Friday, November 19, 2010

Prove It

On Monday, November 22 Alexandria City Public Schools will hold its final meeting on the proposed redevelopment of Jefferson-Houston Elementary School -- purportedly to talk about moving ACPS bureaucrats from N. Beauregard Street.

The session will be held at the school, but the Growler can't confirm the time yet ... because the announcement still hasn't gone out, even though the session is only four days away. That speaks volumes, doesn't it?

The timing of the final meeting is not coincidental. On the following day (Tuesday, November 23), the City Council will give the School Board guidance on how much it can budget for FY 2011. News reports suggest that the big infusion of additional cash which the increasingly out-of-touch board members seem to expect as divine right probably won't happen.

So where does this leave the Jefferson-Houston project?

Setting aside the issue of a possible ACPS headquarters move, we have been presented with sketches for a three-story building set back from Cameron and N. West Streets toward the rear of the property. The private megadevelopment originally called for by ACPS seems to have melted away and we're told the price tag for the new building will be $30 to $35 milion.

The neighborhood recently learned that ACPS proposes the new school be built to accommodate 650 students. Given the current low enrollment, is this cockeyed optimism or is the proposal really a hat-trick to make enrollment appear to grow when it is only growing by extending the school grades to 6, 7 and 8 and capturing low-income students for three more years?

The Growler recently heard a suggestion that the whole Jefferson-Houston proposal is nothing more than a sneaky way to get ACPS a new third middle school that City officials wouldn't otherwise authorize. This to the Growler seems an eminently plausible explanation of the drive to make a new school happen regardless of the fallout for the neighborhood.

But is the City Council willing to gamble $30 to $35 million on this school? Should neighbors support the new school project if it is whittled down to something reasonable in size with no loss of open space?

The Growler needs not just be persuaded, but convinced that the new school is necessary. And that isn't going to happen overnight. The Growler believes Alexandria's elected Council would be acting prudently to postpone appropriating additional capital funds to construct a new school. They need to demand certain milestones be reached before granting more of our tax dollars. In fact, readers, think of it as our own local "Race to the Top."

Here's what to ask for:

1. As the Growler has demonstrated on this blog in recent months, students at Jefferson-Houston achieved a decade ago with the same physical layout the building has now, and JH principal Kim Graves confirmed this when she told a community meeting this fall that quality education didn't depend on the building but could be delivered even in a garage.

Dr. Sherman and his board need to prove that the curriculum switch to IB-PYP, which they touted as the solution for Jefferson-Houston, will actually attract neighborhood parents into the school by turning around test scores and academic performance. It will take at least three to five years to implement IB-PYP and determine if it is successful. The ultimate proof will be a signficant rise in white enrollment across all grades accompanied by a substantial decline in the percentage of children enrolled at Jefferson-Houston who receive free or subsidized lunches, which is currently one of the highest in the City.

2. There must be solid evidence that transforming Jefferson-Houston into a K-8 school is part of a strategy of academic improvement rather than just another snarky way to enforce resegregation. Let Dr. Sherman and the School Board show us their redistricting or "boundary adjustment" plan (if they have one) so we can see how they plan to bestow on Alexandrians across the City the blessings of mingling six year olds with pre-teens, which Dr. Sherman spoke of so warmly in a meeting with West Old Town Citizens Association in the fall of 2008.

3. Over the past three weeks, the Alexandria Gazette has published a series of articles by Old Dominion Watchdog reporter Paige Winfield-Cunningham about Dr. Sherman's controversial management style, his lavish spending on consultants brought in from past gigs in other districts, and the turmoil that he has created among ACPS teachers and administrators.

Dr. Sherman and the School Board need to prove to us that this uproar is a necessary corollary to school system turnaround and not just personality-driven chaos. They must demonstrate that the lush consultant budget is not cronyism or an attempt to apply mindless cookie-cutter solutions to a different and more challenging school district like Alexandria, but is essential to making our school system one to admire rather than avoid.

The proof will be found in rising test scores across all schools and greater buy-in by local parents and their children for public middle and high school education in Alexandria, which they have historically tended to shun once elementary school is over.

The Growler's challenge: let all Alexandria schools achieve SOL by 2012 and all schools achieve AYP by 2014. Former superintendent Rebecca Perry made the breakthrough several years ago by sharply increasing the number of Alexandria schools achieve AYP. Finish the jobs she started and demonstrate to us that you have the right stuff.

Only then, when ACPS has proven its good stewardship by giving citizens something tangible to show for their taxes, should Council give the School Board another $35 million to build a new Jefferson-Houston.