Thursday, May 22, 2008


We've talked before on this blog about the ongoing problems at Jefferson-Houston School, which date from Alexandria's 1999 school redistricting.

As the Washington Post baldly noted a few months ago, "The all-white board voted 7 to 2 to create a band of wealthier, whiter schools on the east side and leave three schools, Maury, Lyles-Crouch and Jefferson-Houston, heavily populated by minorities and the poor."

This was echoed by many community leaders, including former School Board member Linda Cheatham, who in comments delivered at a 1999 meeting of the Alexandria Human Rights Commission stated:
“The School Board concerns itself only with the legality of their actions rather than the morality of their action and [the] potential negative impact of re-segregation of the school system's overwhelming nonwhite middle-class school children. They relied on recent court rules in other jurisdictions that signaled a reversal in past desegregation initiatives to justify their actions while ignoring the harm that will undoubtedly befall the schools [and] the children. They have created 3 segregated schools, each with substantial number of children on free and reduced lunch, children who are not white, not proficient in English or learning, coping with learning disabilities and have failed to assure that they will receive a fair and adequate public education.”

What do the three schools have in common? Their boundaries encompass more than 800 units of public housing, the highest concentration in the City. Unlike the other schools, though, Jefferson-Houston has yet to experience a turnaround. It has failed to thrive since 1999, going into a tailspin almost immediately following the redistricting and faring worst of all three.

We've explored this topic before. But what may be going unnoticed or unheeded by our local leaders is the linkage between public housing and the school's ongoing difficulties.

Federal legislators, though, have started to understand that physical renovation is not the only element in a successful public housing redevelopment. Revitalizing the schools that serve these communities is essential, and legislation currently on the floor of the Senate reflects that growing awareness.

In testimony last June before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, then Assistant HUD Secretary Orlando Cabrera spoke about HOPE VI and school reform efforts:
The quality of schools in HOPE VI neighborhoods has long been considered an unaddressed collateral issue that undermines the outcomes for children living in HOPE VI developments. In addition, as the program emphasized mixed-income neighborhoods, including market rate tenants, poor neighborhood schools became a liability in attracting these tenants to the new development and surrounding neighborhood.

Today, many believe that good schools in HOPE VI neighborhoods are central to the success of a revitalization effort because they are a critical variable in creating opportunities for low-income children, attracting market rate residents with children to the community and in supporting both the short and long-term outcomes for HOPE VI families. Following from these assertions, Senate Bill 829 stipulates that school reform efforts should be a required component of the HOPE VI Revitalization grant, and that housing authorities and HUD should implement this component in targeted neighborhoods.

Of course S. 829 is stalled now owing to the uncertainty created by the upcoming Presidential election. There are also valid HUD concerns that education is outside its area of core competency and that the Department of Education needs to be involved in any such expansion of the scope of the HOPE VI program. And local school districts are going to complain if no money is made available through HUD's HOPE VI program or DOE to undertake comprehensive school reform.

Nevertheless, this proposed legislation indicates that elected officials, educators, housing experts and HUD itself are beginning to understand the importance of school revitalization in any public housing redevelopment.

In addition to school reform, HUD's guidelines for the latest round of HOPE VI grants state that housing authorities can boost their funding scores by leveraging "collateral investments" in physical redevelopment activities, including schools. Those points for collateral investment leveraging are awarded for projects completed by April 1, 2013 that are currently underway or will be started and completed by that date.

The Growler has been told by senior City staff that Jefferson-Houston is the only Alexandria elementary school not to have had a significant renovation in recent years. And despite the fact that the School Board was presented earlier this year with a number of different options for closing, repurposing or rebuilding the school, the only Jefferson-Houston construction project on the horizon for the next five years appears to be a roof replacement.

Is this the best the School Board can do? Does City leadership understand the linkage between Jefferson-Houston's problems and the concentration of public housing in the community that it serves? And do they grasp the implications of Mr. Cabrera's statement that "poor neighborhood schools became a liability in attracting these tenants to the new development and surrounding neighborhood"? Will such residents buy into the redeveloped ARHA properties here if Jefferson-Houston's problems are not resolved?