And Then There Were Five (More)

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Having been hired a year ago with a mandate for reform and improvement, Alexandria Public Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman presented School Board members with a chance to do just that last Thursday.

Facing a proposal to create five middle schools each with about 450 students out of the citys two large existing middle schools and the added reform of transitioning to the International Baccalaureate educational model, the Board voted eight to one in favor of the changes.

Although the Boards decision came at quite literally the eleventh hour Thursday, it was not an eleventh-hour decision, so to speak. 

Sherman had originally brought the idea to the board on April 16 as part of a proposed plan for the schools to fulfill the new strategic plan. In the weeks since, the schools engaged the public on the idea and vice versa. 

On June 4, the Board received nearly an hour and a half worth of public comment the vast majority related to middle schools prior to its vote. 

Several citizens spoke in support of the changes, while others expressed concern that reform was coming too fast, that the change could end up being too much for students as well as for teachers whose time is already at a premium.

For eight of the School Board members Vice Chair Sheryl Gorsuch was the lone vote against, citing the need for more time and consideration the process provided enough time and discussion to reach the accepted conclusion.

While we may differ on timing, perhaps, I think we have developed however informally throughout the community a consensus that we need to do something better at our middle schools, board member Arthur Peabody said prior to Thursdays vote.

Calling the need for improvement at the middle school level long overdue, Peabody said that he took the measure as one part of a division-wide improvement effort for all students.

Gorsuch said before the vote that she was not opposed to the small schools concept, but in favor of quality implementation that can be communicated clearly and would actively work to promote the middle school changes if passed.

The new middle school model that will take shape over the summer at George Washington and Francis C. Hammond middle schools will involve dividing the student population at G.W. into two smaller schools and Hammond into three schools, each featuring smaller math and language arts classes in addition to more personal interaction with administrators, teachers and students.

Before voting, some Board members referenced the fact that Sherman had been hired for, among other things, his previous successes in implementing school reform. 

Eileen Cassidy Rivera said she knew Sherman had been thinking about fixing the middle schools since signing his contract more than a year ago.

When we were looking at hiring a new superintendent and we went through the interviewing process, one of the top questions that we asked was, What can you do about our middle schools? How can we fix our middle schools? she said.

Board members and school staff hope that the new, smaller middle schools, as opposed to the 100-student grade level teams currently in place, will provide a more nurturing environment and make gains in cutting the achievement gap.

The new schools, all of which will be sixth through eighth grade, will be housed in the existing buildings. Students will be assigned to schools such that the demographics will mirror the current school makeup, school officials said, and will keep siblings together.

While the new schools will share elective courses and resource staff with other schools in the building, each will have its own principal and assistant principal. 

Within the two buildings, the plan is for principals to work as a team to coordinate building services like maintenance and custodial work. In all likelihood, the new school leaders will divvy up responsibilities and areas of expertise, Assistant Superintendent John Porter said.

Sherman announced the new principals on Tuesday, but the schools they will lead have yet to be named and it is not yet decided what will become of the names of the citys two history-filled middle schools. School officials have maintained that staffing changes associated with the five new schools would be essentially cost-neutral.

Additionally, the International Baccalaureates Middle Years Program will be phased in over the next three years, with the goal of full implementation of that teaching method set for Fall 2012, according to the School Boards adopted plan.

The reforms came after an earlier vote that provided full-fledged approval to transition Jefferson-Houston from a traditional elementary school to a kindergarten through eighth-grade school over the next three years, with sixth grade classes beginning next year at the school. 

Board member Marc Williams, in expressing his support for the reforms, cited a passage from William G. Ouchis book Making Schools Work that seemed especially relevant to the current work going towards improving Alexandrias middle schools. 

Structure must change before culture can change, that really resonated with me, and its clearly what were doing here, he said.

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