This fall Alexandria public schools will begin a major push to improve reading and mathematics skills among minority students -- black, Hispanic and Asian -- who account for more than 60 percent of students in the system, school officials say.
Parents and teachers can also expect minor skirmishes over the recurring issues of teacher salaries, Family Life Education and door-to-door fund-raising efforts by students, School Board Chairwoman Lou Cook said.
Some schools will be getting additions and facelifts as well. T.C. Williams' $1.3 million boathouse on the Potomac, a new roof for John Adams Elementary School and entrance ramps for disabled students at Charles Barrett and Jefferson-Houston elementary schools are among the system's physical improvements that have already begun.
Although minority achievement has been a longstanding problem for Alexandria and other school systems in this area, the recent national and local emphasis on forcing all students to adhere to higher standards has allowed the question to be addressed openly, school Superintendent Robert W. Peebles said.
"In the past I think there was fear there would be charges of racism. Now we're breaking scores down by ethnic background," Peebles said.
Alexandria's recent study of student Science Research Associates (SRA) test scores for reading, math and language arts showed that 11th grade black students ranked in the 27th percentile, Hispanic students ranked in the 42nd percentile and Asian students in the 50th percentile of all those taking the tests at the national level. Eleventh grade white students' scores ranked at the 75th percentile nationally. Test scores at the lower grades showed much less of a disparity between minority and white students.
Although the school administration at the Howard Building on West Braddock Road will provide guidance to individual schools on minority achievement and the chronic problem of motivating students, teachers in the city's 12 primary and three secondary schools will assess their own schools' strengths and weaknesses and base improvement plans on those, Peebles said.
Curriculum specialists will then go to the schools to work with teachers.
"When you're working with staff, you have a better chance of success if you work at the school site instead of central headquarters," Peebles said.
On other issues, Peebles emphasized the importance of faculty councils that work with school principals to determine how to improve teacher performance in all areas. He cited T.C. Williams' faculty council's newsletter for giving tips to teachers on the topics of disciplining students and conveying concepts to them.
Alexandria's Family Life Education program, which was opposed by some parents because it contains graphic details of human sexuality, will also be in place for kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade starting this fall.
On the first day of school, all students in those grades will receive letters explaining the program and an outline of the curriculum will be sent home, said Cook. The program will not start until later in September to allow parents to comment. Parents can still decide that their child not take the course, Cook said.
"I think they will be very few in number not taking Family Life ," she said.
In October, the School Board will discuss raising funds in the schools. Currently, students are not permitted to raise funds through door-to-door sales and each school is limited to one student-run fund-raiser a year. Some local PTAs want the rules on raising funds clarified so parents involved in the association can sell products to help the schools.
Representatives from the PTA have told School Board members in previous meetings that selling cheese and sausages has raised money to buy science equipment for schools.
Cook said that budget discussions for teacher salaries will begin earlier than in previous years. Last year Alexandria teachers were hoping for at least a 5 percent annual increase, but received only a 4 percent increase.
In the continuing quest to prepare Alexandria's students for a highly technological society, Peebles said that the school will stress science courses and offer computer sciences, but the emphasis will still be on communication skills -- reading, writing and speaking effectively.