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Principal Leaves Troubled School

Alexandria school officials announced yesterday that the principal of the city's lowest-achieving school, Maury Elementary, has resigned and is being replaced by one of the system's most successful veteran principals.

Maury was the only school in Northern Virginia to land on the first "needs improvement" list last year under the new federal No Child Left Behind law, signaling that it had not made adequate progress for two consecutive years toward reading and writing proficiency for all its students.

Several schools in the Washington area have undergone changes of principals as the federal law focuses new attention on state standardized test scores that measure institutional progress. A new "needs improvement" list is due out this summer, and more area schools are at risk of being on it, having failed to make sufficient progress for one year already.

The list triggers a series of escalating sanctions, including allowing parents to transfer their children out of a failing school or to request tutoring at the district's expense.

The sudden change in leadership at Maury, three weeks before students are to take the annual state Standards of Learning tests, is one more sign of Alexandria School Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry's aggressive policy toward getting Maury off the list.

Last year, Perry required all of Maury's teachers to reapply for their jobs, promised $3,000 bonuses to each of the newly selected teachers and made several other changes, but yesterday's announcement indicated that she was not satisfied.

Kristine Ruscello, who resigned as Maury's principal, had been at the school only two years, her first posting as a principal. Her successor, Lucretia Jackson, has been praised by parents and educators as one of the area's best principals, producing significant academic progress at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy.

Some parents at Lyles-Crouch expressed surprise and dismay at the news that they will lose Jackson, who will be Maury's fifth principal in seven years. Pam Matthews, parent of a Lyles-Crouch first-grader, said she was apprehensive about the change. She said she had the impression that Perry "could care less" about what the move might do to Lyles-Crouch's academic success and strong core of parent supporters.

Alexandria schools spokeswoman Barbara Hunter said this and other principal changes made by Perry are designed "to build leaders and ensure that the schools will succeed. We have every confidence that a strong and effective principal will be put into place at Lyles-Crouch."

Alexandria School Board member Sally Ann Baynard, who has had three children at Lyles-Crouch, said: "I think it is always hard to have a wonderful principal moved away from your child's school, but in this case, Ms. Jackson is more than willing to make this move because she is the kind of leader who is always looking for a challenge."

Although Maury is in one of Alexandria's most affluent neighborhoods, most of its students have come from low-income families living in public housing since boundaries were redrawn three years ago. When its low test scores put it on the federal "needs improvement" list last year, nearly 13 percent of Maury students took advantage of the transfer option.

Test scores for third- and fifth-graders at Maury improved somewhat during Ruscello's first year as principal, but were still the lowest in the city in many categories. According to the school district's Web site, 45 percent of Maury fifth-graders passed the state reading test last year and 38 percent passed the state mathematics test, far below the state's passing-rate target of 70 percent.

The next-lowest passing rate in fifth-grade reading for an Alexandria school was 24 percentage points higher than Maury's. The next-lowest math passing rate was 22 percentage points higher. Last year at Lyles-Crouch, 100 percent of fifth-graders passed the reading test and 82 percent passed the math test.

In 2003, 78 percent of Maury students were poor enough to qualify for federal meal subsidies, the highest poverty rate for any Alexandria school. Lyles-Crouch in previous years had had a similarly high poverty rate, but after it adopted a traditional curriculum, with heavy emphasis on phonics and learning to read in the earliest grades, many middle-income families enrolled their children in the school. In 2003, only 36 percent of Lyles-Crouch students qualified for federal meal subsidies.

Baynard said Jackson's success has come from the long hours she put in at the school and an effervescent warmth that she immediately communicates to children and parents. Baynard said her daughter once announced that her principal "really loves me as a person."

"How do you know?" Baynard recalled asking.

"Because she calls me 'Baby,' " her daughter replied.

Baynard said she did not tell her daughter that Jackson calls everybody "Baby."

— Jay Mathews



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