Monday, October 25, 2010

Round Three with ACPS

Tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Jefferson-Houston School, the community is invited to the third in a series of community meetings about the potential redevelopment of the school. Tours of the school will be offered before the meeting, starting at 6:30 p.m.

According to ACPS's Web site, the agenda will focus on "discussion of Jefferson-Houston space needs; renovation and new building options, with a costs comparison analysis; and site analysis and studies regarding the options of renovations, a new building or open space. The meeting will conclude with a community dialogue and questions and answer session."

An article by Derrick Perkins in the October 7, 2010 Alexandria Times about the school says it all succinctly in its lede: "School officials say paying for a new Jefferson-Houston school through a public-private partnership is off the table — for now."

So no one attending the meeting should imagine that the notion of the public-private partnership or using development to pay for the renovations is dead. ACPS officials are simply going to try to seduce everyone into accepting density by flashing what they probably believe are irresistible designs.

The Growler notes with interest that the detailed agenda reveals architect Lee Quill will be returning. In fact, he will be running the meeting and presenting the case for new construction. The neighborhood grapevine reports (accurately or inaccurately) that ACPS and/or superintendent Morton Sherman have retained Mr. Quill to sell the new school concept to the neighborhood, and there is talk of a contract with a price tag of $100,000 being tossed around.

Let's hope that ACPS officials will open the meeting with a complete disclosure of Mr. Quill's current or potential financial relationship with the school district and by correcting any misimpressions ensure that the neighborhood can properly weigh the information being presented.

Readers may be interested in an article that appeared in last week's Alexandria Times revealing federal Department of Education officials are keeping an eye on reforms at perennially underperforming T.C. Williams High School. It's good to know that DOE Secretary Arne Duncan is taking an interest in Alexandria's only high school, where a new principal was recently appointed. But until there are measurable results showing improvements in test scores and a decline in the drop-out rate, many here in Parker-Gray will want to withhold judgment that Alexandria schools' problems are solved.

Here are some salient facts about Jefferson-Houston that are measured and tangible.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, 98% of the Commonwealth's schools achieved full accreditation and met current state standards for English, mathematics, history and science based on 2009-2010 assessment results.

However, out of 1,159 elementary schools across the Commonwealth — many of which are located in less affluent rural or urban communities than ours — Jefferson-Houston was one of only 10 primary schools across the state (or 1% of the total) that were accredited with warning.

Here also are the free and reduced lunch statistics for Alexandria's schools for the past 15 years, which several readers have inquired about. Note that Jefferson-Houston's proportion of students receiving subsidized lunches climbed rapidly following the controversial 1999 school redistricting. Today the percentage is 65% higher than it was before the boundaries for school attendance were gerrymandered by the School Board. Note also how George Mason's numbers fell by 40% and Lyles-Crouch's by 37.5%.

And let's not forget the Jefferson-Houston SOL results previously published by the Growler for the school both pre- and post-redistricting, which demonstrate that in the past the school achieved SOL with the same classroom layout it currently has.

Armed with this information, readers who attend tonight's meeting should ask themselves once again if a new building or a covered swimming pool for the community is really going to make a difference.