Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Still No Answers

The Growler went to Monday's community meeting on the proposed redevelopment of Jefferson-Houston expecting at last to hear some solid economic and technical evidence about why it was necessary to build a new school rather than remodel the old one, and to be presented data to bolster ACPS's argument that new construction would improve pupil achievement.

Instead, the Growler and other attendees spent two hours listening to recruitment pitches from Principal Kim Graves, emotional testimonials from a handful of parents who have opted in, and a lecture on the IB-PYP curriculum that was more hectoring than informational — all of which the School Board seems to think were adequate substitutes for hard data to clinch the financial and structural case for a new building.

At no time did ACPS explain why the building couldn't be renovated rather than rebuilt from scratch, despite being told over the weekend in an E-mail from school board member Helen Morris that a "solid answer" to this question would be forthcoming.

In fact, there was no formal presentation at all (does no one on Beauregard Street know PowerPoint or Excel?) and it took questions from the Growler and others in the audience to elicit the only nuggets of hard information that attendees could take away, such as Deputy Superintendent Margaret Byess's revelation that the new school would be built to accommodate 650 students. As far as the Growler knows, that's the first time the potential capacity of a new Jefferson-Houston School has been disclosed. It was not offered up but dragged out.

Ridiculous.

When asked about test results, Ms. Graves said she is no fan of No Child Left Behind but that she expects Jefferson-Houston to make AYP next year. When asked to explain why JH students used to do well in open plan classrooms in the late 1990s and then experienced a steep falling off in scores over the past 10 years, Ms. Graves (who has now been on board five years) attributed it to principal turnover rather than the 1999 redistricting. She also conceded that students could learn well "in a garage" and that facilities weren't the only factor in student achievement.

The meeting reached its nadir when Ms. Graves asked everyone to reflect on their own happy childhood memories of elementary school and share them with the audience. The silence that followed was deafening. She is a lovely, warm person who obviously cares about her pupils, but gush and education-speak are not substitutes for facts.

Neighbors clearly remain skeptical. Questions asked by young parents or prospective parents indicate there is uneasiness about the K-8 plan for Jefferson-Houston, and few except Ms. Graves are convinced that having the school headquarters co-located on the site will be an enhancement. One of the most pointed questions of the evening was posed by an attendee who asked Ms. Graves for her definition of success, saying that if millions were going to be spent on a new school he wanted to know what kind of return he was getting on his investment.

A lot of people just listened, but asked demanded answers later on the sidewalk. One was a North Old Town parent, who was disturbed by the meeting and wanted to know the real story of the school and its lackluster performance. Two lifelong African-American residents revealed to the Growler that they remain completely suspicious of school officials, particularly since they remember ACPS headquarters abandoning City-owned property and relocating several times over the years. Why move it again, and why relocate it to this neighborhood?

The more the ACPS zig and zags, avoiding simple answers or abruptly floating new arguments to bolster the case for a new school, the greater the community's suspicions. Let's review ACPS officials' track records.

School officials have pleaded repeatedly that they had no plans, but they went to the Council work session June 22 to request the immediate drafting of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in preparation for the public-private partnership. That certainly constitutes a plan.

After that debacle, ACPS leaders began insinuating the building is falling apart, so a new building is urgently needed. However, we now have the EMG study which revealed the school is not tumbling down but needs routine maintenance and some systems replacements over the next twenty years.

On Monday we're told that a new building is essential to creating a better learning environment for children, but in the next breath leaders admit that a new facility will not automatically guarantee improved test scores.

And this just in: it turns out Jefferson-Houston does have a small science lab (albeit without a sink) while George Mason students are taught science from a cart. Enjoy that irony readers.

Given the past behavior of school officials and the latest evasions, can we even be sure of their sincerity when saying that the high density private development is off the table or that the public-private partnership is dead? Were the Growler's eyes playing tricks or was that Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth at the back of the room, and was he there as a neighbor or prophet of density? Is it a coincidence that six years ago while still in New Jersey, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman was an invited speaker at a smart growth conference?

The Growler definitely spotted ARHA board members Connie Ring and Leslie Hagan at the meeting. The neighborhood was advised again on Monday that Jefferson Village was off the table. Were Mr. Ring and Ms. Hagan there to keep an eye on ACPS (as former school board members themselves) or is the Village really still in the mix somewhere?

And what about architect Lee Quill, who was present but only answered a few questions near the end of the meeting?

Stay tuned for the next community meeting will be held on Monday, October 25. Maybe we'll learn that a new school will halt childhood obesity, stimulate job creation and hold the Taliban in check.