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‘Not Sold On This’ in Alexandria
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‘Not Sold On This’ in Alexandria

School Board expresses more concerns, questions about high school proposal.

Rather than expanding T.C. Williams or building another comprehensive high school, the public schools administration wants to meet its high school capacity needs with an array of smaller, career-oriented, potentially geographically dispersed learning centers. These would aim to offer students and parents more options to customize secondary education to meet their interests.

Rather than expanding T.C. Williams or building another comprehensive high school, the public schools administration wants to meet its high school capacity needs with an array of smaller, career-oriented, potentially geographically dispersed learning centers. These would aim to offer students and parents more options to customize secondary education to meet their interests. ACPS Graphic

“To me, we need something that moves a little more quickly to solve our capacity stress right now.” —School Board member Margaret Lorber

The school division administration’s desire to grow T.C. Williams High School into a network of programmatic sites met pushback from the School Board on Monday, Nov. 26.

With the high school bursting at the seams, the division needs to add more seats. But rather than expanding existing facilities or building a second comprehensive high school, the division’s senior staff and hired consultants would prefer multiple off-site “specialty learning centers.” They say a multi-center approach is more feasible than expanding T.C. Williams’ main campus, already atypically large; offers greater adaptability over time if, for example, centers reside in leased spaces that can flex with need; and would best serve the community’s vision for what a modern secondary education should look like.

Learning centers would focus on career-oriented “themes” — like business, medical sciences, STEM — in much the same way that T.C. Williams’ various “academies” already do.

This thematic array would enable students and parents to customize educational “pathways” based on their interests.

The proposal leans heavily toward providing “experiential learning,” such as internships and dual enrollment college courses, similar to the schools’ Career and Technical Education program. Partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and institutions of higher education — like Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, which is planned to be adjacent to Amazon’s new headquarters — would facilitate such real-world experiences.

The number of learning centers and where they’d locate — whether clustered together or across smaller sites around the city — remains undecided. If more distributed, they’d remain connected to the main King Street campus through some kind of transportation service — perhaps small “circulator” shuttles, augmenting the normal morning-and-afternoon school bus service. There could be a component of expanded online learning, as well.

School Board members raised several concerns and questions, generally to the effect that too many details remain unknown, or that the proposal sounds too pie-in-the-sky. Here are some of the things they worried about:

  • IMMEDIACY OF CAPACITY NEEDS: “To me, we need something that moves a little more quickly to solve our capacity stress right now,” said School Board member Margaret Lorber. She suggested the division focus first on expanding facilities at the Minnie Howard campus — land the school system already owns.
  • UNINTENDED EQUITY CONSEQUENCES: “I’m not sold on this at all,” said School Board member Karen Graf. One reason is that “we have a potential to really kind of backslide on [equity and diversity] with some of what’s being proposed. … We are still failing a [sub]population in regards to making sure that they’re reading on level. I want to know that, if we are rolling out a new program, we’re not leaving that population behind that we have typically left behind.”

“It’s not clear to me how we would fight inequity in the recommended strategy,” said School Board member Chris Lewis. For example, “Are these programs intended to be capped? Because what if all of a sudden one of them becomes popular, or perceived as better or … the one to be in in order to get into a good college?”

Chris Hazelton of Fielding Nair International, an education planning and architectural design firm, pointed to a school in San Antonio that implements “diversity by design” — “very intentional quotas” to “ensure that not one demographic or subgroup figures out how to occupy the seats available.”

Mignon Anthony, the school system’s COO, said the schools currently have no plans to institute caps or quotas. She thinks providing a sufficient array of educational choices for parents and students would mitigate the challenge.

On the other hand, research indicates that “the more choice you have, the less diversity you end up with, because people find a way to segregate themselves,” said School Board member Cindy Anderson. She also thinks, “if we do partnerships, we likely will have caps, because [partnering businesses or other organizations are] not going to have open-ended commitments to us.”

  • COSTS UNKNOWN: “I just have no way of understanding what the budget implications are. … Also, what are the [non-monetary] resources necessary to make some of these happen?” said School Board member Veronica Nolan. Internships and the like “can be very, very staff-intensive, expensive programs. So what we might save on brick-and-mortar, we would go exponentially up in costs in terms of staff.”

Anderson expressed concern about the “transportation and management costs” associated with multiple sites.

“We can give some ballpark figures, but it’s not going to be solid until we say, this is what we want to do,” said Dr. Gregory Hutchings, the schools’ superintendent.

  • UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: Staff and consultants put forward examples of other schools around the country that implement the kind of experiential learning center approach that’s proposed. But Alexandria might not expect to replicate their successes, since they likely serve student bodies with poverty rates lower than Alexandria’s, said Graf.

Also, where Alexandria’s school division already implements programming along the lines of what’s proposed, it lacks sufficient data proving positive outcomes for students, she said.

  • FOCUS SHIFTED FROM PRIMARY EDUCATION: “I would rather see us launching programs at the elementary or the K-8 level and bringing them up to high school,” said Graf. “We always, as a nation, start our stuff in high school, and I don’t get it. If you’re going to plant that seed of … whatever it is that you want to see or realize in a program in high school, plant it in the K-8 curriculum. … If you … said we are going to do three academies that align with our elementary or middle school/K-8 programs, this would be a different conversation. That’s not what I’m hearing.”

School administrators defended their proposal throughout.

“I’m very much as apprehensive as you are and as concerned that we take care in whatever the program is that gets designed,” said Anthony. “But staying in one school, staying in one physical location …, that is not flexible for the next 50 years. And it’s not what we heard … out of all of the community engagement we did. … The part that we heard over and over again … is that we have got to move T.C. out of being in one place in this city. It’s got to be incorporated into the fabric of Alexandria.”

A School Board vote on the high school strategy, originally scheduled for next week, is now deferred until January.