Monday, July 12, 2010


For the past two weeks the Growler has been rummaging around, looking for information on the genesis of the Jefferson-Houston megadevelopment proposal.

The Growler increasingly suspects this project is not really about turning around the troubled school by redressing the stark segregation at Jefferson-Houston that resulted from the 1999 redistricting. It's about something else.

To confirm that theory, let's start by looking at some of the key players and their records, beginning with ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman. Is there any sign he is willing to buck the system by a bold redistricting or closing Jefferson-Houston in favor of a fresh start at a Potomac Yard school, an idea which has gained traction in the neighborhood recently?

Judge for yourselves, readers.

1. Before arriving in Alexandria, Dr. Sherman's recent experience has been in school districts like Cherry Hill and Tenafly, New Jersey which are less diverse than Alexandria and more reflective of their general population's demographics.

Dr. Sherman was quoted in a May 29, 2000 Philadelphia Inquirer story stating that 6% of Cherry Hill's 11,000 students were black, between 15 and 18% Asian and about 4% Latino. Cherry Hill's racial makeup in the 2000 Census was 84.7% white, 8.9% Asian, 4.5% African American, and 2.5% Hispanic or Latino of any race. According to the American Community 2006-2008 estimates, median family income is $102,554 in 2008 dollars. For the 2001-2002 school year, Cherry Hill High School East received the Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education, the highest honor that an American school can achieve.

New Jersey Department of Education statistics from 2007-2008 indicate Tenafly schools are 66% white, 30% Asian, 1.3% African American and 3.6% Hispanic. In the 2000 Census Tenafly was 76.8% white, 19.1% Asian, 1.0% African American, and 4.7% Hispanic or Latino of any race. Median family income was $111,029 in 1999 dollars. The borough's public high school -- also a Blue Ribbon Award winner -- has gained national recognition repeatedly as one of the best in the U.S.

Contrast this with Alexandria. According to the latest ACPS demographics our local schools are 24.7% white, 6.2% Asian Pacific, 36.5% black, and 27% Hispanic. But the Census Bureau's 2006-2008 American Community Survey reveals the population of Alexandria as a whole is 65.9% white, 20.6% black, 4.4% Asian and 13.1% Hispanic or Latino of any race. Median family income is $106,985 in 2008 dollars, slightly ahead of Cherry Hill. (Income numbers for Tenafly for 2006-2008 were not available but are likely even higher.)

Clearly although Alexandria is comparable in income there is a much greater skew between school demographics and the general population here that results from Alexandria's legacy of segregation and white flight. And T.C. Williams, the City's only high school, has recently been tagged as a "persistently lowest-achieving" school, despite a shiny and costly new building.

2. During Dr. Sherman's tenure, the Cherry Hill school system was ordered by state officials to redress its racial imbalances. The school system had significant disparities in test scores and graduation rates between minority students and whites as well as a long-standing dispute (predating Dr. Sherman) between its two high schools, one on the affluent east side and one on the west side, which included the majority of the district's Title I schools.

In May 2000 according to the Philadelphia Inquirer Dr. Sherman set up a committee of students, parents and teachers to look at how the achievement gap could be bridged. Cherry Hill pledged to come up with a plan to balance its 12 elementary schools and Dr. Sherman announced the focus would be on boosting minority achievement. Redistricting, magnet schools and open elementary school enrollment were all on the table.

Cherry Hill submitted a multi-year equity plan — a three-year survey mapping the district's educational equity measures — and assured officials that the district was meeting equity laws, even as racial imbalances persisted. The state rejected that plan and ordered the district back to the drawing board. The Inquirer reported in May 2001 there was widespread grumbling that Cherry Hill, with its small minority population, was being unfairly targeted (which the state denied). The article quoted Dr. Sherman saying "It's not as if we have schools that are segregated. I don't see one kid off here, two kids off there, creating a segregated school."

By December 2001, Dr. Sherman announced that he was halting desegregation plans. Proposals like pairing schools had brought both white and black parents' wrath down upon him. Calling the state's balance formula "flawed," Dr. Sherman stated "I have come to the firm grasp of the obvious: The formula is not working in its application to us. We have not been spending enough time on our primary mission as a school district: focusing on the achievement of all students. Racial imbalance by itself does not control the conversation any longer."

3. Dr. Sherman left Cherry Hill in late 2006 and spent two years with the Tenafly school system before he was hired in May 2008 by the Alexandria School Board, at that time chaired by Claire Eberwein. Ms. Eberwein, a former Council member, served previously on the School Board and is widely credited as the architect (with former superintendent Dr. Herbert Berg) of the 1999 redistricting plan.

