Monday, November 06, 2006

Separate and Unequal

The Growler has been grappling with the Jefferson-Houston story ever since last Wednesday's meeting on our local elementary school.

To hear the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS)'s take on the event, it was a successful meeting, drawing more than 100 participants.

To the Growler, though, all was not as it seemed.

First, what was billed as a "town meeting" ended up to many attendees' surprise as a series of orchestrated focus groups designed to give ACPS "feedback." But it was also designed not to let anyone confront the School Board or ACPS Superintended Rebecca Perry directly and publicly about the problems at the school and why they let things go down the tubes for so long.

A few questions and comments did escape censorship, including queries about the nearly annual principal turnover (which has seriously destabilized the school), questions about whether the arts integration emphasis is part of the problem, and concerned inquiries about the reasons for low test scores. (JH was the only elementary school in town that was not accredited this year.)

But it was curious that Ms. Perry and her staff did not describe for the audience the specific measures they are already taking to improve the school, although one top official ticked off a list for the Growler in a one-on-one conversation. Did ACPS brass assume everyone present already knows what is being done? Why not tell the whole group? And what will ACPS do with the information already gleaned? There seemed to be no detailed plan for follow-up.

Nor was there any discussion about the socio-economic makeup of the school and whether this had any role in low test scores.

Whether ACPS staff and the School Board realized it or not, the audience included a number of Parker-Gray parents who must soon make a decision about where to enroll their young children. Many yearn to send their kids to the local institution and are by no means afraid of diversity. But some have already ruled out Jefferson-Houston in favor of private schools or plan to take the opt-out to send their children elsewhere. And it didn't appear this group had their minds changed by the end of the evening. And the Growler doesn't blame them.

The more the Growler ponders this event, the more the Cranky One comes to the conclusion that the whole event was window dressing. And here's why.

The Curmudgeon isn't normally one of those policy wonk types, but was curious enough to pull together all of the City's elementary school test scores for both 3rd and 5th grades since 1999. The spreadsheet ends at 2004, since ACPS didn't bother publishing details for either 2005 or 2006 results. (And why, we ask parenthetically? Also, why did the school publish principals' estimates in 2000 but not the results either?)

Read it and weep. Jefferson-Houston once had decent SOL scores, but fell off a cliff after the 1999 school redistricting, which took effect in the 2000-2001 academic year. And the school has been a problem child ever since. Cause and effect?

The purpose of the 1999 school redistricting was ostensibly to reclaim neighborhood schools and encourage participation by more affluent families, who were leaving the district in droves for private schools.

But the real intent of the 1999 measure was, in the Growler's opinion, to resegregate the Alexandria schools by moving disadvantaged children who were being bused around town back to the Inner City, where they could be concentrated in a single school.

Check out the spreadsheet and you can see which school benefited most: George Mason, in affluent Beverly Hills, which once had a segment of its pupil population bused in from public housing in Parker-Gray.

Quite cleverly, the 1999 redistricting also turned Jefferson-Houston into an arts-integration focus school so the handful of more involved and informed Parker-Gray parents could opt-out and find a spot for their child in places like George Mason. Once can't blame moms and dads for wanting the best for their kids, but this only further concentrates disadvantaged minority children at JH.

Interestingly, while the redistricting was orchestrated by Republicans like Claire Eberwein (whom the Growler didn't see at the meeting), white Democrats apparently never lifted a finger to prevent this discriminatory treatment of the City's most vulnerable children. Black voices were raised at the time, but ignored. So much for the Faustian deal they are alleged to have struck with the Democratic Party in Alexandria.

What's the long-term outlook for JH? There's a charismatic new principal, Kimberly Graves, and many parents expect great things from her. But the Growler is going to reserve judgment for now. We've had our hopes raised too many times before, only to have them dashed.

So now Growler turns to the audience for this blog and poses the question, "What can be done to turn Jefferson-Houston around?" Is it too late? Does anyone even care?

And don't all Alexandria children deserve a better break than the City is giving them?