Alexandria school leaders resist state takeover of struggling school

Alexandria city officials have ramped up efforts in recent years to improve the stubbornly dismal academic performance of Jefferson-Houston School. They brought in a new principal and a group of new teachers; they hired an outside turnaround consultant and math coaches; they instituted extra tutoring, drew up blueprints for a state-of-the-art makeover and scheduled the longest school day in the city.

But Virginia lawmakers say it’s too late. The state plans to take over the school, thanks to bills passed in the General Assembly last week that would create a statewide school division to oversee Virginia’s chronically under-performing schools.

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The move is galvanizing protests from teachers, principals and school board leaders in Alexandria and around the state. They argue it’s impractical for a distant school board to manage the day-to-day details of bus rides and school lunches. And they say it’s out of sync with a long American tradition of locally controlled public schools.

“I don’t believe change comes from the top down” said Karen A. Graf, chairman of the Alexandria School Board. “Community is what changes schools.”

Graf and other school board members met with governor’s aides in Richmond last week to protest any takeover and urge some lenience for school systems that are making strides toward improvement. Statewide associations of principals, teachers, superintendents and parents have also organized to oppose the legislation.

Around the country, impatience with the often-tedious process of improving schools has led to increasing interventions in the local governance of schools. With the No Child Left Behind Act’s passage in 2001, federal and state governments stepped up their oversight with more testing and prescribed remedies for failing schools. In New York City and the District, mayors took control of the schools. Now some states are stepping in.

Creating a turnaround school district — the Opportunity Educational Institution — is a key part of Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s education reform package. It’s based on a program in Louisiana, and similar efforts are underway in Tennessee and Michigan.

Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, persistently under-performing schools in Virginia would be overseen by an appointed board, including lawmakers, a turnaround expert, former educators and citizens. The board could turn over control of the school to a college or appoint a charter operator. After performance improves, the schools would be returned to the local school board.

Localities would be required to send per-pupil funding to the state to manage the schools, a provision that has irked many lawmakers in Northern Virginia, where schools are largely funded with local taxes.

Jefferson-Houston is one of just four schools, out of more than 1,800 in Virginia, that currently meet the criteria for takeover after falling short of state testing goals for four consecutive years. But local educators fear that as state reading and math tests become more challenging and the required passing rates increase, more and more schools will slip from their grasp.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House, and Lt. Gov Bill Bolling (R) broke a tie vote in the Senate.

Opponents hope they can stall the legislation by urging lawmakers to reject funding the approximately $600,000 in operational costs for the new statewide district and instead fund a study that would spell out successful models for school interventions. They also promise to mount lawsuits challenging the law’s constitutionality. Another bill in Richmond is pending to amend the constitution, clarifying the state’s ability to operate local schools.

Del. Gregory D. Habeeb ­(R-Salem), one of the bill’s sponsors, said that 99 percent of the time he is “a local control guy.” But the state has an obligation to act on behalf of children stuck in struggling schools such as Jefferson-Houston, a school that has failed to meet state testing goals for 10 of the past 11 years, he said.

“This is not a situation where nothing has been tried,” Habeeb said.

Alexandria School Superintendent Morton Sherman said the state already has been involved in efforts to improve ­Jefferson-Houston, a school west of Old Town serving about 360 children from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. He estimated that Virginia has spent more than $1 million to pay for consultants during the past decade to monitor progress and offer ideas, with little effect. But two years ago, Sherman’s administration took on a much more aggressive overhaul of the school, which he said is beginning to show results on internal reading and math tests.

Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria) said he hopes the state will take that progress under consideration before uprooting the school with yet another change in leadership and direction.

“I don’t want to create a cycle of constant turnover,” Krupicka said. “Taking over a school is a very dramatic step.”

 
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