Friday, November 30, 2007

Orphan of the Storm

With another School Board work session on Jefferson-Houston looming on December 13, this may be a good time to try to answer a question that frequently crops up in Parker-Gray.

Above and beyond academic issues — and they are defining issues to many parents here — why hasn't the neighborhood invested emotionally in Jefferson-Houston and joined forces to turn it around the way Rosemont recommitted to Maury School? The school is so tantalizingly close, so convenient for busy young parents, why isn't it possible to forge the same bond that Del Ray enjoys with Mt. Vernon School and Northridge with George Mason?

The Growler believes the answer lies in history. With segregation, integration, busing, and resegregation in Alexandria's schools over the last half century, Jefferson-Houston may never have really commanded anyone's devotion or nostalgia. In that respect, it is unfortunately quite distinct from Maury, Mt. Vernon and George Mason.

The illustration above may explain why our school is so little loved. It's a photograph of Jefferson Elementary School, a whites-only school built in 1920 at Queen and West Streets, just five years after all-white Alexandria High School was built next door. (With the construction of George Washington High School in 1935 AHS closed and became an annex to the primary school.)

Historically, young African-American children in our neighborhood were not educated at the site of the current Jefferson-Houston school. Dating from the mid-19th century, Hallowell School for Girls on Pitt Street and Snowden School for Boys on Alfred Street (in our neighborhood) were the first Alexandria schools for blacks.

In 1920 these historic schools were consolidated in a new building at 900 Wythe Street, which was named Parker-Gray Elementary after two revered figures: Hallowell principal Sarah Gray and Snowden principal John Parker.

The new Parker-Gray Elementary was so bare and underfunded that the community had to donate chairs and basic equipment. It was soon overcrowded, so in the early 1930s another segregated school, Lyles-Crouch, was built to handle the overflow of students.

Until the 1930s, education for Alexandria blacks ended at the 8th grade. The brightest and most determined pupils were forced to head to Washington, D.C. to attend either Dunbar or Armstrong high schools. It was embittering for many African-Americans who lived directly across the street from Alexandria High School or walked past it regularly to be reminded on a daily basis that they were being denied an opportunity to achieve higher education and earn a diploma.

The City finally relented. Parker-Gray extended its classes through 12th grade and in 1936 its first high school class matriculated. In 1950 when the school had outgrown its many additions a new Parker-Gray High School was opened nearby at 1207 Madison Street.

If any of the now-vanished schools in our neighborhood were vested with intense community pride, it was Parker-Gray High School. But this too was tempered with sadness and even resentment. Students at the segregated school never received new books or new band uniforms. Instead, they were given the second-hand castoffs from white George Washington High School.

Parker-Gray's lifespan was brief, lasting only 15 years (1950-1965). With the initial integration of Alexandria's schools in 1964, it was transformed into a middle school in 1965 and neighborhood teens sent instead to George Washington or T.C. Williams for high school. The Parker-Gray school building finally closed in 1979 and was ultimately demolished. The Madison Street townhomes now stand on the site of the former school.

Back to the elementary schools. When the new Parker-Gray High School was built, the original elementary school of the same name was renamed Charles Houston School in honor of the prominent attorney and Howard Law School Dean who wrote the Supreme Court brief in Brown vs. the Board of Education that finally toppled segregation. According to Mabel Lyles' book Caught Between Two Systems: Desegregating Alexandria's Schools 1954-1973, Houston had helped local black families acquire the new Parker-Gray High School.

By the late 1960s, Jefferson School was closed and there were discussions about reopening it as a middle school. But in 1968 this plan was abandoned and a new elementary school planned for the corner of Cameron and West. Charles Houston School was then closed and Jefferson School and its annex were demolished.

Yet the legacy of these formerly segregated institutions still lingered. Although the pupils and teachers at Charles Houston School were to be shifted to the new location, the School Board initially voted in a secret ballot to name the new school "Thomas Jefferson School." Board member Ferdinand Day and other prominent black citizens were outraged. Although the Board claimed its decision was made to prevent confusion with the new community center, it compromised in the end and "Jefferson-Houston" was born. (To put this in historical context, in the same era a Confederate flag was still draped prominently behind the Council dais at City Hall.)

When the new Jefferson-Houston Elementary School finally opened its doors in 1971, it had nearly 1,000 black pupils and only three white students. Soon after, however, busing was launched in Alexandria to achieve racial equality. Jefferson-Houston was paired with William Ramsey, a mostly white school in the West End, and pupils from both communities were shipped across town to redress the imbalances of the past. By 1973 with full integration finally achieved, Jefferson-Houston lost whatever identity it ever had as a community school.

Beyond history, however, there are other factors that contribute to the neighborhood's weakening ties to the school. One is changing demographics. The now-aging African-American population living in the historic district mostly finished educating their children before Jefferson-Houston opened. Their children prospered and had greater freedom of choice in selecting where they would live and educate their own families. They left the neighborhood in droves in the 1960s through the 1990s, and as a consequence today there is now little black middle class, intergenerational loyalty that might sustain the school through tough times. And the young white middle class now here in Parker-Gray prefer alternative schools.

Today, seven years after school redistricting essentially resegregated Alexandria's schools, Jefferson-Houston is a shadow of itself. Its open design, fashionable in the 1970s, is woefully out of date and its staff struggle to reach basic levels of academic performance. There are only 232 pupils enrolled this year, a drop of more than 17 percent from the previous year. That's a 65 percent decline when measured against the pre-redistricting 1999-2000 academic year enrollment of 669 students. And today's enrollment is less than a quarter of the enrollment in 1971, the school's first year.

Should Jefferson-Houston be kept open? Or should it be closed and dedicated to other uses, such as a center for special education students? (At one time there was talk that the School Board and the district's administrative offices might move to Cameron Street to save rent. That option recently disappeared when the City announced it was acquiring the site of the former Jefferson Memorial Hospital near I-395 in the West End.)

Could history be more easily transcended if a new school were to be built in Potomac Yard and Jefferson-Houston torn down, like its predecessors? Would the ghosts of the past finally be laid to rest if all of our neighborhood children could be sent there to mingle with the children from the new townhouses that will soon be rising up from the former rail yard?