Plenty of work remains for Alexandria City Public Schools

Plenty of work remains for Alexandria City Public Schools

By Chris Teale (File photo)

Although Alexandria City Public Schools made gains in most subjects in state Standards of Learning results released earlier this month, a closer look at the data shows some schools need improvement in key areas.

ACPS saw gains in English: reading, history and social sciences and mathematics, but the pass rate for English: writing was down by 1 percentage point from 71 percent in 2013-2014 to 70 percent in 2014-2015. Despite that slight downturn, schools officials remained bullish on the improvements already made.

“We will continue to look at all of our results and, within our instructional program, make sure that we’re making those adjustments in targeted areas,” Superintendent Alvin Crawley told reporters at a press briefing. “Certainly as we look at writing, we would look at writing specifically and working with our teachers and providing professional development in [that] area, just like we would do with any curriculum area.”

“[These results are] showing a foundational, instructional philosophy being executed,” said school board chairwoman Karen Graf. “That is evident in this data, even when you can disaggregate and find areas that need help. [Crawley] and his team is also doing that for every school as well.”

In some areas and at some schools, help is needed. At T.C. Williams High School, the pass rates in English, and history and social sciences both dropped, while they held firm in Science and rose in mathematics. In spite of some numbers sliding, incoming principal Jesse Dingle remains unfazed.

“We’re going to continue to teach the curriculum; we’re going to teach what the students need to know,” he said. “We’re not necessarily going to be teaching to the test, but we’re going to focus on overall teaching. We have excellent teachers in our building; we’re going to tap into the potential of our students and really just move us forward.”

Pass rates among English language learners at T.C. fell considerably in the most recent SOL results except for in mathematics, which saw a 4-percentage point increase. Dingle said that the school’s international academy is crucial in making improvements, especially with Francis C. Hammond Middle School set to open its own academy in September.

“We have an excellent group of teachers in the academy and they’re going to be working hard to make sure that when students come to us we’re going to get them reading and writing at a high level and they’re going to improve,” Dingle said. “With that continuity from the ninth grade to the 10th grade, the earlier we can get them involved in the program and the support that is there, it will be huge for the high school.”

One area where some schools improved is in special education, particularly at Patrick Henry Elementary School. Principal Ingrid Bynum said she expects the school to be reaccredited, and credits that in part to the relationships the school builds with parents and a strategy of interventions.

“We actually changed the instructional day — we do have what we call an intervention or acceleration bloc that we put in,” she said. “If your child is reading above grade level, they go to acceleration bloc, where we’ll do higher reading strategies. Then if you have to have an intervention, we look at your data and how you’re doing and we establish goals we need to meet. We don’t see the children as a cookie-cutter: it’s each individual child’s goals and individualized education plan.”

Individualization is something that has brought similar success at James K. Polk Elementary School, which saw impressive jumps in pass rates among students with disabilities.

“Basically, when you have a student in literacy who is reading two [grades] below grade level, you have to identify whether that’s phonics or comprehension,” said principal PreeAnn Johnson. “We really identified that for the kids in the upper grades, it’s about comprehension and vocabulary. The program really focused on where the student’s target disability is; the target area they need to work on in comprehension. Every kid is different and the programs
that we used have been able to place children where their level of strengths is.”

Meanwhile, Charles Barrett Elementary School saw gains after placing a special education teacher present alongside a classroom teacher in English and Math classes, and believe it offers plenty to all students.

“It allows us to have the classroom teacher be an expert on content and a special education teacher be the expert on how we can ensure all students do it,” said principal Seth Kennard. “Having them in the same class and having that expertise helps students with disabilities as well as all students.”

School board member Stephanie Kapsis, who sits on the special education advisory committee, said the sharing of best practices is something that Crawley emphasizes. He looks to do it holistically and in a way that promotes collaboration between leadership and other principals. She said the school board also has a role to play, and that there is still a long way to go in terms of improving results.

“The two areas where we can be most helpful and impactful are, one, through the budget and the direction of resources to this area, and I think we’ve done some of that this past budget cycle and in previous budget cycles,” Kapsis said. “Really focusing on some staffing shifts as well as increasing some full-time employees, we’ve added an additional staff member to the parent resource center for example, there’s budgeted support for the multi-tier support system, so those things are one arm of our support.

“The other is accountability, responsibility, where we are consistently monitoring the data and looking at it [on an] ongoing [basis], not just at the end of the year but really looking at what is working and what isn’t.”