“Good gracious, you knocked science out!” Rice-Harris said to the little girl, who was beaming in her khaki and maroon uniform. “Come here; give me hugs and kisses!”
Official schoolwide results for the Virginia tests are not due back until mid-July, but Rice-Harris said she’s confident her students will show “dramatic” gains, if not the 20- and 30-point jumps in passing rates the school needs to meet minimum standards.
To build on the momentum, she is asking for the one thing the state says she can’t have: more time.
Rice-Harris has been at Jefferson-Houston for two years, and she has been working to stave off a state takeover of the school, which became possible when it lost its accreditation this year. Jefferson-
Houston — which failed to meet testing benchmarks for 10 of the past 11 years — is one of four schools eligible for a takeover by a Virginia board that can hand the reins to a university or charter operator.
The Opportunity Educational Institution takeovers, approved by the General Assembly this year, were proposed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who said it is “unconscionable to stand idly by while another generation of students is forced to attend one of these failing schools.”
Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s deputy education secretary, said he has seen promising leadership this year, particularly from the Alexandria school board, which is committed to improving the school.
“If they had another three years, could they turn it around? Perhaps,” Siddiqi said. But given the school’s history, “they have not earned that right,” he said.
Many in Alexandria trace the decline of Jefferson-Houston to a 1999 redistricting plan that significantly increased the school’s number of poor and minority students, many of whom live in subsidized housing near the King Street Metro station.
Turnover was high among the school’s faculty and administrators. Depressed test scores gave parents the right, under the federal No Child Left Behind law, to choose a different school, and many did. And an arts academy designed to attract more diverse students from outside the school’s boundaries was eventually dismantled so the struggling school could turn its full attention to the basics.
Today, Jefferson-Houston serves about 360 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and a quarter of students have disabilities. One in 10 students is homeless, Rice-Harris said.
With so many challenges in the community, many efforts over the years have centered on making sure children were fed, safe and cared for.
“That’s good, but that’s not enough,” Rice-Harris said.