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Equity Defines High School Expansion in Alexandria
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Equity Defines High School Expansion in Alexandria

National education experts prioritize, define fairness.

From left: Panelists Robert Balfanz, Jaime Castellano, Pedro Noguera, Heidi Jacobs, Jonathan Plucker and Larry Rosenstock with moderator Andrew Rotherham.

From left: Panelists Robert Balfanz, Jaime Castellano, Pedro Noguera, Heidi Jacobs, Jonathan Plucker and Larry Rosenstock with moderator Andrew Rotherham. Photo by Bridgette Adu-Wadier

After voting to expand T.C. Williams into a larger campus, the school division went to work on programming options for students.

Equity and access continue to drive the conversation around the future of T.C. Williams High School. A panel of six education experts weighed in on several education models, giving guidance to school officials on high school and curriculum design. It lasted over an hour and aimed to give school officials direction on how to go about the expansion process.

“The High School Project is one of the most important decisions that we have had to make in the city,” said Superintendent Gregory Hutchings last week. “It is something that we cannot do in isolation.”

Ballooning enrollment at T.C. Williams is prompting the search for more building space. The High School Project was launched in 2018 and considered two options: building a second high school or keeping T.C. one high school and expanding it into a network of smaller campuses. In September, the Alexandria School Board voted six-to-three for one high school.

What the separate campuses will be and how they will be organized is still uncertain. The administration spent $360,000 from the capital improvement program on the project and $30,000 in school system funds, according to the quarterly report from the school division.

About $160 million is budgeted for the High School Project, including $104 million in 2021 and $55 million in 2022.

Most T.C. students are minorities; 42 percent are Hispanic and 27 percent are black. Thirty percent of students in the school district are English language learners and T.C. has over 1,000 of them. About 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indication of poverty.

The six panelists identified several areas of concern: high teacher turnover; communication with non-English-speaking families and other communities; achievement gaps, racial demographics in advanced placement courses and career and technical education, among other things.

“Equity also means everyone has equal responsibility,” said Heidi Hayes Jacobs. “The community needs to be equally involved in engaging this type of work reimagining the high school.”

“If 40 percent of the students in this school are Hispanic or Latino, then forty percent of those students should be in AP and honors classes,” said Jaime Castellano, an education researcher on education of Hispanic students.

CHALLENGES FACING Alexandria’s schools have challenged the panellists across the country.

Pedro Noguera of the Center for the Transformation of Schools came to T.C. in 2008 when it was known as a low-performing school due to low test scores. He warned the audience against stagnating and not making any progress.

“The biggest barrier to me in this work is complacency, the way in which we get used to the way things are. We start to believe nothing can be done,” said Noguera. “Once that becomes the narrative, nothing changes… There are schools that have figured this out.”

Academics are difficult for students who speak English as a second language, according to Jonathan Plucker of the National Association of Gifted Children.

“I was given the (ACPS) course catalogue. It’s bigger than some colleges’… I’m a native English speaker. I do education for a living. It took me all day long to get more comfortable with it,” said Plucker.

The panelists proposed recommendations for the school division, including merging academics and career and technical education (CTE) courses, creating project-based learning and providing courses for students in their native language.

“The best labor market outcomes are from kids that actually took a college prep curriculum that links CTE [Career and Technical Education] courses in high school. …The goal would be wonderful where kids would meet both those requirements with multiple pathways to achieve that diploma.” said Robert Balfanz of the Everyone Graduates Center.

According to Hutchings, community stakeholders will revisit these recommendations to brainstorm curriculum.