The tacit goal of the redistricting, in the opinion of the many black leaders who testified against it at the time, was to encourage greater white participation in Alexandria schools by removing minority children from affluent neighborhood schools like George Mason Elementary in Beverly Hills and concentrating them in one or two sites, such as Jefferson-Houston. Our neighborhood school's problems date from then.

Ms. Eberwein stepped down soon after Dr. Sherman's arrival when her husband's job transfer took her family overseas, but does anyone doubt that she would have vetted Dr. Sherman carefully to ensure her work was not undone? Did his demonstrated ability to stand up to state authorities over race issues and his mostly suburban experience make him the standout candidate for someone with Ms. Eberwein's agenda?

4. During an Alexandria School Board work session on the public-private partnership back on January 12, board member Marc Williams asked if selling the Jefferson-Houston site altogether was still a possibility. Dr. Sherman responded:

When I first came here a mere 16 months ago, one of the conversations that was bubbling around was to sell the Jefferson-Houston property in total and moving that school somewhere else, and as your Superintendent I must tell you that I am taking the position that there is a school and community responsibility to the Parker-Gray community to maintain that heritage, to maintain that school on that site, and to give up any of the public property surrounding that, I think would be going in the wrong direction. (January 12, 2010 School Board Work Session 0:51:45)
"Heritage" is a curious choice of words, given that Jefferson-Houston was built on the site of a formerly all-white high school. In fact, is the term a euphemism for segregation?

5. As recently as January 2010, Dr. Sherman told the Alexandria Times that "The idea of redistricting is something we've looked at real closely and it just doesn't work ... the darn kids move in where we have no space rather than where we have the space."

However, Dr. Sherman didn't note that the exception is this neighborhood, which is having a baby boom. Nor did he disclose that Parker-Gray families are regularly fleeing our community for Rosemont, North Del Ray and especially Arlington.

6. Even while school officials predicted skyrocketing enrollment and crowding at a number of Alexandria elementary schools, Jefferson-Houston remains half-empty. As noted in an earlier comment on this side, when it first opened in the early 1970s the Washington Post noted that Jefferson-Houston accommodated more than 900 children. As late as 1999, before redistricting, the school served 669 students. A decade later in September 2009, the school had only 229 students.

Dr. Sherman's approach was to announce that Jefferson-Houston would become a K-8 school, offering classes beyond the 5th grade — a move seen by some Alexandrians as an attempt to raise performance levels at George Washington Middle School by keeping Jefferson-Houston pupils out.

It is worth noting that this year ACPS announced a Modified Open Enrollment policy that outlines plans to send children in overcrowded schools to nearby facilities. Jefferson-Houston is not eligible now or next year for such transfers in because it has not met standards under No Child Left Behind, even though it has plenty of capacity. So any notion that overcrowding in other schools might work to Jefferson-Houston's benefit is out the window for at least two years.

In the end, one might truly ask who Dr. Sherman is marketing this school to? Certainly not the parents in this neighborhood, who still have the ability to opt-out.

7. According to an October 2009 article by T.C. Williams teacher and long-time Washington Post contributor Patrick Walsh, Dr. Sherman ordered principals throughout Alexandria "to post huge charts in their hallways so everyone — including 10-year-old kids — could see differences in test scores between white, black and Hispanic students. One mother told me that a black fifth-grader at Cora Kelly Magnet School said that 'whoever sees that sign will think I am stupid.' A fourth-grade African American girl there looked at the sign and said to a friend: 'That's not me.' When black and white parents protested that impressionable young children don't need such information, administrators accused them of not facing up to the problem. Only when the local NAACP complained did Sherman have the charts removed." Do we have a sensitivity problem here?

So readers, it appears from this evidence that Dr. Sherman will continue to avoid dealing frankly with racial issues and will keep Jefferson-Houston open with cosmetic changes like a new building (plus the new International Baccalaureate curriculum, a hallmark of his years at Cherry Hill).

But what explains Dr. Sherman's strong advocacy for the public-private partnership and the gargantuan redevelopment proposed for the Jefferson-Houston site? It's a risky plan if a new school is built and then, like T.C. Williams, continues to perform poorly. One would think that a cautious approach would be prudent.

Instead, Dr. Sherman is clearly passionate about this proposal. So what will he get out of this proposal, and is that the "something else" that is really driving the project?

Stay tuned for the Growler's next installment ...