When Schools Don't Make The Grade

Susan Lavington is on the fence about sending her 4-year-old twins, Leigh, left, and Emma Welther, to an Alexandria public school for kindergarten.
Susan Lavington is on the fence about sending her 4-year-old twins, Leigh, left, and Emma Welther, to an Alexandria public school for kindergarten. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Susan Lavington was angry. She was pregnant with her fourth child and thinking about kindergarten for her 4-year-old twins. She was paying hefty property taxes in Alexandria and wanted to send them to the neighborhood school, but she was on the fence about it.

Her friends thought she was crazy to even consider public school. Hadn't she seen Alexandria public schools' low average test scores? A teacher friend told her the best educators choose Fairfax County over Alexandria. Then came the July 23 issue of Forbes magazine ranking the "Best and Worst School Districts for the Buck." Of 97 school districts reviewed, Alexandria ranked 97th -- dead last.

That did it. Lavington sent the article to neighborhood e-mail groups. "Alexandria was ranked LAST (as in worst.)," she wrote. "Alexandria ranked below Washington, D.C."

The firestorm Lavington set off has reverberated throughout the city, in e-mail discussion groups, over back fences and around water coolers. The talk caught the attention of the Alexandria City Council and school officials.

Many well-respected education researchers quickly repudiated the Forbes ranking, dismissing its methodology as weak at best and suspect at worst. But its publication and Lavington's missive have fomented soul-searching in the city and prompted promises of community forums in the fall and talk of creating a task force of City Council, School Board and community members to air long-festering concerns that the city's public schools aren't all they could be.

That's exactly what Lavington wanted.

"I grew up in Alexandria and have been frustrated with our school system for decades," said Lavington, who lives in the attendance zone for Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics and attended private schools as a child. "We're a pretty small city. We've got a lot of very active wealthy and middle-class people.

"Yes, we have a large population of kids who don't speak English. But there's no reason that after decades and decades of trying to fix it that we should still be in this situation. Everyone said that when we went to an elected School Board in the early '90s, that would be the fix. But now look at the infighting. I find it shameful. They're so focused on the politics that no one really seems to focus on fixing the schools."

Other reactions to the Forbes survey have been just as passionate. Parents with children in private schools have posted messages saying the report vindicates their choice. Parents of preschool children worry that the report confirms their worst fears. One parent wrote to a neighborhood e-mail discussion group about taking her child out of a public school because the teachers were changed twice in one year with no communication from the principal. Another wrote about how she was laughed at for wanting a tour of her neighborhood public school when her child was 2.

Some parents have defended the school system and cautioned against jumping to conclusions. "Relying on a Forbes article for your school evaluation may be like asking your school administrators for financial advice," wrote one.

Others asked how they could band together to improve schools. "If we face our problems honestly and tackle them together, I am confident we can improve results," wrote Patrice Linehan, whose son attends Mount Vernon Community School.

City Council member Rob Krupicka (D) is listening. He said that the Forbes report was flawed but that he is heartened by the tenor of honest discussion and questioning it has generated.

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