My View: Jefferson-Houston’s dirty little secret? It’s a success story


By Arthur Peabody
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Arthur Peabody

Amid negative publicity and the threat of a state takeover, how should we be thinking about Jefferson-Houston School? What is the real story at Jefferson-Houston?
Standardized test scores that form the basis for accreditation and other state-imposed measurements of achievement do not convey the accomplishments of Jefferson-Houston’s students. The results of tests not included in the state’s arbitrary standards — and not published or referenced by the local media for all the public to see — show student growth.
For example, significant growth was made this past year in primary reading and math skills as evidenced in the data that emerged from the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, Scholastic Reading Inventory, or SRI, and the Scholastic Mathematics Inventory, or SMI.
These tests are widely accepted and adopted for use in our schools by the state. Yet this data does not factor into the state’s analysis of our schools. By these measures, Jefferson-Houston’s students are showing good progress in mastering the basic skills of reading and math — skills that are fundamental to all other learning, including success on standardized tests.
Jefferson-Houston’s PALS — or reading — scores are the best in the city. At the kindergarten level, 86 percent of students tested at or higher than the fall 2012 benchmark, on par with district and state results. By spring, 96 percent of Jefferson-Houston kindergarteners tested at or higher than the PALS benchmark — a noticeable increase. In fact, Jefferson-Houston students outperformed the district and state spring 2013 average of 92 percent.
At the first-grade level, spring results saw Jefferson-Houston students outpacing district and state averages. Ninety-four percent of students were at or higher than the benchmark compared to 86 percent at the district level and 85 percent at the state level.
In regard to SRI, another reading test, 15 percent of Jefferson-Houston students assessed fell into the “proficient” or “advanced” score ranges in fall 2011. By spring 2013, 56 percent of students assessed fell within these ranges — a gain of 41-percentage points in two years.
On the SMI, a basic math skills test, 22 percent of Jefferson-Houston students assessed in fall 2012 produced “proficient” or “advanced” scores. By spring, 61 percent of students assessed were graded as proficient or advanced.
Put differently, since Morton Sherman became Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent in 2009, the achievement of Jefferson-Houston students in reading and math has improved dramatically. These students are gaining basic skills necessary for future achievement.
Virginia’s waiver of No Child Left Behind’s benchmarks for measuring student achievement still imposes rigid numerical requirements. Most educators believe a growth model more properly measures an individual student’s increased achievement — or educational growth — from year to year.
Though Richmond proposed a growth model of testing, it was rejected by the federal Department of Education as inadequate. As a result, Jefferson-Houston is still being evaluated by rigid numerical goals that do not reflect the individual growth of students.
Why don’t we adopt a measure that shows student growth from year to year? This would be a real measure of achievement. And by this measure, Jefferson-Houston is a success.
This success at Jefferson-Houston is due, in large part, to the initiatives that Sherman — with the full support of the school board — has implemented during the past four years.
For example, the school day has been extended to provide more time for meaningful educational interventions and to enable academic success for all students. Every teacher has been individually selected based on their skills, expertise and commitment to students. Class sizes are as small as 13 students. Kindergarten readiness classes are held while the district provides preschool opportunities — for 4-year-olds who would not otherwise attend preschool — without a waiting list.
Jefferson-Houston, which expanded to house students from kindergarten through eighth grade, also is in the process of implementing the International Baccalaureate Program, which reflects the international standard for teaching.
Mentors are involved in after-school programs. Local dentists have volunteered their time to address the oral health of students. Social workers interact with families and search out students who are absent from school. Seventy-three percent of Jefferson-Houston students are eligible for — and receive — a free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch.
All these facts belie any suggestion that there has been any neglect of these students. To the contrary, significant resources have been devoted to the students at the school.
The real question as to the possible state takeover of the school is what would the so-called leaders in Richmond do to improve the school? The list of initiatives — and their resulting successes — indicates that reasonable steps have been taken and are underway. A long-term, continuing commitment of the kind we have demonstrated here in Alexandria is what is required.
The answer to the question of what the state should do is straightforward: send money. Presently, only 14 percent of the district’s budget is supported by state dollars.
Finally, the oft-repeated description of Jefferson-Houston as a failure in all respects is a disservice to our community — but more so to the families and students who are rising to the occasion and showing progress. It also is a disservice to the many teachers and members of our community who support these efforts. We need to continue our conversation as to how we can better serve all students, enhance support systems and otherwise advance their achievement.
The students at Jefferson-Houston have shown that they can perform when judged by standards designed to show growth and achievement. We need to support the full realization of their dreams for a rich and rewarding future.

The writer served as a member of the Alexandria School Board from 2006 to 2012 and was chairman in 2006 and 2007.



