The current school year reaches its ceremonial conclusion Thursday morning at T.C. Williams High School graduation, but there is little closure to be found for Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman.
Sherman, who has been in charge of the citys schools for just under a full calendar year, will be seeing off his first crop of T.C. graduates. However, after that brief period of reflection, pomp and circumstance it will be back to business as usual.
Except, during Shermans tenure business as usual bares little resemblance to that of the recent past.
After events leading to his hiring last spring discord between the School Board and the Superintendent, followed by a problematic search for a new school chief Sherman has worked to bring stability, transparency and increased confidence to the schools.
Shermans first year at the ACPS helm a year of sweeping changes, surging enrollment, dwindling funds and significant improvements was summed up in the draft of his first annual report presented to School Board members at last Thursdays meeting.
The report outlined steps taken to improve student achievement the overarching goal that Sherman said he brought to Alexandria at the start of the year and one that mirrored the communitys desires and the varying rates of success they created, as well as work that still needs to be done.
Most notably, though, the report hinted at the prospect that the citys two middle schools, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond, could both earn full accreditation with the state of Virginia and, potentially, make the federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act, which would be a first for the two schools.
For the 2008-2009 school year the two schools were accredited with warnings. Overall, 95 percent of Virginia schools were fully accredited last year, while only 3 percent were accredited with a warning, according to the Virginia Department of Education website.
Im confident on accreditation, but I think the phrase the superintendent used was, Optimistic about AYP, ACPS Executive Director of Accountability Monte Dawson said.
While senior school officials are still remaining cautious about the final results due in mid-August, Dawson said that their accreditation estimates for the previous school year proved to be 100 percent accurate.
According to school officials, AYP is the more difficult of the two benchmarks to reach because it requires about 70 percent of students in each No Child Left Behind ethnic subgroup to pass the Standards of Learning exams. While the same tests are used to determine accreditation, that is determined across the entire school population.
The one-two punch of accreditation and making AYP standards would validate the measures Sherman enacted in the middle schools during the last several months to improve student achievement.
Theres no doubt its a good first step, Sherman said. Its not all kids, its not nearly as high as it should be, but its not failing any longer and its taking us closer to the place that we should be.
School Board Chair Yvonne Folkerts said that the tentative good news was a welcome high note on which to end the school year.
I was delighted, as well as my colleagues, to hear that the middle schools are very likely going to be accredited and make AYP, Folkerts said. We havent accomplished that yet and hopefully thats a sign of continued positive changes that are going to come forward in the next year or so.
Marc Williams, the only board member to have served with just Sherman as superintendent, was reserved in his assessment of the annual report and potential middle school accreditation.
My initial reaction was cautiously optimistic, Williams said. There will continue to be a lot of work to do and weve got to keep our eyes on the target.
Had the estimated results for middle school accreditation and AYP been less positive, as with the results of other new supplementary initiatives put into place this year, Sherman said the conversation now would be much different.
As is, the expected results display relative success and examples to follow in the future.
There are two lessons, Sherman said. One, given the right interventions and learning environments, our kids can learn. We showed that this year.
And two, the way to go about making it for all kids is changing even further the kinds of support available thats the motivation behind the small schools.
The smaller schools to which Sherman refers are the five 450-student middle schools being created from within the citys two existing middle schools.
Those new middle schools along with the new ACPS strategic plan, the transition of Jefferson-Houston elementary school into a kindergarten through 8th grade campus and the merger of Minnie Howard, the citys 9th grade center, with T.C. Williams are just some of the changes that have occurred during Shermans time as superintendent.
And he had not come into his post with designs on changing so much, so quickly.
I didnt think at this point Id be sitting here talking about how seven of our schools are International Baccalaureate program schools next year, or changing the middle schools, or turning Jefferson-Houston to a K-8 school, or even changing T.C. Williams to 9-12 school with two campuses, he said. I didnt anticipate any of that. I thought that would be more second- or third-year.
Upon taking over in August, Shermans goal was to take the time necessary to reach a more comprehensive understanding between the city and the schools before moving forward.
I didnt come with an agenda. I tried to be an anthropologist and the city not the City Council, but the city in terms of the community and the School Board gave me this agenda that matched mine, and that is higher achievement for all kids, Sherman said.
What he found was a school system that had essentially cordoned itself off in some detrimental ways.
The balance in Alexandria that Ive found this district had become almost insular, landlocked inside the Beltway, Sherman said.
A well-known achievement gap for minority students, an 11.1 percent dropout rate and the consistent struggle to make AYP division-wide characterized the school system that Sherman inherited. And once here, Sherman said he found that all of that had become OK, acceptable, that our kids werent achieving at extremely high levels. It had become the culture.
Sherman said that the findings of the outside audit of the schools special education program released earlier this month proved a worthy snapshot of the schools as a whole a district that had developed a culture lacking responsibility for all students.
Over the years, this insular mentality in a great school district kind of dragged down the potential, he said.
In response, the schools began a more focused push to help students who were identified as at promise that is, not reaching their full potential learn more effectively. After identifying more than 1,600 such students in math, the schools put together and carried out individualized plans to help more than half.
The results? In less than five months of existence, the plans became a key part of the re-energized effort in math at the two middle schools that is expected to push them over the top to meet accreditation in a subject that had kept them from full-fledged recognition in the past.
Once we get kids learning, I truly believe the cycle of success will continue, Sherman said.
Even though Sherman said he plans to keep middle school improvement at the top of his priority list for the next school year, the current results throughout ACPS have the School Board pleased with their decision to hire him a year ago.
Overall, I think the board is delighted with the amount of progress that [Sherman] and the staff have been able to chart on the goals that weve established but were just pleased to see student achievement moving forwa
rd, Folkerts said.