Jefferson-Houston neighbors push for input

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; VA19

Alexandria city school officials gave some members of the Jefferson-Houston community "mild comfort" when they pulled a plan for a high-density, public and private development at the current school site.

At a town hall-style meeting this month, Superintendent Morton Sherman said school officials "probably jumped too quickly" at the chance to build a new school using private dollars to fund the public construction. He apologized and said plans for a 1.1 million-square-foot development at the site near the King Street Metro were no longer a possibility.

"My goal is that the children of this area get a new school," Sherman said at the meeting. "How that occurs is a community dialogue."

Damon Colbert, 34, who owns a house across from the school, said not much has changed about the plan except removing the high-density proposal, "which gave us mild comfort."

Colbert said, however, that he was "happy to be at the table," although he questioned how much of the community's input would be heard. "Frankly, the issues are still out there: open space and density. Until they address that, we still have a lot of open issues to deal with."

Several neighbors lambasted school officials for presenting a proposal to the City Council in June that not many residents had heard of prior to the meeting.

"We neighbors didn't know what y'all were up to," Kathleen Baker, who lives on Boyle Street, said at the meeting. "It looked as though something had already been decided," she said.

School officials said Jefferson-Houston is 40 years old and built in an inefficient way for teaching. The school lacks an auditorium, science labs and a gym, among other things.

To build those additions to the school would cost $25 million to $27 million, said Lee Quill, an architect who facilitated the community meeting. A new school would cost $22 million to $23 million, he said. That figure does not include adding administrative offices to the site, which would save the school system $700,000 in rent, Quill said.

Now, the planning for the new school "is something that will evolve," Quill said at a later meeting. The school system "will look at a number of scenarios as we go forward," he said.

Beth Coast, Jefferson-Houston PTA president and a neighbor to the school, said she and her husband "certainly do not want high density," but they are interested in options for a new school.

"What we want is what is best for the 350 kids that go to our school," Coast said. "My philosophy is not where you come from; it is where you are going. We need to have proper facilities for them."

Coast said she wants a new Jefferson-Houston to rival recently renovated George Washington Middle School, with windows, labs and a new library.

Heidi Ford, president of the West Old Town Citizens Association, asked school officials at the town hall-style meeting whether they think a new school would boost student population, which is low because of the school's poor performance on standardized tests in recent years.

"I think my neighbors and I are taking a wait-and-see approach," said Colbert, who said it was unclear how "a shiny new building will bring about any different results" in academic standing.

"Test scores are rising. Even though we aren't passing, we are showing incredible progress," said Coast, who noted that with new facilities, the students would be inspired with a new and better learning environment.

School board member Helen Morris said she has seen plenty of new faces at Jefferson-Houston in the past year. "I think the need for the school building is part and parcel and goes with the entire improvement that has been at the school for the past three years," she said.

Morris and other redevelopment supporters are working to get tours of the current facility for the community.

"I think the School Board is very keen to ensure the entire community is very involved," Morris said. "We are listening. We will continue listening."

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