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Alexandria Officials Debate Breaking Up Troubled School To Avoid State Takeover

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Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria is the only school in Northern Virginia that would be taken over as part of a new state law.
WAMU/Michael Pope
Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria is the only school in Northern Virginia that would be taken over as part of a new state law.

In Virginia, school leaders in Alexandria are considering a plan to break apart a troubled school into two separate institutions as a way to avoid a state takeover.

When Jefferson-Houston School opened in 1970, it combined the Jefferson School, named after Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, and the Houston School, named for civil rights pioneer Charles Hamilton Houston. Now more than 40 years later, parent Beth Coast says it's time for a divorce—she wants to split the failed school into to separate facilities.

"My husband and I believe that the two-school option is the best decision. I'm asking you to give our students a fresh start without the stigma that comes from the name Jefferson-Houston and what that represents to the larger community," she says.

The stigma comes from more than a decade of failing test scores. And, as Superintendent Morton Sherman explains, troubled demographics.

"I think that generational poverty stands alone at Jefferson-Houston community from all of our other communities in Alexandria," he says.

That has put the school on a short list of educational facilities that could be taken over by the state under the provisions of a new law, a move that Alexandria officials—and other groups in the commonwealth—oppose.

That's why Sherman is proposing a plan to divide and conquer the school, which currently has kindergarten through eighth grade. One of the new schools would serve kindergarten through fourth grade. The other, fifth through eighth. But those schools would remain in the same building, leading School Board member Bill Campbell to say that approach is smoke and mirrors.

"I do think it's more sleight of hand than anything, and I think it's close to status quo, and I think that status quo is not good enough," he says.

School Board member Pat Hennig says the plan to thwart a state takeover might face a major hurdle. "We'd have to have permission from Richmond. We'd have to have a game plan. We'd have to have all that stuff, and this is why I keep saying I haven't heard nothing," he says.

That means Superintendent Sherman is about to face one of his greatest challenges since Vice Mayor Kerry Donley called for his resignation last year—how his administration will sidestep the takeover of a school where test scores are the lowest in the region.

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