lot of discussion during this campaign about residency requirements, and the fact that people who dont live in Alexandria are illegally sending their children to our schools, thus draining resources and pushing schools to capacity enrollment. This is a serious issue and one that should be addressed.

However, we would also like to hear more talk about how to better serve those students, particularly Hispanic ones, who do live here. The Division Goals sound promising, though perhaps incomplete, and tutoring clearly helps. We look forward to hearing other proposals on ways to increase student performance and graduation rates.