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Effort To End Tracking Sparks Uproar in Va. District

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ALEXANDRIA, VA.--Mayor Patricia Ticer faced a tough audience as she took the stage at Hammond Junior High School here on a Saturday morning late last month.

"This is a 'we' community. It is not an 'us' and 'them' community,'' the Mayor said as she beseeched some 500 parents gathered in the school's auditorium to look beyond their divisions over the Alexandria district's new student-grouping policy and give the school officials present a chance to explain themselves.

In Alexandria, a city with a rich colonial and Civil War history, efforts by the superintendent and the school board to end the school district's rigid academic tracking of students have sparked an uprising.

Many of the opponents of the policy shift were, not long ago, among the district's strongest allies: middle-class, politically active parents who are heavily involved in the public schools and stuck with them while others like them withdrew their children from the system.

"It has just been a very bizarre episode,'' said Leslie Barnes Hagan, the vice chairwoman of the school board, who described herself as caught off guard by the controversy.

In the past few months, city council and school board members have been barraged with calls and letters from angry parents.

The city council, which appoints the board, has asked board members to nullify the grouping policy or postpone its implementation. The board, however, has refused.

The meeting at Hammond Junior High, called by city and school board officials, gave both sides a chance to air their concerns, but it seemed to have settled little. Already, Mayor Ticer observed in an interview, the issue has prompted some residents to put their homes on the market, while many others have applied to send their children to private schools.

'Indictment' of Grouping

The Alexandria school system's enrollment of about 9,700 students is roughly 49 percent black, 30 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Asian-American. Although more than a third of the students qualify for need-based federal lunch subsidies, the system also educates the children of many well-to-do Washington-area professionals, and its schools send large numbers of graduates to leading colleges.

Prior to last May, the district had no formal policy dictating how students should be grouped. It left such decisions to principals and teachers.

Superintendent Paul W. Masem said during the March 27 public meeting that the schools have essentially grouped their students at four levels, including the placement of about 18.5 percent of them in talented-and-gifted, or TAG, programs.

Over all, white students make up 64 percent of TAG-program enrollment. Some 40 percent of all white students in the district are in that group, compared with fewer than one-tenth of all minority students.

The different levels also show widening gaps in achievement as the grades progress, Mr. Masem said.

"The perception that developed,'' Ms. Hagan said in an interview, "was that [the TAG program] was the only place where quality education occurred within the school system.''

Mr. Masem, who was hired in 1987, two years later formed a task force to examine how to boost minority achievement. In 1991, a task-force subcommittee issued a report on the district's ability grouping that Angie Godfrey, the chairwoman of the Alexandria school board, last week characterized as "an indictment.''

The report found that minority students were "overwhelmingly represented in the lower phases,'' or ability levels; that, in the absence of a board policy, the placing of students in such "phases'' was "highly subjective'' and potentially discriminatory; that phasing "clearly fosters segregation within the school''; and that minority parents were largely unaware that they could request that their children be placed in higher levels.

The district responded to the report by developing a policy that encouraged "a wide variety of grouping practices,'' but held principals and teachers responsible for insuring that grouping not result in long-term tracking, inequities in instruction, or racial segregation, and that it not stigmatize students or limit their access to higher education or certain occupations.

When unanimously passed by the board last May, the policy drew little comment other than the support of minority parents.

A. Melvin Miller, a school board member, last week described the policy as allowing "flexible grouping and appropriate grouping.'' And Ms. Godfrey characterized it as "slow, considered, effective change.''

'The Whole Thing Exploded'

The policy's implementation, which began with the opening of school last fall, first drew widespread notice in November. That was when district staff members in the process of planning the curriculum at a new 9th-grade center proposed eliminating an honors-level World Civilization course and instead offering the course to all students. Their plan called for students to still be allowed to gain honors credit, but only by doing extra work.

When the staff submitted its proposal, Ms. Godfrey said, "the whole thing exploded.''

Mary-Jane Atwater, a past parent-teacher-association president who has since joined the organization opposing the new policy, said she was outraged when told that the district planned to use abridged books and videos in teaching the course.

"I view what is going on in high school as preparing kids for college and life,'' Ms. Atwater, who has vowed to withdraw her youngest child from public school, said in an interview. "We don't go through life reading abridged books.''

Bonnie W. Baxley, a parent of two children in the public schools and an organizer of the opposition group, argued that the grouping policy is just a "Band-Aid'' measure that diverts attention from the district's failure to educate children at all levels, despite the fact it spends more than $8,000 per pupil each year.

Ms. Baxley's group, called the Steering Committee, also has accused the district of ignoring and misleading parents and doing little to prepare teachers for the new system.

One of the primary concerns of the group is student discipline, and the question of whether teachers will be able to maintain order in a heterogeneous classroom.

The resistance to the policy has continued despite the fact that the board has voted to restore the honors-level World Civilization class.

And against this backdrop, the city is scheduled to hold a referendum in November to determine whether to begin electing its school board as of June 1994.

Lonnie C. Rich, a city council member, predicted last week that the referendum will easily pass and that the dissatisfied parents will then use the board elections as "their outlet.''

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