Planning commission approves Jefferson-Houston project

Planning commission approves Jefferson-Houston project
(File photo)

By Melissa Quinn

Despite opposition from neighbors, plans to rebuild the Jefferson-Houston School received a unanimous go-ahead from the planning commission Tuesday night.

Alexandria City Public Schools officials began planning for a new building in 2009 after seeing Jefferson-Houston’s mounting maintenance costs. During the next 20 years, the school would cost about $12.7 million to maintain, according to district officials.

When finished, the 130,000 square foot school will house 610 to 750 students — a substantial increase from the 364 students currently attending Jefferson-Houston. The L-shaped building will boast an athletic field made of synthetic turf, state of the art classrooms and new playgrounds.

Officials also hope to make substantial improvements to the Durant Center, which sits on the school’s property.

“This process will serve as a model for future school projects and address a rising school population,” said Mark Eisenhour, Jefferson-Houston’s principal on assignment.

But several neighbors publicly worried about how the site will fit into the historic Parker-Gray district and whether the new school will increase traffic. Others criticized ACPS for failing to engage the community in the project’s early stages.

“It has become less and less unacceptable to the people … who will have to live with it day in and day out, 24/7, when school is in session and when it isn’t,” said Dino Drudi, a neighbor. “The design, although it is much improved through the public input process, … still breaks faith with the neighborhood.”*

Others stressed Jefferson-Houston’s recent loss of accreditation, arguing a new school will do little to improve the students’ test scores — the reason behind the downgrade.

“Schools don’t take tests, the students do,” said Ralph Timmons. “I doubt very seriously a new school building is going to affect the tests one way or another.”

However, several school board members in attendance reiterated their approval of the project. The board voted unanimously to approve the plan, Chairwoman Sheryl Gorsuch reminded the audience.

“I am confident we are moving down the right path,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Helen Morris.

If the roughly $35.9 million project receives city council’s blessing, construction on the building could be finished in time for the 2014-15 school year.

 *Ed. Note: This quote has been lengthened to clarify the speaker’s intended meaning.