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Governor gives no specifics on school take over of Alexandria's Jefferson Houston Failing school

9:34 AM, Sep 4, 2013   |    comments
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Gov. Bob McDonnell

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WUSA) -- The state takeover of a chronically struggling school in Alexandria has not happened yet. 

It is set to open next month under local control, but city leaders are filled with questions about when and how the state will intervene.

A new building is under construction at Alexandria's Jefferson Houston School, the only school in Northern Virginia facing a state takeover because of low test scores. It has failed accreditation standards in 10 of the last 11 years. It is one of only six schools in the state facing a takeover.

"The state has a constitutional obligation in the clear language of the Constitution to provide a high quality free education to every student in the state. And I take that very seriously. If there are chronically underperforming schools that haven't met that burden then we have an obligation to act," said Governor Bob McDonnell today just after a meeting with Alexandria officials.

McDonnell predicts the number of struggling schools eligible for take over will go up because the state board of education is increasing the level of rigor and accountability to help students compete with academic standards in other countries.

McDonnell proposed the new law which creates an OEI, Opportunity Educational Institution which would take over troubled schools.

The Governor met with elected officials in Alexandria where the school board is solidly against a takeover and has threatened a lawsuit.

School Board Vice Chair Justin Keating said, "I believe the law as its written is unworkable. I think it's also unconstitutional."

"My thoughts on OEI, it seems to be focused on taking over a school.  We're not focused on the school, we're focused no the children.  And we have lots of children across the district like the children in Jefferson Houston, so that's what we need to focus our energies," said School Board Member Bill Campbell. 

The governor did please city leaders by saying the state would collaborate with local governments, but they remain skeptical.  

"The statute his people wrote, the OEI or the Institute, does not provide for the local control and the level of true collaboration that we want and that he talked about today," said Keating.

School Board President Karen Graf said, "A top down approach doesn't work. That's not sustainable."

McDonnell's one term is up in January. It will be up to the next governor and legislature to decide whether changes are needed to the OEI.

Alexandria has been given no timetable for when a take over might happen. In the meantime, they are trying to avoid it by making huge improvements at Houston, on the outside, and on the inside with each student.

The law requires schools that are denied accreditation or have been accredited with warnings for three consecutive years to be transferred to OEI Board control. The schools are to remain under OEI control for five years or until the school reached full accreditation. The law also includes requirements for staffing, funding and student attendance.

The Jefferson Houston School is a pre K through 8th grade school with only about 350 students. Close to 80% of them are on free and reduced school lunch.

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