Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Who or What Is Failing Virginia's Schools?

HoustonA la the thesis of Diane Ravitch's new book, which I posted on yesterday, it is worth stepping back to consider what is really going on with the takeover of six Virginia schools.  As LaJuana posted a few days ago, the state passed legislation creating the Opportunity Educational Institution, which grants this entity the power to take over schools that have failed to gain accreditation four years in a row.  At least one district has filed suit arguing that the takeover violates the state constitution.  Putting the constitutional issues aside for a moment, the persistant failure to meet accreditation standards suggests that these schools are in crisis, but are they?  And if so, who is to blame?

The state's accreditation standards require elementary and middle schools to achieve the following pass rates: English – 75 percent or higher; Mathematics – 70 percent or higher; Science – 70; percent or higher; and History – 70 percent or higher.  High schools are fully accredited if students "achieve pass rates of 75 percent or higher in English and 70 percent or higher in mathematics, science and history; and [a]ttain a point value of 85 or greater based on the Graduation and Completion Index (GCI)."  (For further definition of the GCI see here).  These flat and simple standards are the whole of the accreditation requirements.

One of the six schools in the state that has failed to meet this standard is Jefferson-Houston (formerly an elementary school, now a pre-k through 8 school) in Alexandria.  The school rests on the edge of Old Town Alexandria, one of the DC area's most affluent neighborhoods.  When I lived in the DC area, my home happened to be less than a mile from Jefferson-Houston.  We didn't live in Old Town, but our son, had he been old enough, would have been assigned to Jefferson-Houston.  The school's name also carries special meaning to me.   Jefferson is in reference to Thomas Jefferson and Houston is in reference to Charles Hamilton Houston, former Dean of Howard Law School and the original architect of the NAACP's desegregation strategy. 

The sad irony is that the school does not reflect the vision of either of the giants for whom it is named, particularly Charles Hamilton Houston.  The school in 2010 was 83 percent minority and 66 percent low income.  Although the data was not available to me yesterday, my suspicion, based on having lived there and researched the school's academic program, is that many of the white students attending the school were actually enrolled in the school's magnet program rather than its regular education program. If this were true, most classrooms in the school would be nearly entirely minority and more than three-quarters poor.  Neither the neighborhood in which this school sits, nor any of the neighborhoods or schools nearby reflect these demographics.  Rather, this is a school abandoned by many of the people that live nearby it and a school "zoned out" of the the neighborhoods that surround it.  To enroll the mere 300 or so students that it has, it has to be a pre-k through 8 school and include a magnet program that draws from the entire city.  If it were a regular elementary school, its population would probably be less than 200, far less than other elementary schools in the district, including nearby ones that are over-subscribed every year.

Contrary to my normal style, I leave the questions to you.  Given the demographics of this school, what were its chances of accreditation to begin with?  What is more likely: a fundamental flaw with teachers and leadership in this school that requires the state to take it over, a fundamental flaw with the way we assign students to schools, or both?  Is this school in "crisis" or has the state itself created the conditions and standards that allow it to point the finger at the school and students rather than itself?


Analysis, Equity in education, Racial Integration and Diversity, State law developments | Permalink


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