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New High School for Alexandria?
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New High School for Alexandria?

Discussion of overcrowding leads to new high school

For better or worse, the most iconic story from T.C. Williams High School is the story of the 1971 consolidation and integration of Alexandria’s high schools memorialized in the movie “Remember the Titans.” Now, 46 years later, the School Board is beginning to look at the prospect of another new high school.

One of the key discussions at the Oct. 12 School Board meeting was an update on an ongoing Grade Level Configuration Study by the Hanover Research Group (HRG), which started in Fall 2016. The study reexamines the traditional notions of which grade levels comprise different school types. With the schools becoming increasingly crowded, the School Board has started looking at options to combine or separate grade levels in different schools based on their capacities.

One of the schools being examined is Minnie Howard. The FY 2017 budget included $4.8 million for design and project management work to renovate the school and add 10 new classrooms. Minnie Howard is a campus of T.C. Williams High School a mile away designated exclusively for the ninth grade. Currently the study’s findings on ninth grade academies are limited, noting that the situation is relatively uncommon. In the fall, HRG will focus on a study of Minnie Howard to review the impacts of changing the site away from a ninth grade only facility.

But for the School Board, whether it’s at Minnie Howard or another location, it’s becoming clear that Alexandria’s student population boom means that TC will not be able to sustain the ever-increasing number of students. By 2023, projected high school enrollment for ACPS is 4,924. The current capacity, between both the main TC campus and Minnie Howard, is 3,787, putting the high schools in a 1,137 seat deficit.

According to Interim Superintendent Lois Berlin, the squeeze of that overcapacity can already be felt at TC. Berlin described her experience trying to push through the hallways on the upper floors of TC as feeling like a salmon working its way upstream.

“It’s quite an adventure,” said Berlin. “We do need to have that conversation sooner rather than later.”

“There are some that think putting a larger building at the Minnie Howard campus can provide us the option we need, but this number shows: we have to do something other than [Minnie Howard] just being a ninth grade campus,” said School Board member William “Bill” Campbell. “If we just made the assumption that in 2023 that the 9th grade is 1,000 or 1,300 students, that leaves 3,600 to 3,700 in 10th through 12th grade. We will be exceeding the capacity if all we have at the new Minnie Howard is ninth grade. We have to do something different.”

The discussion already started moving into what shape the new high school would take. Several School Board members expressed a need to make sure that the divisions of the new high schools don’t fall along the same lines of the old pre-integration ones.

“As we do the work in the fall, on our high schools especially, I would ask that we really set a premium on evaluating the equity for all students if we reconfigure,” said School Board member Chris Lewis. “I always say we can take a lesson from having two middle schools serve two halves of the city. The challenges we’ve had at providing equity to those schools and the perceptions that students have of themselves and that the community has of those two schools, which the former superintendent asked me not to say at the dais, but that we hear from students about themselves and about their school. I would ask that we set a premium on evaluating that in addition to the other factors. If we can’t have equity at a middle school, how do we think we can have that in the divisions at high school?”