The Nationals’ Thomas Jefferson mascot joins principal Rosalyn Rice-Harris (far left) and other school officials to break ground for Jefferson-Houston's new building. (Michael Alison Chandler/Washington Post)

Construction of a new building for Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston School broke ground this week, an event officials said heralds a brighter future for a school that is under tremendous pressure to improve academically.

Superintendent Morton Sherman told the crowd of parents, students and politicians that the $44 million facility would usher in a “new chapter” for the school, which has been targeted by Virginia state legislators because of its struggles.

“This school should not be judged by test scores alone,” Sherman said at the event Tuesday.

Local educators are opposing a plan, which lawmakers have approved, to create a state-level school turnaround board, called the Opportunity Educational Institution, that would take control of the state’s chronically lowest-performing schools. Jefferson-Houston is among them.

The school district has intensified efforts in recent years to boost performance at the school — which serves students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade — with an outside turnaround consultant and math coaches, extra tutoring and an extended school day.

School leaders said they are on the right track.

“We will prove everyone wrong,” Principal Rosalyn Rice-Harris said. She said the new building can only help. “We will enjoy this day and watch throughout the next school year the construction of the building that you all deserve.”

The renovated school will replace a 1960s-era building that has few windows and an outdated open floor plan. Designs include a light-filled facility with a solar observatory and an abundance of windows, as well as 10 early childhood classrooms, new playgrounds, an area for extended learning and an artificial turf field.

The new school is expected to have a capacity of 800 students, more than twice what the school serves now. It will be built next door to the existing building, which will be torn down after the new one opens. That is expected to happen by fall 2014.

The celebration Tuesday afternoon was befitting the school’s Old Town environs, just a block from King Street.

The Thomas Jefferson racing president mascot from the Nationals was there to pose for pictures with students. And the town crier was on hand to kick off the formal ceremony with colonial flair: “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! . . . We are gathered in the middle part of May to prepare to break the soil and turn the clay.”

Acting city archeologist Fran Bromberg attended and showed off the remains of a 19th-century slaughterhouse that was uncovered during the lead-up to construction. Bromberg said the brick structure offers rare insight into the city’s industrial history. Some of the bricks will probably be incorporated into the new building.

Eighth-grader Makayla Rice told the crowd that she is soon to graduate but still excited about the new school. “I can’t wait to see it,” she said.