Rosalyn Rice Harris has been Principal at Jefferson Houston Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. since 2011. Rice Harris makes her way throughs the halls during the final day of school before summer break on Thursday, June 20, 2013. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

Principal Rosalyn Rice-Harris has been counting small victories since she took on the urgent task of reversing more than a decade of low achievement at Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston School.

One success came on the ­second-to-last day of school, when a third-grade student held out a small slip of paper showing four passing scores on the state Standards of Learning exams.

“Good gracious, you knocked science out!” Rice-Harris said to the little girl, who was beaming in her khaki and maroon uniform. “Come here; give me hugs and kisses!”

Official schoolwide results for the Virginia tests are not due back until mid-July, but Rice-Harris said she’s confident her students will show “dramatic” gains, if not the 20- and 30-point jumps in passing rates the school needs to meet minimum standards.

To build on the momentum, she is asking for the one thing the state says she can’t have: more time.

Rice-Harris has been at Jefferson-Houston for two years, and she has been working to stave off a state takeover of the school, which became possible when it lost its accreditation this year. Jefferson-
Houston — which failed to meet testing benchmarks for 10 of the past 11 years — is one of four schools eligible for a takeover by a Virginia board that can hand the reins to a university or charter operator.

The Opportunity Educational Institution takeovers, approved by the General Assembly this year, were proposed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who said it is “unconscionable to stand idly by while another generation of students is forced to attend one of these failing schools.”

Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s deputy education secretary, said he has seen promising leadership this year, particularly from the Alexandria school board, which is committed to improving the school.

“If they had another three years, could they turn it around? Perhaps,” Siddiqi said. But given the school’s history, “they have not earned that right,” he said.

Many in Alexandria trace the decline of Jefferson-Houston to a 1999 redistricting plan that significantly increased the school’s number of poor and minority students, many of whom live in subsidized housing near the King Street Metro station.

Turnover was high among the school’s faculty and administrators. Depressed test scores gave parents the right, under the federal No Child Left Behind law, to choose a different school, and many did. And an arts academy designed to attract more diverse students from outside the school’s boundaries was eventually dismantled so the struggling school could turn its full attention to the basics.

Today, Jefferson-Houston serves about 360 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and a quarter of students have disabilities. One in 10 students is homeless, Rice-Harris said.

With so many challenges in the community, many efforts over the years have centered on making sure children were fed, safe and cared for.

“That’s good, but that’s not enough,” Rice-Harris said.

The principal came in during the summer of 2011 as part of an expanded leadership team that included an assistant principal, a principal-in-training and a “principal on assignment” who is overseeing the construction of a $44 million building to be opened in 2014-2015.

In her first year, Rice-Harris replaced half the teachers and established new systems for school discipline and literacy instruction. School officials worked with families to improve attendance and encourage reading at home.

The transitional year did little to move the bottom line in test scores. Just 35 percent of students passed new state math tests last year, far short of the 70 percent passing rate needed for state accreditation. In history and science, about half the students were proficient in grade-level skills. The passing rate in English was 61 percent.

Low performance cost the school its accreditation and earned it “priority” status, which came with extra federal dollars.

Alexandria hired a new outside “turnaround partner” that helped the school fine-tune instruction. Teachers and administrators worked with math and literacy coaches, poring over different measures of student progress each week. Using an all-hands-on-deck approach, coaches and administrators also co-taught classes, allowing students to get more personal attention.

They extended the school day, started a Saturday school, introduced school uniforms, and PTA President Shanelle Gayden organized a weekly class for parents, including an “SOL boot camp” during which parents took practice tests so they could better prepare their children for the exams.

Teachers also enlisted the students’ help directly, “cluing them in” to what proficiency means and why it matters. The students set goals at the beginning of the year then watched their progress charted on bulletin boards. Some had “heart-to-heart, intense conversations” with the principal.

Rice-Harris is uniquely suited for the challenge. She grew up in the projects in Bridgeport, Conn., where her mother enrolled her in a good magnet school.

She and her three siblings went on to earn advanced degrees, journeys that inspired her to become an educator. Her background also inspired her to take on the job working with students at Jefferson-Houston.

“Education saved my life, and I want them all to know that education can save them as well,” she said.

In regular reports to the central office and the state, the school has begun documenting a comeback. State tests measure grade-level skills, but internal tests showed how a class of third-graders last year that was reading on a kindergarten level is catching up. By fourth grade, they were reading third-grade texts. “By fifth grade we can close the gap,” Rice-Harris said.

The youngest students are showing the strongest results, with nearly all kindergarten students this past school year reading at grade level or beyond, she said.

With the threat of a takeover looming, Alexandria school board member William E. Campbell said everything should be on the table as the community works to keep control of the school’s future, including redistricting, reopening the school as a middle school or challenging the constitutionality of the new law in court.

Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D-Alexandria) said he plans to introduce legislation that would amend or overturn the takeover law next year. With the governor who championed the reform effort leaving office, many say its fate is uncertain. Lawmakers only partially funded the necessary start-up costs.

But as the politics play out, Rice-Harris said she tries to put the uncertainty in the back of her mind.

“All I know to do, and all I’m committed to doing, is ensuring my kids are achieving at high levels,” she said. “I don’t see the governor or anyone faulting that.”