The School Board has shot down a plan to add a second high school in Alexandria and is sticking with — as several members of the audience chanted throughout the night — “One T.C.”
After a long debate at its Sept. 26 meeting that dredged up Alexandria’s history of segregation in schools and the ongoing achievement gap, the School Board voted 6-3 in favor of expanding the current high school into a “campus.”
The new proposal calls for the expansion of the Minnie Howard (3801 W. Braddock Road) site — currently a satellite school a few blocks west of T.C. Williams High School currently used as a facility for 9th grade students. Designs for the campus and what types of programs would be located across the different buildings remain to be determined.
With the approval of the campus-style high school, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. said the planning process for the design is about to start. In addition to determining the physical location and layout of the new buildings, Hutchings said the school district will look at the high school curriculum and determine which programs could best utilize separate buildings across the campus.
The design phase of the project is scheduled to run from 2020-2021.
“Now we will reconvene the educational design team and add additional members to that team to look at educational programming now that we have a model,” Hutchings said. “We have to start beginning the design phase and look at educational specifications to look at what these specs will be for the building.”
Keeping Alexandria’s high schoolers united in one school was the choice favored by several T.C. Williams students at the meeting, as well as Hutchings and T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas.
“Urge you to cast your vote for one high school,” Balas, a former social studies teacher at the school, said in an impassioned plea during the public comment portion of the meeting. “T.C. is the heart of the city.
“I strongly encourage you to support our diversity as one of our greatest strengths,” he continued. “Our Titans experience diversity greater than anywhere else in this country. Two high schools lead us down a path of divisive battles [with] inequity between the two schools and leaving certain groups facing increasing disenfranchisement. These inequities will become deeper over time. Separation may be in our school’s name, but you can oppose it by voting to keep us together.”
Balas and Hutchings were also direct with their frustrations with current inequity within the schools and their struggles to try to eliminate that. Hutchings echoed the concerns of other parents and School Board members when he said he was worried multiple high schools would exacerbate those problems. Particularly, Hutchings noted, with the proposal for split high schools specializing in arts or science and technology.
“When you have more than one high school, whether it is reality or perception, someone is going to say ‘they’re getting more than I’m getting, they’re better than I am, they’re getting more options than I’m getting,'” Hutchings said. “It is inevitable that we’re not going to be able to offer those same courses. I want us to be honest about that. We are going to limit the options some of those students have.”
A contingent of students from Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS), both T.C. students and some in lower grades, spoke at the meeting against a separated high school system. Lorraine Johnson, a student at T.C., said that students involved in the early stages of the decision-making were focused on a collective good of the schools in a way that she didn’t see from parents.
“The student meeting mirrored the diversity [of the school] and unlike the adults, these students saw the bigger picture,” said Lorraine Johnson, a student at T.C. “They saw pathways. They saw possibilities. They saw the future of the next generation of high schools flourishing in that high school.”
A dozen parents who spoke at the meeting said they believed, contrary to the concerns from others, that split schools would intensify existing stratification, with low-income and minority schools being lost in the shuffle at the single, oversized T.C. Williams High School.
“We can honor our history, but tonight the vote is about turning the corner and looking ahead,” said Angela Mills. “The campus model might be a good idea, but it’s just an idea. It’s not enough. We can’t just hope for the best. Bigger high schools fail low-income students. Smaller is better, full stop.”
“We need to build schools,” said Marc Solomon. “Not only will a networked annex building have worse educational options, but it will bind future school boards’ hands when giving students the options they deserve.”
School Board members Meagan Alderton, Michelle Rief and Heather Thornton voted against the plan for a campus-style high school.
“We need to take the common sense approach other communities approach when they reach capacity,” said Rief. “All of the data indicates we should build a second high school… It’s our jobs as leaders to look ahead to the future. If we don’t build a second high school now, we’re punting this decision to a future School Board.”
“Building a connected high school network will leave us overcrowded in the near future with nowhere to grow,” she added. “We will have spent a lot of time and effort trying to make a split campus work. We’ll likely be back here in ten years but with inflated building costs.”
Hutchings said there was a common misconception that the second high school would add more classroom space than the campus-style school.
“Whether we have one or two, the square footage is the same,” Hutchings said. “People thought second high school would be bigger, but we were talking about the same amount of square feet.”
After the meeting, Hutchings told ALXnow that he didn’t rule out the possibility of needing to build another high school at some point in the future, but said school officials needed to make the best decision with the data they had on hand. Current ACPS projections estimate a total of 5,000 students by 2025.
“We would not be fiscally responsible for making decisions off of what-ifs,” Hutchings said. “What we have is data for the next ten years. One misinterpretation is that the 5,000 students [incoming] will be in 2025, but really the 5,000 is at the end of those ten years — that’s where the maximum comes from.”
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