Let’s be honest about the situation at Jefferson-Houston

Let’s be honest about the situation at Jefferson-Houston

By Leslie Zupan, Alexandria
(File Photo)

To the editor:

Words are powerful things, but they can also be deployed with the intent to obscure fact.

In the November 14 edition of the Alexandria Times, Jefferson-Houston PTA leaders wrote to acknowledge academic concerns at the school, but they stated, “These problems are historical and require the adequate amount of time for change.”

Jefferson-Houston was accredited by the state and made Annual Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind just five years ago, a span considered short or average to professional planners and one that hardly qualifies as historic in a city that is 264 years old.

One of the signers was a former school board vice chairwoman, who was elected in May 2009 when Jefferson-Houston was accredited and served until the end of last year — during which test scores plunged. Oversight of academic performance is one of the chief responsibilities of a school board member, yet it was ignored.

Not all of the statistical gains cited in the letter relate to the benchmarks for accreditation, and test scores have not returned to the levels of 2008. Even as the school advanced in math, reading pass rates overall fell from 61 percent in 2011-12 to 41 percent in 2012-13, according to a recent Virginia Department of Education report. Seventh-grade reading pass rates sank from 73 percent to 43 percent in the same period.

The numbers show that Jefferson-Houston’s demographics are virtually the same as five years ago. In fact, poverty levels — as measured by eligibility for free and reduced-price meals — were actually higher in 2007-08 than in 2012-13. Socioeconomic status and race are not determining factors, nor is the 1970s-era building since it housed similar students in years of accomplishment.

Alexandria City Public Schools has failed to address the core issues of leadership, programs and policies at Jefferson-Houston. These are the province of school leaders and cannot be deflected onto students, parents or alleged community naysayers.

One of the proposals on the table would split the school into two to gain an unearned provisional accreditation, which the state must automatically grant to new schools. No wonder most Alexandrians shrug off state takeover, reasoning that the commonwealth seems to have greater determination to make the school succeed and achieve accreditation without manipulation.

The November 14 letter asks: “Does Alexandria think it’s getting good value for money” if the state takes over? Many who have seen the enormous new building under construction as they drive by are asking whether they are getting good value for their $45 million capital investment. The school system predicts that there will be fewer than 400 children enrolled in a structure built for 800 to 850 students when the new building opens next fall.

The mayor and city council are not off the hook either: A March 2011 budget memo from then-City Manager James Hartmann advised that rebuilding Patrick Henry “would have much bigger impact” on the school district’s capacity than a new Jefferson-Houston. The council’s subsequent support for fast-tracking Jefferson-Houston was political, not driven by capacity.

The new building is expanding in part because the addition of a middle school requires features such as a gym. Yet with only 64 students enrolled in six through eighth grades September 30, Jefferson-Houston has failed to sell itself as the more intimate alternative to George Washington or Francis Hammond middle schools.

Jefferson-Houston is a tragedy, but not a historical tragedy. It is a train wreck that happened in real time while those at the helm failed in their essential duties to vulnerable children.