Principal Puts Va. School on Upswing

Maury Elementary's first-year principal, Lucretia Jackson, encourages a student while hugging Deja Kerns, 9, as she makes her rounds.
Maury Elementary's first-year principal, Lucretia Jackson, encourages a student while hugging Deja Kerns, 9, as she makes her rounds. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

It was the end of a long day at Maury Elementary in Alexandria, where most school days have been an hour longer than usual this year in preparation for the spring Virginia Standards of Learning tests. Third-grade teacher Tonya Green leaned over a reading question one of her students had answered correctly.

Teachers at Maury, guided by the relentless optimism of Principal Lucretia Jackson, always look for opportunities to praise children. "What did you do right , even before you started to answer the question?" Green asked the boy.

"I circled that," he said, pointing to a word in the reading selection.

"Right!" Green said, delight in her voice. "It is in all capitals so it must be important."

For several years, children and adults at Maury were accustomed to hearing discouraging words. Maury was the first school in the city to perform so poorly on standardized tests that parents were allowed to transfer their children to other city schools. Nearly 80 percent of its students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Among Alexandria schools last spring, it had the lowest percentage by far of students passing the state reading test: 38 percent in the third grade and 59 percent in the fifth grade.

This spring, however, the ever-smiling, back-patting Jackson is in charge, and many parents and teachers have said they see improvement. The principal, who raised scores significantly at another low-performing Alexandria elementary school, Lyles-Crouch, opened after-school classes for all Maury students, added specialists and tutors and told everyone that their school soon would see the benefits of its teachers.

Most Maury students come from apartment complexes outside the school's immediate neighborhood, an affluent community just north of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Many parents who began transferring their children out of Maury two years ago live close to the school, where a house across the street recently sold for $850,000.

To draw back those children, Jackson, 54, organized open houses, produced a new brochure, involved the PTA in her decisions and put a sign in front of the school that said, "Wanted: More Children to Love and Educate." The results of this month's testing will not be released until the fall, but enrollment already has increased -- from 131 to 143 -- at the school, which teaches kindergarten through fifth grade.

In an interview, Jackson said it was important to assess academic weaknesses and have good teachers deal with them as part of a team. "It is also important to feel confident in what you are doing and important to exude that confidence," she said, "because it filters down to the students."

Two years ago, Alexandria School Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry required all Maury teachers to reapply for their jobs and promised $3,000 bonuses to each of the selected teachers. Last year, she moved Jackson to Maury -- despite protests from parents at Lyles-Crouch who did not want to lose her -- and funded other improvements, including new carpets, new tile walls and a new media center.

No Maury class has more than 20 students, the citywide average for Alexandria, and some have as few as 15. Almost all the third- through fifth-graders being tested this month attended the hour-long after-school lessons given each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Parents said they noticed the difference. "We are really pleased with the progress that has been made this year," said Joan Holtz, a tax accountant who will be next year's PTA president.

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