The Alexandria School Board, in a goal-setting session last week, agreed to promote higher achievement among minority students, evaluate its program for gifted and talented students and cut back on long-winded board meetings during the next school year.
Board members agreed that involving parents with their children's education could improve school performance of Alexandria's minority students. Working at home with students must start at the elementary school level in order to prevent indifference to learning that often begins at the junior high level, said board member Timothy S. Elliott.
"I'd like us to impart the message that learning goes on from the womb to the tomb," said board member Rhonda D. Hill.
Another member, Nelson E. Greene Jr., said that some minority parents have told him that Alexandria's school system is often intimidating. "They won't seek out help for their children in the schools because they don't know the jargon or they're made to feel unwelcome," said Greene.
Board members have decided to develop an outreach program that would send teachers into target communities to orient parents to the school system.
Superintendent Robert W. Peebles commended the board for addressing the issue of minority academic achievement and also voiced concern about "losing" students at the junior high level when they decide that education will have few benefits in the working world.
The discussion of minority achievement also focused on the importance of teaching reading skills in the early grades. "Our top priority is to teach reading. Everyone can learn to read if they're not mentally handicapped. Education is passing the buck -- seventh grade teachers will blame the ills on sixth grade teachers and so on," said Arlene M. Moore, assistant superintendent for instructional programs.
Moore suggested that students be prohibited from taking elective courses such as physical education, art or music if they're not reading at theproper grade level. Another reading lesson would take the place of the elective until the student meets grade level goals. She said this could be accomplished if the same teacher teaches all subjects because they could emphasize language arts at their discretion.
Although Alexandria students' basic skills test scores show a slight increase over past years, they still rank lower than other NOrthern Virginia school systems. School officials attribute the gap to the racial and economic diversity of the school system. Public school enrollment in Alexandria is 47 percent black, 37 percent white and 16 percent other groups.
The school system's program for gifted and talented students also will be under the scrutiny of the board during the next year.
Board member Gene Lange suggested that the gifted and talented program be reviewed to make sure class enrollment is kept to a reasonable size. Peebels and other board members said that parents and students often attach too much status to the program for high achievers in the mistaken belief that regular classes provide an inferior education.
"We have the yuppies upon us," said board chairman Lou Cook in reference to parents who insist on their children's enrollment in the gifted and talented program.
The board called for the school administration to monitor the gifted and talented classes to determine, among other things, their effectiveness, selection criteria and the feasibility of restricting the number of students in the program.
In the last hours of the day-long meeting, the board also talked about how their meetings could be made shorter. Meetings, held two Wednesday evenings a month during the school year, often drag on well past midnight.
Chairman Cook suggested that streamlining the meetings will be "the only way to avoid the Thursday blight," a reference to board and staff exhaustion the day after the protracted meetings.
Cook urged board members to ask minor questions of school staff before the meetings. The board plans to adopt a technique from the Alexandria City Council known as the consent calendar. At City Council meetings members, with one motion, can dispatch dozens of minor items at a time without discussion because they've already agreed on approval before the meeting. Any of the itmes can be pulled from the consent calendar for discussion.