New system boosts ACPS accreditation

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Jefferson-Houston's campus (File Photo)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Fourteen of Alexandria City Public Schools’ 16 schools are expected to be fully accredited for the 2018-19 school year, according to an ACPS news release.

The Virginia Department of Education’s preliminary accreditation results released to ACPS show marked improvement across the division. Ramsay Elementary School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School, which have both been only partially accredited for the past three years, are projected to gain full accreditation status this year.

Also notably, Jefferson-Houston School is projected to earn accreditation with conditions status after six consecutive years of being denied accreditation.

“[Jefferson-Houston] moved into accreditation with conditions status, which is huge for them,” ACPS Director of Communications Helen Lloyd said. “So what changed? We’re able to support students better. … A lot of it comes from data analysis and putting systems in place that enable teachers to look at what individual students need to progress in the areas where they seem to be struggling.”

T.C. Williams High School is also expected to be accredited with conditions, as it continues to lag behind state averages in math, subgroup performance, graduation completion index and dropout rate.

ACPS’ improvements over last year, when only 12 schools were fully accredited, coincide with a change in the VDOE’s accountability system.

Charles Pyle, director of communications for the VDOE, said one of the primary reasons for the updated system was to include student growth.

“There’s been a discussion not only in Virginia but around the country about including growth,” he said. “We know there’s a correlation between poverty and performance on state tests. Students start in different places. They don’t all start at the same place, so when you have a system that is making accountability determinations based solely on the students who are passing state tests, then you are not capturing progress students are making below that level.”

Because this year was a transition year from the old to the new state accountability system, the VDOE allowed individual schools to be accredited under either the old or the new system, using whichever system was more beneficial.

While the old system solely judged overall state test results, the new system measures performance on multiple school-quality indicators such as proficiency in different subject areas, achievement gaps among student groups and absenteeism.

In the new system, schools are given a performance level rating in each school-quality indicator. At level one, a school is at or above the state standard, at level two it is near or approaching the standard and at level three, it is below the standard.

Schools gain full accreditation if all school-quality indicators are at level one or two. They earn accreditation with conditions status if one or more school-quality indicator is at level three. A school is only denied accreditation if it’s not making a good faith effort to implement a state required corrective action plan, according to Pyle.

“The beauty of the new accreditation system is our old sins are not held against [us],” Ramsay Principal Michael Routhouska said.

Routhouska said the previous system punished Ramsay because, even though science was the only subject area with problem test scores in recent years, it was a year-after-year lag in different subject areas that had landed the school in reconstituted status, the last step before accreditation denied in the old system.

“Under the old system, a school could be denied accreditation if it was something other than fully accredited for more than four consecutive years,” Pyle said. “The driver on the new system is actually the performance on the school-quality indicators.”

Pierrette Peters, principal of the now fully accredited Hammond Middle School, said deliberate strategies dug the school out of reconstituted status.

“Us having the growth that we’ve had didn’t come by accident,” Peters said. “It comes by weekly [Professional Learning Communities], … it came by very strategic supports from central office, very strategic work that we did here in the school and then definitely looking strategically at every student.”

Like Jefferson-Houston, both Peters and Routhouska said their schools’ improvements could be attributed to their individualized approach to student learning.

Professional Learning Communities are weekly meetings that take place at all ACPS schools during which teachers analyze assessment data and strategize about the needs of each of their individual students. Lloyd said ACPS has refined its PLC program over the past year.

Peters said analyzing each student’s assessments especially helps her teachers cultivate data for new students who may not have been around for the previous year’s SOL tests, since ACPS is such a transient school division.

“We want to show that we’re not using poverty or high turnover as an excuse for performance in our students,” Lloyd said. “This shows us that we’re able to document that we are serving those students really well, and we’re showing the improvement in them.”

While the new system showed growth and improvement at some of ACPS’ previously struggling schools, it also pointed out weak spots in others.

Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, Matthew Maury Elementary School, Mount Vernon Community School and George Washington Middle School were all fully accredited under the old system, but wouldn’t have been under the new system. Because schools may be accredited by the old system or the new system, depending on what’s most beneficial for the school and its student population, these schools weren’t measured by the new system this year.

ACPS sent emails to parents at each of those schools saying they fell below state benchmarks in math subgroup performance areas. The emails detail the steps each school will take over the next school year to ensure they meet those benchmarks and maintain fully accredited status next year.

Note: The data in this article is based on ACPS’ projections from preliminary reports released to them confidentially by the Virginia Department of Education. The official accreditation reports were published on the VDOE’s website Thursday after press time.

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