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New Jefferson-Houston School Project Receives Approval

ACPS staff confident school construction will go smoothly.

Alexandria City Council approved a $44-million proposal to rebuild Jefferson-Houston School on Saturday.

Alexandria City Public Schools cited rising maintenance costs, student population growth and a need for modern learning facilities as reasons to rebuild the struggling school, which was designated a priority school by Virginia’s Department of Education in October and has failed to meet accreditation standards.

“This is the school that has received the least amount of capital investment of all our facilities,” School Board Chairman Sheryl Gorsuch said. “It needs to be brought up to the 21st century.”

The plan calls for replacing the current school with a 130,000-square-foot L-shaped building framing a new turf athletic field. The majority of the school will not exceed 48 feet in height, with the exceptions of a stair tower and an observatory.

The field will be constructed at the site of the existing school along Cameron Street. The plan also calls for improvements to the Durant Arts Center, which sits on the same plot of land as the school. Planners have called the project “a school and recreation campus.” The school’s gym, field, play areas and a white-box theater will be available for community use to varying degrees.

The new building would increase enrollment at the school to more than 700 students in grades kindergarten through 8th grade. Current enrollment is 364 students.

The School Board is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal to zone the city’s Potomac Yard development to Jefferson-Houston. Mark Eisenhour, Jefferson-Houston’s principal on assignment, said some families who opted out of the school would be asked to come back to the new Jefferson-Houston, but added the school system’s opt-out policies would not change.

Vice Mayor Kerry Donley suggested Saturday the schools eventually consider redistricting to handle increasing capacity needs.

"The capacity issues allow us some growth, which eventually allows you to redistrict," Donley said. "No one likes to talk about [redistricting], but quite frankly it's a discussion we're going to have to have."  

Construction of the new Jefferson-Houston is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2014 with overall construction of the site completed in 2015.

Councilman Paul Smedberg asked what is in place to ensure construction of Jefferson-Houston is done responsibly and finished on time. He referenced some problems the school system has had in past in regards to its capital improvement budget. 

“We’ve had some serious concerns,” he said. “… We’ve questioned some of the oversight as it relates to capital projects for from the schools, some serious issues small and large alike.”

GwenCarol Holmes, chief academic officer with ACPS, said personnel at the system’s finance and facilities departments has turned over since an independent audit deemed management of the school’s CIP process dysfunctional.  

“There has been an exceeding amount of transparency,” she said. “There has been, in this process, there has been working the budget with the people actually involved in building the school.” 

The Planning Commission praised the amount of community input in the planning process when it approved the Jefferson-Houston project on Dec. 4. School Board member-elect Bill Campbell said he would ensure the project stays transparent.

“The community has truly had a lot of input,” he said. “If we in the course of the next six or nine months, we go behind closed doors and because of money or other reasons we make some significant changes without including the public, then some of that trust we built, they will see it as a bait and switch."

ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman and Educational Facilities Director Bill Finn, a retired Navy captain who joined ACPS in July, will oversee the school’s construction.

“I feel very comfortable that the checks and balances are in place and we will be successful at [constructing] Jefferson-Houston,” Finn said. “I am looking forward to building quite a beautiful structure. The reason I took this job is the children and I’m thrilled about what they’re going to get and the environment they will get taught in hopefully for the 2014-15 school year.”

Vicki Penn December 19, 2012 at 01:30 PM
I would first love to see the school system solve the faiing academics at this school. No nice building is going to change the utter failure this school has been for the past 10-15 years. you should be putting your money and efforts into turning that around first before you worry about builiding a beautiful school that will be a dismal failure if the climate of education doesn't change there...
Bea Porter December 19, 2012 at 03:34 PM
The numbers of students in attendance is not correct, the actual number is 331. These students should be merged into other schools as the class sizes are all under 55 students. These children would have a better chance of passing if they had more peers to work with. To continue this group of children with the same children from pre-k to 8, is not giving them a fair chance. And, to spend $44 million dollars on a new building on this site could be better spent on the new building at Potomac Yard. Look at TC Williams, all that money on a very nice, large building, and the education is just barely improving.
Lee Hernly December 19, 2012 at 04:11 PM
The school was denied accreditation this year and has had trouble remaining accredited over the years so, why is the Council & the School Board rewarding failure? Because the school system has been going down hill, the money would be better spent giving parents choice so their kids could have a decent chance at a good education.
Nate McKenzie December 19, 2012 at 04:54 PM
Good news!
Aimee Houghton December 19, 2012 at 06:27 PM
I commend all who have been involved in this project. The planning process for the new building has been inclusive and transparent. The community, teachers, parents, and students have all had a chance to share their ideas, thoughts, concerns, and criticisms. Some may only see the past negatives of Jefferson-Houston and assume it will never change. What I have seen is a dedicated group of professionals who are committed to turning things around at Jefferson-Houston. A vibrant learning environment is critical for success. You have to look no further that Washington, DC and The Charles Young Academy (located in southeast overlooking the Anacostia River). Prior to 1997 nearly half of the students were below the national test averages for reading and math. "In the minds of DC officials, there was an obvious link between students' environment and educational performance. An overhaul of the school has resulted in a school that is in demand. There is waiting list for pre-school and pre-kindergarten students, and a return of students from charter schools. Source: http://www.carpet-health.org/pdf/CharlesYoungElementary.pdf (January 2012 report)

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