Friday, February 23, 2007

Window Dressing

Last's night's meeting on facilities issues at Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics (JHAA) was so surreal that the Growler walked away shaking the shaggy old head, wondering what it was really about.

But after some reflection, it's now crystal clear to the Curmudgeonly One what ACPS has in store for our community school.

The meeting was chaired by School Board member Scott Newsham, chairman of the ACPS Facilities Committee whose children attended JHAA. He was flanked by fellow members Ronnie Campbell and Charles H. Wilson, another veteran JHAA parent and past President of the PTA.

Other Board members were also present in the audience, but overall attendance was sparse compared to the workshop last November. There were only a handful of parents with children currently enrolled at JHAA, and they were outnumbered by board members, school district brass, civic activists, JHAA teachers and staff. Bill Campbell, the current PTA President, wasn't there, which surprised the Growler no little bit.

The Growler arrived a tad late, just in time to catch Trey Hanbury of the Upper King Street Neighborhood Association making an eloquent plea that ACPS recommit to the school and redesign it from the ground up, not continue its band-aid approach.

That kicked off a discussion among parents about specific issues including the inadequate parking, poorly configured open space, off-loading dangers on Cameron Street. Some suggested the facility was too new to be razed (this from a federal property manager) and others that there has been too much attention about the physical plant and not enough focus on the kids themselves.

We also heard from a second grade teacher, a veteran of eight years who cogently described the depressing effect of windowless, sunless classrooms on instructors and children. Windows are apparently an obsession of teachers and it's a coveted status symbol to finally be moved to a classroom that has them.

She also explained some of the logistical issues posed by the open class layout at JHAA. Storage is awkward without walls and contributes to the messy appearance of many rooms. The teacher also noted that without doors it's difficult to keep teaching materials from floating around the school and into other classrooms.

Questions were raised about who legally owns the property (the City, but it is ACPS's to use and control until it is returned to the City) and what the barriers to remodeling might be.

After apologizing for bringing up curriculum when it was not supposed to be discussed (!!), one concerned mom asked how there could be a discussion of bricks and mortar without any examination of the curriculum question, since an arts focus or integration du jour mandates the size and layout of some of the rooms.

There were few if any answers forthcoming from the strangely silent and non-committal Board members. Ms. Campbell earlier insisted that "this isn't meant to be a Q&A" and Mr. Newsham also discouraged any debate between participants with different viewpoints.

So the tables slowly turned and the audience started to query the Board. Is ACPS planning to close JHAA? Will it be remodeled? Have consultants been brought in to map out scenarios and calculate costs for different approaches. (This one from Patricia Schubert, and it was a good question.) Why was this meeting even being held?

That's when Mr. Newsham mentioned that a study conducted last June showed there was excess capacity in the system and that there might be an opportunity to close a school. But he reiterated that there is no plan to close JH. At least for now.

Then Board member Claire Eberwein spoke up. She firmly announced that she "wanted to make clear that there is no intention of closing this school" at present.

And that clinched it for Growler. Ms. Eberwein's interjection indicated this was a sham meeting.

If you remember, Ms. Eberwein was the principal architect of the 1999 redistricting plan that pulled disadvantaged and minority students out of precious white enclaves like George Mason and concentrated them at Jefferson-Houston, where performance and test scores have dropped ever since.

It's clear that Ms. Eberwein needs and wants to keep Jefferson-Houston open and in its present location as a safety valve. Certainly there's no shiny new, integrated let's-forget-the-past Potomac Yard school in this woman's future vision. Gotta keep people in their place.

To the Growler, Ms. Eberwein's approach is clever. She's banking on black JH parents supporting her, since at least one father stated last night that he feels more comfortable with a diverse school like JHAA where a lower teacher/pupil ratio also means kids will get more individualized attention. White parents in Parker-Gray will continue to be given options to send their kids elsewhere, minimizing their potential outrage at the school's ongoing testing and accreditation woes and the constant staff churning.

So the Growler is left to contemplate an amusing fact: in this liberal Democratic City we have a Republican who has been given a quiet carte blanche to resegregate the school system and keep Jefferson-Houston as a hidey-hole. ACPS can continue to cluck hypocritically about its performance problems, but JHAA will continue to serve a valuable purpose in their eyes.

And if a critical school meeting is poorly attended by parents — and of course some were complaining this one wasn't well advertised and was held at an awkward time — the ACPS can smugly conclude that there is no widespread concern and therefore things can stay as they are. Besides, with the current City budget crisis, it's unlikely there will ever be a new school on the site or even adequate renovations for a long time.