By Chris Teale (File photo)
The celebrations continue for Alexandria City Public Schools officials, as Patrick Henry Elementary and T.C. Williams High schools preliminarily obtained full accreditation from the Virginia Department of Education late last month on the back of their performances in the Standards of Learning tests.
Both schools had been accredited with warning during the 2014-2015 academic year — T.C. because of its math results and Patrick Henry due to its English and science scores.
To be fully accredited, schools must achieve SOL pass rates of 75 percent in English and 70 percent in the math, history and science tests. Schools must meet all benchmarks in the current academic year, or across a three-year or four-year average to be considered fully accredited.
More good news may follow in late October, as Jefferson-Houston School’s recent gains could be rewarded with partial accreditation, as VDOE looks to revise its rating system. ACPS chief accountability officer Clinton Page said the state is considering the introduction of three levels for partial accreditation: partially accredited: close to benchmark; partially accredited: significant growth; and partially accredited: warned. School systems across Virginia expect to know where they stand by October 27.
For Patrick Henry, re-accreditation represents the culmination of an effort begun under principal Ingrid Bynum when she joined the school in 2012. Bynum pointed to the introduction of a philosophy called “Work hard to get smart” to change the school’s culture, to drive up achievement across the board and to improve academic instruction.
“The culture was not where we wanted it to be, and we needed to send a clear message out to everyone within our school walls and in the community at large that we were serious about instruction, and we were all about the business of providing high quality instruction for children,” she said. “We focused on the culture first and once we saw the culture shift, we saw more time on task from children, behavior change within the schoolhouse, the behavior of the adults changed, the approach from parents, the parent involvement changed and increased and our community support increased.”
That shift, along with an increase in the use of data to understand each student’s progress, helped Patrick Henry achieve a 79 percent pass rate in English, 78 percent in math, 86 percent in history and 78 percent in science. Those scores also helped remove the school from VDOE’s list of focus schools, where the state finds a school to not be meeting performance expectations in reading and math among gap group students like minorities, English language learners and students with disabilities.
“We like to say we’re the Disneyworld of Taney Avenue, and we are,” she said. “We greet our children on the sidewalk in the morning, we take them out of the cars, we’re outside on the edge of our school property, we greet the children with a hug and a smile.
“We want them to know that this is a place that’s made and tailored for them. We see children actually running to class, not because they’re late, but because they want to get there. We’re going higher next year, and it definitely was a huge morale boost for us and it definitely was validation that the hard work that my staff has done has paid off.”
T.C. Williams’ full accreditation comes on the back of an 8 percentage-point jump in the school’s pass rate in math, the subject that had caused it to be accredited with warning during the previous academic year. First-year principal Jesse Dingle said that was the result of a detailed review of data to ensure students were placed in the appropriate math class, so those in need of extra support could receive help more easily.
“Part of what happened was we had to take a very close look at alignment, the curriculum and the way that is taught and the way that is assessed,” he said. “It really meant sitting down and having courageous conversations with teachers about how we can make sure those things are happening in the classroom, that the teaching and learning is taking place on a very consistent basis and that we’re assessing students, we’re benchmarking and then making sure that students are achieving.”
Dingle was also proud of the work of the school’s mentoring program, which takes struggling students and pairs them with an adult who closely monitors their progress for the last six months of the academic year. Dingle promised to be personally involved with the program in the coming academic year.
“If you think about every child who is at risk, of every child who needs that additional support having an adult — a personal relationship with an adult who cares about them and who cares about their success — you can’t put a number on that, or a value on that,” Dingle said. “It is amazing to have that ability and have that student have someone who focuses on them.”
Jefferson-Houston led the way in ACPS with massive gains under principal Chris Phillips, who enters his second year in charge of the school. He said last year’s incredible revival of fortunes was thanks in part to making sure that every aspect of the school was moving in the same direction.
“I think it was just really aligning what Alexandria City Public Schools was doing with Jefferson-Houston, and aligning the curriculum, making sure that all teachers had the professional development to push the academics forward,” he said. “Putting a sense of academic success in all the children’s minds, keeping it fresh all year long was something that the kids were really involved with, so we just aligned everything last year and it worked out.”
But the prospect of returning to some level of accreditation doesn’t mean there aren’t any challenges left for the school, Phillips said.
“We honestly keep pushing forward with the initiatives we started last year,” he said. “We don’t just make changes, we continue along the same path we started with and we have the continual data talks with our teachers [and] professional development. We don’t change a lot of what we did, we keep pushing forward with it and just kind of tweak it and move it to the next level.”