New Jefferson-Houston principal stresses individual academic growth

New Jefferson-Houston principal stresses individual academic growth

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

Christopher Phillips, the incoming principal of Jefferson-Houston School, believes there is more to education than preparing for standardized tests.

“If you teach them to the master the material, they can take any test you throw at them,” he said. “But if you teach to the test, they’ll never be as successful.”

Even so, he admits teaching to the test — namely the state’s Standards of Learning exams — cannot be completely avoided. That is especially true at Jefferson-Houston, which has long struggled to meet state and federal benchmarks determined by students’ performance on standardized tests.

Phillips was appointed principal of the recently reconstructed pre-K through eighth grade school last week, just days before state standardized test results revealed the embattled institution fell short yet again during the last school year.

When he officially begins his tenure later this month, Phillips wants to put the focus on individual student growth, not just on how students will stack up when they take the annual Standards of Learning exams.

“Looking at data doesn’t necessarily equate to looking at [student] growth, and that’s one of the struggles for most schools,” Phillips said. “If you look at the growth of students throughout the year, you know how students will do on a test.”

Phillips, who has spent 20 years in education both teaching and helping turn around struggling schools, warned that getting Jefferson-Houston on the right track will be a multi-year process.

“It all starts with professional development: We need to make sure we do professional development with staff about how to increase the rigor within the instruction and how to create instruction that is at a higher level,” he said. “’[It’s] not just a short-term fix.”

But in the meantime, Phillips plans to adopt initiatives like balanced literacy and guided math, which stress individual and small-group instruction. The school’s new International Baccalaureate program also will aid in increasing academic rigor and promoting subject mastery, he said.

“You can wrap [International Baccalaureate] into the curriculum and Standards of Learning, and that’s where a lot of the higher thinking comes from,” Phillips said. “It challenges children, and the standards and expectations are very high. It just helps with increasing the knowledge base and makes them comprehend the bigger picture.”

Although Phillips said he will spend the next week wrapping up commitments in his previous role as an elementary school principal in Suffolk, Va., he held a meet-and-greet with Jefferson-Houston parents and interested residents last week.

“The parents were all really welcoming; I felt [like] I had been there for a long time,” he said. “[I] want the building to be full. I want the parents to come in and I want the community to know that the building is available to be a part of and a place to volunteer.”