  1. Mr. Peabody, were SOL results “arbitrary” when your board used those results in the past to bolster claims that there were signs of progress at other ACPS schools (Cora Kelly being a prime example)? Now are we to believe that SOL results are only accurate when they demonstrate progress within ACPS and not when they highlight continued failure?

    The State Board of Education heard this same spiel from members of your board last year and posed very thoughtful questions, for which there were few answers. The state board also made some very astute observations, one being that the three, five, and ten year trends at Jefferson Houston are indicative of a school with serious problems. Examine the trend over the past three years for which data is readily available to the public on the Virginia Department of Education School Report Card website. Grade 3-5 English scores 2010-2011-71%, 2011-2012-66%, 2012-2013-57%. Math scores 2010-2011-82%, 2011-2102-66%, 2012-2013-38%. History scores 2010-2011-53%, 2011-2012-38%, 2012-2013-50%. Science scores 2010-2011-80%, 2011-2012-45%, 2012-2013-49%.

    How can anybody attempt to call reading scores of 57% a success? How is a math proficiency rate of 38% for the bare minimum of math requirements a sign that math is improving dramatically at Jefferson Houston?

    Even by your own measures there are serious problems with reading and math at Jefferson Houston. According to the SRI results you present, 44% of students are below basic reading levels. According to the SMI results, 39% of students are failing basic math concepts. The PALS results are not reading scores as you assert, they are the results of a screening tool which does not test a student’s reading comprehension. The purpose of PALS testing is determine a child’s knowledge of letter sounds, spelling, concept of word, word recognition in isolation, and oral passage reading. PALS is not intended to support dubious claims of growth across an entire school or district.

    Do you not see the shame in stating that success for Jefferson Houston is gained only when ACPS makes up it’s own assessment method? The assessment which every other school district, every other school board, and every other teacher in the state of Virginia must live with demonstrates that Jefferson-Houston is failing. The disservice here is that you attempt to make the citizens of this city believe otherwise.

    And what solution have you? Send more money. This is not summer camp, we are not children who have run out of cash and need more money for the canteen to buy goodies. Where has the money gone which the city, the state, and the federal government have provided ACPS for Jefferson-Houston? Was money directed to the Mind-Up program run by The Hawn Foundation of which the Superintendent was a member of the board of directors? How much money has been spent on the attempt to get the IB program at Jefferson Houston? Where is Jefferson Houston in the IB process and how much is that program currently costing the school system? How are the results of the IB process being measured and what are those results? Why is that funding not being redirected to get these students to pass the minimum requirements?

    As stated by a member of the State Board of Education, there is no doubt that Mr. Peabody and other members of the previous board legitimately believed in their decisions for the students of Jefferson Houston. The question is, what if these were the wrong decisions? The three year data trend clearly shows that the decisions made by the Superintendent, Mr. Peabody, and the members of the previous board have not led to success for the students of Jefferson Houston. Reading scores falling 14%, math scores falling 44%, history scores falling 3%, and science scores falling 31% does not help children realize their dreams. It is time for new decisions and new leadership.

  2. Edmund,
    Who are you? Do you have children that attend Jefferson Houston? Do you have any children? Have you ever set foot in the building? Volunteer? What do you do for a living? Do you know anybody that works there? Do you know a child that goes there?

    I will be looking forward to your answer, then stand by for my response.

  3. What does it matter who Edmund is or what his background is? Or even if he has children in ACPS/at Jefferson-Houston?
    He has legitimate concerns.
    While I personally agree growth scores should be used across the district, state, nation (though there are actually issues implementing that too), I don’t think it is legit to highlight growth scores only at Jefferson-Houston, when, as Edmund states, all other schools in the district, and state are indeed evaluated by the SOL scores, and AYP.
    There are issues within Jefferson-Houston, that need to be addressed..
    Why are the kids in 6th-8th grade, who should be going to Jefferson-Houston, going to other middle schools?
    How can they create a K-3 (4) and a 4 (5)-8th grade school, when they are currently allowing kids go to other schools?
    You won’t increase scores, until you have all the children in that boundary, attending the school.
    Entice the families that are sending their kids to other ACPS schools or private.
    Don’t allow them to go to other ACPS schools (of course, you can’t force them to attend public, but you can stop the freedom of choosing which public school).
    And, I also agree, that the money spent on pyp/myp is wasted. The IB diploma program, in high schools, has a good track record…pyp and myp do not. There is no curriculum, ACPS is paying for jargon, and it is jargon that is used by other schools, without myp…who are aware that being “globally minded” is important (duh).
    Please answer Edmunds questions, rather than asking who Edmund is.