Parents debate possible state takeover of Jefferson-Houston


By Melissa Quinn

Parents and administrators at Jefferson-Houston are campaigning against an education bill that allows state officials to take over failing public schools — including the Cameron Street school.

The bill, approved by the General Assembly on Monday, creates an Opportunity Educational Institution and gives state officials the ability to shift control of struggling local schools to the new entity. Though the legislation has not yet been signed into law, parents are urging residents to ask Gov. Bob McDonnell to veto it.

“I have no confidence the state would even know what they’re doing,” said Beth Coast, a Jefferson-Houston parent. “There’s a lot more to a school than test scores.”

Jefferson-Houston, which has struggled to meet government-mandated benchmarks based on the Standards of Learning exams for years, recently lost its state accreditation. In an effort to revive the school, Superintendent Morton Sherman and the school board have instituted programs such as Success for All.

Parents, like Coast, argue these programs are improving students’ scores and cite research demonstrating state intervention does little to help ailing schools.

A state takeover would remove control from the taxpayers and instead give it to a loosely defined institution, Coast said. Parents would have little input on the direction of the school.

“I am very dismayed and very upset about Gov. McDonnell’s decision to even entertain the bill at all,” said Coast, whose children are entering their fifth year at the school.

“I will not let the state run my school,” she said. “If the state takes over, we will not send them there. I’m not going to advocate for a state takeover whatsoever. It would be a circus at that point.”

Coast and a coalition of parents have written and called the governor, urging him to toss out the bill. They also have reached out to counties home to schools that the state has given warning statuses. Jefferson-Houston is one of four schools statewide that lost its accreditation last year.

But while Coast believes state intervention will harm Jefferson-Houston, its students and staff, others think a takeover would represent a last-ditch effort for a continuously failing school.

“[ACPS] has tried a multitude of turnaround efforts over the past few years, and there really hasn’t been a significant change in the quality of the test scores coming out of the school,” said Elizabeth Trigg, whose children are zoned for the school.

Her son spent less than a week at Jefferson-Houston before Trigg and her husband opted for a private school, citing the public school’s extended day and low test scores as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Still, she is unsure if she would send her children to Jefferson-Houston following a state intervention. Trigg would need to see an improvement first.

“Everyone can easily say they’re doing all they can and really making a great effort to be more successful, but when you look at it, the fact that it’s gotten to this point is reprehensible,” she said.

Parents against the legislation argue there is more to a school than test scores, but those on the other side don’t see another way to measure the academic levels.

“How else are you going to judge that?” Trigg said. “It’s just one metric, but it’s a pretty important one.

“They are throwing different solutions at a problem in an effort to see if they work. They aren’t working; there hasn’t been a significant change in the past five to seven years. At what point do you draw the line and say enough is enough? I think we have reached that time,” she added.



  1. The questions asked interviewees in this article set up a false choice about how schools should be evaluated – using test scores or not. The relevant question with regard to the legislation is, do Virginia’s current accreditation standards effectively measure the quality of the educational experience in the school? The accreditation standard by which the decision to turn over the school’s to state control is a very limited one. For middle schools, accreditation is awarded when 70% of students in each of Grades 6, 7, and 8 pass the SOL tests in Math, English, History, and Science. For elementary schools: (1) Did 75% of students in each of Grades 3,4, and 5 pass the Standards of Learning (SOL) test in English, (2) Did 70% of students in each of Grades 3,4, and 5 pass the SOL tests in Math, (3) Did 70% of 5th Graders and 50% of 3rd Graders pass the SOL tests in Science, and (4) Did 70% of 4th Graders or 5th Graders (whichever grade does Virginia history) and 50% of 3rd Graders pass the SOL tests in History. No other scores or measures of performance are relevant. Thus, Jefferson-Houston gets no credit for the success it has experienced in the past two years with new curriculum and leadership in dramatically improving test scores in reading for kindergarteners and first graders relative to previous years – including having 100% of last year’s kindergarteners reading at least at a first grade level by the end of their kindergarten year – an achievement no other school in ACPS has matched.

    So as Jefferson-Houston has developed what may be the best reading program in the city, an achievement that establishes a critical foundation for continued learning across all disciplines and bodes well for how well its students are likely to perform on SOL tests several years from now, the new legislation perversely may result in the dismantling of that program because it will continue to rely on a measure of “school quality” in the third through fifth grades that are heavily influenced by the foundations built by the quality of instructional programs four or more years before. In other words, Virginia’s use of SOL tests in 3rd through 5th grades as accreditation standards to a large extent are lagging indicators, not indicators of current school quality. When a school is ineffective in addressing deficits in student readiness to learn at the kindergarten level, the failure to help students get to grade level will continue to hamper the students’ ability to achieve success in SOL tests and other measures of achievement for a number of years. Then, once a school corrects course and begins to effectively implement programs, by law Virginia cannot take objective measurements of those improvements into account for several more years when the benefits of those improved programs finally can be measured in third through fifth grade by the very limited means of before Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests.

  2. The superintendent and current leadership have been charged with turning around Jefferson Houston for the past 5 years, not the just the past year. The attempt here to point to ACPS data generated over the last school year in order to support supposed gains ignores the reality of the decrease in achievement under the watch of the superintendent. Examine the three year trends at Jefferson Houston and decide if this school has corrected it’s course. English Performance: 2009-2010, 69% pass rate 2010-2011, 67% pass rate, 2011-2012- 61% pass rate. Math Performance: 2009-2010 81% pass rate, 2010-2011 62% pass rate, 2011-2012 35% pass rate. Writing Performance:2009-2010 75% pass rate, 2010-2011 51% pass rate, 2011-2012 56% pass rate. History Performance: 2009-2010 57% pass rate, 2010-2011 38% pass rate, 2011-2012 48% pass rate. Science Performance: 2009-2010 67% pass rate, 2010-2011 51% pass rate, 2011-2012 43% pass rate. Can anyone honestly say that pass rates of 61%, 35%, 56%, 48%, and 43% are indicators of success?

  3. Two points: First, the reading program at Jefferson Houston, Success for All, is roundly derided as one of the worst scripted, depressingly redundant pieces of rehashed crap that has ever been crammed down a teacher’s throat. Secondly, Mort Sherman is universally laughed at in Richmond. His inability to bamboozle the state, as he has done repeatedly in Alexandria, is legend. He is a laughingstock everywhere but in his own boardroom…that, too, may be changing.