At the end of a corridor at Arlington County's Jamestown Elementary School, the second-graders have erected a slightly askew Egyptian pyramid made of shoe boxes covered with brown paper. Well-researched hieroglyphics decorate the sides. Recently a mother brought in a coffin, which the children opened to find her husband, wrapped in cloth to simulate a well-preserved pharaoh.
Critics of Virginia's new learning standards who haven't visited this elementary school say it is unrealistic to expect 7-year-olds to learn about the architecture and customs of ancient Egypt. But at Jamestown, where scores on the new Standards of Learning (SOL) tests are in the ionosphere, lowering expectations is as unpopular as missing a PTA meeting.
The one-story, modern, brick building is surrounded by large homes and trees in an affluent North Arlington neighborhood. Schools in such surroundings usually do well, but few can boast a parent group as dedicated or a staff as talented as Jamestown's.
Parent volunteers are everywhere, and all 435 families have paid their PTA dues. Violent episodes at Jamestown are unheard of, and a student peer mediation team handles squabbles. The school met all the state learning targets on its first try, with most of its passing rates well above 90 percent. The principal, Nicki Smith, has degrees from Harvard and Stanford, experience as an elected school board member in Wisconsin and a knack for motivating teachers and students that leaves parents in admiration.
Debbie Sline, with three children at the school, summed up the prevailing view: "Jamestown is awesome!"
The school's only significant problems, if they can be called that, are that it is too good and too popular. The glowing reviews have pushed enrollment up to uncomfortable levels. Its scores are so high there is no way, short of revoking the laws of mathematics, that it can show much more progress using the measures favored by the state.
Although School Superintendent Robert G. Smith denies any plans to change the Jamestown district boundaries, parents still fear changes to ease crowding by the year 2001. That, unfortunately, is also the year that Smith is expected to return to California with her husband, Marshall Smith, a Stanford University professor who has been serving as U.S. acting deputy secretary of education.
"It is becoming a large school," said Aileen Whitfill, whose son Max is a fourth-grader. His class has 26 students--not a serious problem because the teacher, Betty Simmons, is widely acclaimed as one of the most energetic and organized educators in the school system. "She is strict, but she is also fun," Max said.
But 26 students a class is still more than the under-20 class sizes that parents and educators prefer. Jamestown, which has an enrollment of nearly 600, has four first-grade classes and a special education class in one very large trailer. Smith and the teachers say the arrangement works fine, but in bad weather the short walk to the main building can be a trial.
The crowding issue is complicated by the fact that Jamestown is joined with three other schools--Taylor, Key and Science Focus--in an enrollment system that allows parents to move their children from one school to another if there is room. Some parents who fear being removed from Jamestown's attendance area during redistricting have suggested cutting ties to the other schools to create more room.
In the meantime, parents extol a school curriculum that includes an outdoor education program with a nature trail, vegetable gardens and bird-watching stations; a Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program linking students with 90 other nations; and teachers who have received intense training in mathematics and science under the state's V-Quest program. There are many public service projects, including a Help the Homeless walkathon and shrub planting at a low-income housing complex.
"The thing I like best about the school is the electricity--by that I mean the enthusiasm of the teaching staff, the parents and the children," said Mary Ann Smith, who has daughters in the second and fifth grades. She said each of her children's teachers has "allowed them to grow and sparked a fire in them that made them eager to do more than just enough to get by."
Andrew Caughran, a fourth-grader, said he particularly enjoyed his third-grade history project that involved a replica of the fort at the original Jamestown colony. "We actually built it," he said.
Smith, 60, has added to the school's reputation for good teaching by taking the budget allotment for an assistant principal's salary and using it for two half-time staff development specialists, Christopher Lyon and Maria Grabowsky. They do nothing but help teachers refine their classroom techniques. Whitfill, an admirer of Smith's administrative agility, said, "Those are extremely valuable positions to have."
Most parents link the school's academic success to its strong neighborhood ties. Martha Herrmann, with children in the second and fifth grades, recalled the recent Halloween parade in which the band from Yorktown High led the entire Jamestown student body through the neighborhood. Carmela Ormando, with a first-grader and a fourth-grader, said the best thing about the school is "the sense of community spirit."
Erin Devine, the PTA president, said the list of parent activities is endless: leading Junior Great Books groups, mulching flower beds, wiring for the Internet, shelving library books, running the Chess Club or organizing the annual extravaganza, the Jamestown Spring Fair.
"Every classroom is transformed into a game room with balloons, cotton candy, pony rides and a Moonbounce," she said of the spring fair. "Almost every parent volunteers in some way."
Herrmann said when she decided to stay home and raise her children she hoped she could also volunteer at their school. Some principals and teachers, she knew, had mixed feelings about eager parents. "But I am welcomed into that school," she said. "There are unlimited opportunities for parents to be involved."
JAMESTOWN ELEMENTARY PROFILE
First opened: 1953.
Total students: 600.
Low-income students: 2 percent.
Standards of Learning (SOL) test passing rate: Fifth-grade reading, 96 percent (state, 69 percent); writing, 99 percent (state, 81 percent): math, 97 percent (state, 51 percent); and third-grade English, 92 percent (state, 61 percent); math 98 percent (state, 68 percent).
Some favorite teachers: Betty Simmons, Joyce Murray, John Russell, Laura Hansen, Fran Doud, Elizabeth Clements, Terry Hill, Gail Klein, Mariann Roth, Marty Cohen.
Cafeteria atrocity: Cold macaroni.
Cafeteria triumph: Pancakes with sausages.
Favorite adjectives for school: Well-run, community-oriented, awesome.
CAPTION: Third-graders Erica Kuen, top left, Roland Wood, Jack Prominski and Charlotte Platner learn math at Jamestown Elementary.
CAPTION: Principal Nicki Smith is one of many things parents love about the school.