Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Bang, A Whimper .. and Some Snarks

It started with a bang, and ended with a whimper (of sorts).

At Monday night's community meeting on Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, the neighborhood was finally given some idea of what a new school might look like, absent the massive private development that was first proposed when a public-private partnership was on the table.

It appears that the notion of mega-density and private funding is mostly moribund, which is certainly unlamented by the majority of nearby residents. Instead, the meeting, which was again conducted by architect Lee Quill, was a straightforward session focusing on the school. (The presentation has not yet been posted to the ACPS Web site as of this morning.)

At Monday's meeting it was confirmed that Mr. Quill was conducting the meeting as a contractor of ACPS. Upon questioning, he stated that his participation in the first community meeting was pro bono but acknowledged that he has an architecture firm, there's a recession going on, and he's glad for the business.

It's good to finally have this confirmation of a financial relationship, though the Growler would still like to know what ACPS is paying Cunningham Quill. But why must every significant and material fact like this have to be prised out of school district officials?

At any rate, Mr. Quill presented comparisons of what it would cost to build a new school versus renovating it, either by adding a second floor or expanding it laterally as a single story structure. He also discussed the additional space and configuration that would be required to house the middle school grades which have been added to Jefferson-Houston. The cost estimates Mr. Quill presented indicate either approach — new construction or remodeling — would cost between $30 and $35 million.

Mr. Quill demonstrated that a new school, built vertically as a two or three story structure and pushed toward the center of the property, could potentially free up even more open space than what is currently on the site. It's an interesting concept and one that could minimize the impact on the neighbors who live on Cameron, West, Boyle and Buchanan Streets.

Somewhere in the middle of these preliminary sketches is the nucleus of a solution that the community could probably live with, although it remains to be seen whether the School Board and Council will be able or willing to fund a third new school in the 10-year joint capital improvement plan (CIP).

The remaining wild card will be whether or not ACPS headquarters staff are moved to Jefferson-Houston and housed in a possible fourth story. Superintendent Morton Sherman indicated he is now looking at other existing school sites where HQ could be relocated, including Patrick Henry Elementary School in the West End, so even the relocation is not as preordained as it appeared before.

The proposal to move ACPS headquarters to Jefferson-Houston will be discussed at the final community meeting November 22. The Growler predicts underground parking and traffic will be key issues for the community, as Mr. Quill indicated a new or remodeled school by itself could mostly be served by the current surface parking, but not with the addition of headquarters staff.

(Note from Growler to ACPS: give the community accurate numbers about how many staff are proposed to be moved to Jefferson-Houston. What we heard at the last meeting didn't jibe with what one JH parent was told by school representatives.)

Readers and those who attended the meeting in person may ask why ACPS didn't start off with hard data and avoid all the heartburn. But that would be to misunderstand how this process has evolved over the past year.

It started with ACPS leaders' infatuation with the sexiness of a public-private partnership and the notion that by finding their own construction funding they could avoid political or community scrutiny about how an enrollment crisis would be solved by rebuilding a half-empty failing school mostly shunned by the neighborhood. The glamor of the deal would also serve as a screen to sidestep hard questions about whether a new building would solve deep-seated academic problems at Jefferson-Houston.

ACPS's intent was to push the Council into a memorandum of understanding in June before the community knew what was happening. When City leaders refused to be jostled into submission and demanded breathing room until October, it gave the neighborhood time to rally. Only then did the school district pull back its grandiose plans and at last put something more workable on the table.

Remember how we were told how quickly this deal needed to be wrapped up and how the school was on the brink of tumbling down due to deferred maintenance? One affable gentleman at the meeting Monday asked a series of pointed questions about timeframes, and in the Growler's opinion he skillfully underscored the fact that the timeliness which ACPS once insisted was of the essence has now evaporated. The headquarters lease on N. Beauregard runs for three years with two one-year options to extend, so there's no rush there. School leaders also stated that Patrick Henry will be the first site for new construction, and acknowledged that even if the Council and ACPS agree on including Jefferson-Houston in the 10-year capital improvement plan it will be several years before RFPs are issued and construction commences.

Meh.

However, the Growler cannot conclude this posting without addressing several statements made by school officials at Monday's meeting.

First, School Board District A Representative Helen Morris talked once again about how parents are coming back to Jefferson-Houston and how enrollment is climbing.

It's all a matter of perspective. Once again, the Growler points to ACPS's own numbers. According to historical data printed in a 2006 demographics projection study, the school went from 669 pupils in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and grades one through five in 1999-2000 to 486 in 2000-01 and 297 in 2005-06.

Jefferson-Houston's Web site states that as of September 2009, there were 229 students enrolled. The Virginia Department of Education's annual September enrollment census (not yet out for 2010-11 school year) states there were 304 pupils enrolled in Jefferson-Houston in September 2009 and this included pre-kindergarten and kindergarten numbers. When these numbers were excluded, VDOE's total was 221 students for grades one through five. Overall, the school is nowhere close to the totals of 1999 or even 2005-2006.

In the end, the claim that enrollment is climbing should be weighed with caution. It is important to take into account the fact that the school has added grades six through seven, with 8 on the way next year. The school is crawling out of an enrollment hole, and that shouldn't be mistaken for a surge due to neighborhood confidence.

More seriously, Dr. Sherman once again trotted out the smug statement (heard several times before) that Lyles-Crouch and George Mason Elementary Schools turned themselves around, and that Jefferson-Houston could do the same.

Well, let's put the facts on the table once more. Look at the Growler's data on school performance (and the Cranky One will keep publishing this link until everyone knows the numbers by heart). George Mason and Lyles-Crouch SOL test scores before 1999 were by no means sterling and in fact, Jefferson-Houston outperformed them. But Mason and Lyles-Crouch scores rose steeply, directly and immediately after the 1999 redistricting which removed nearly all of the disadvantaged children from their rolls. The proponents of redictricting knew exactly what they were doing in 1999.

The Growler also needs to point out that one of the under-appreciated heroes of the Lyles-Crouch transformation was charismatic principal Lucretia Jackson, who is now at Maury School and was responsible for another turnaround there. (Maury's setbacks this year may be attributable to Ms. Jackson's temporary leave of absence.)

So Dr. Sherman, let's have a properly controlled scientific test of your rhetoric. Give us a redistricting equivalent to what Old Town and Northridge got, and transfer Ms. Jackson to Jefferson-Houston. Then we'll see if the success story can be replicated.

Finally, the Growler was both amused and aghast when Dr. Sherman discussed the future of No Child Left Behind legislation. If it is not reauthorized and "just fades away," Dr. Sherman said, then the schools here would be free to educate every child to their potential and "people would fold this school [Jefferson-Houston] to their hearts."

Huh?

Earlier in the meeting Lee Quill paused to observe that "you people really like the details." You betcha. The Braddock Road study found that this is one of the most highly educated neighborhoods in all of the City. It includes senior policy analysts, financial managers, scientists, IT gurus and telecommunications experts, economists, statisticians, senior military officers, engineers and lawyers galore.

But Dr. Sherman thinks we're gullible enough to assume that if national standards go away we'll all be lulled into embracing Jefferson-Houston while overlooking Virginia's standards of learning (lame as they are)?

That rumbling sound you hear is the Growler shaking the massive old grizzly head. Grrrrrrrr!!!!