Athlete on the T.C. Williams Swim and Dive Team (photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook)

Despite the unanimous vote of approval to install a new pool at the Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus, even the most positive of voices on City Council last night were lukewarm about how they got there.

The Council voted 7-0 in favor of setting aside $12 million in funding, down from $19 million proposed earlier, with Alexandria City Public Schools diverting some funding from a solar panel project.

Like a parent scolding his child for reckless spending, City Manager Mark Jinks warned that the pool proposal is coming in after the budget has already been approved.

“This is a project that is not in the CIP (Capital Improvement Program),” Jinks told Council. “When the School Board made its request, we all acknowledged that pool capacity needs to be expanded… my proposal is to renovate Chinquapin, change the depth of the pool, and shorten it slightly for the right competitive length.”

Jinks said this would allow the city government and ACPS to determine, at a later date, whether to put a pool in somewhere else with greater access — considering the proposed school would be just a few blocks away from the existing Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Facility (3210 King Street), the only other indoor aquatics center in the city.

Jinks also warned that diverting up-front funding from the solar panel projects and opting instead towards privatized sources of funding is a short term budget trick that doesn’t save money in the long term, because the business investing in those solar panels up-front will want that money back from output in the future.

“This is using money that was supposed to be used to buy solar panels and put that into the pot,” Jinks said. “It won’t save us money long-term. It’s a budget tactic that works in the short-term but doesn’t help long-term.”

ACPS would also, Jinks said, face an additional annual operating cost of $1-1.5 million and likely up to $5,000 in capital maintenance expenses. While some pools make some of that cost back in fees and being rented out for private events, Jinks says that complicates the idea that this pool is being funded with equity in mind.

Ultimately, the timing of Chinquapin’s announced closure for cleaning– from June 26-Sept. 6 — helped sway some on the City Council toward funding another pool. City Council member john Chapman said angry public emails have flooded in after the closure was announced.

“I do understand and do believe the city has a number of other priorities,” Chapman said. “If we are forced to push, we will push a pool out of the way like we have before. Whether revenues are down or another project that will require our more immediate attention… I’ve seen that be done. That’s what’s leaning me to support a pool. It’s not that this is the perfect thing. I’m not overly excited for the late addition… but I don’t see another tangible alternative to say ‘we’re not going to do one at Minnie Howard, but instead of that we’re going to do this.'”

Jinks said funding for the pool would come in large part from issuing general obligation bunds for a set amount of money, with the City putting its foot down and saying that’s as much as it will provide.

The move was met with praise from ACPS leadership.

“I am truly overjoyed and thankful with the unanimous vote from City Council to provide funding for the aquatics facility at the Minnie Howard Campus,” School Board member Jacinta Greene told ALXnow. “For far too long Alexandria’s aquatics facilities have not met the needs of our ACPS student athletes or the overall community. Now our swim teams will be able to practice and compete in their own regulation size pool and the community can benefit from an additional pool for aquatics activities.”

Photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook

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Some officials say that a last-minute proposal to add a pool to the Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus is long overdue.

While previously dismissed as prohibitively expensive, the total cost for the addition of the pool isn’t clear yet.

School Board chair Meagan Alderton said Monday night that the regulation-sized pool is long overdue for a school system that still has the hallmarks of racial disparity in its aquatic sports teams.

“We are, indeed, asking the city to provide additional dollars to provide this facility for the Minnie Howard site,” Alderton said at the joint City Council/School Board subcommittee meeting. “I find it hard to think there will be racial equity without investing dollars in communities that have historically been denied access… Consider it reparations for people of Color, because it’s long overdue. It has been so hurtful to watch and this School Board is ready.”

Beyond the actual cost of building the pool, it would cost ACPS $1.2 million in energy credits to keep the school at its Net Zero goals. The current total cost of the School Board’s chosen design for the school is $149.5 million.

The addition of the pool throws a slight wrench into budget process, as the City Council approved the School Board’s budget weeks ago. City Manager Mark Jinks said any proposal for more funding for the addition of a pool to the school would need to be given to the city by June 1.

Photo via ACPS

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School Board chair Meagan Alderton is pushing for the last-minute addition of an aquatics facility to the planned Alexandria City High School expansion, noting that the addition would help toward rectifying a longstanding racial disparity.

Alderton said Alexandria is guilty of the same nationwide disparity in swimming proficiency, with lack of access to pools for Black Americans creating disproportionately white aquatics sports teams. It’s a disparity Alderton said the city can start to push back against with a new pool at the Minnie Howard expansion planned as part of the high school overhaul.

“You only need to look at the swim team or crew team to know something isn’t right,” said Alderton. “These teams aren’t diverse and don’t represent he populations we serve. We need to be teaching Black and brown students how to swim. We need to be teaching elementary students how to swim. We need to be encouraging these students to participate in aquatics.”

Part of the challenge, though, is that the school request will be coming in late in the budget process, nearly a month after Alexandria’s City Council approved this year’s budget.

The pool had been included in earlier concept review, but hadn’t made the final cut for the budget process after analysis showed the pool would cost $1.2 million to offset the energy requirements of the pool keep the school at its Net Zero goals.

“Funding for pool is not in the School CIP,” said City Manager Mark Jinks. “That funding is not currently available. To change that, it would need to come forward as request from School Board to Council to change that number. That assumes that pool cannot be built for dollar amount set aside for Minnie Howard.”

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said the schools would be moving forward with that request as soon as possible, saying a final decision would need to be made by the School Board sometime in the first week of June.

“Our design team asked for [a decision] by the beginning of June,” said Erika Gulick, director of capital programs. “We are already in the DSUP process. [The current] iteration currently includes a pool. Where Pre-K ends up going depends on the pool.”

ACPS staff said a they were aiming for a final decision at the June 9 School Board meeting, but Jinks said that’s too late. A submission from the School Board should come in no later than June 1.

While acknowledging the challenge of the late change, Alderton said if the city is committed to its goals of racial equity, it will find a way to make it happen.

“We are, indeed, asking the city to provide additional dollars to provide this facility for the Minnie Howard site,” Alderton said. “I find it hard to think there will be racial equity without investing dollars in communities that have historically been denied access… Consider it reparations for People of Color, because it’s long overdue. It has been so hurtful to watch and this school board is ready.”

Photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook

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With little discussion, the Alexandria School Board last Thursday unanimously approved the “Pinwheel” concept at the T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard campus.

The decision over the High School Project took two-and-a-half years in the making, and the $149.5 million Pinwheel was chosen over two other concepts.

Construction on the five-story facility is scheduled to begin in June 2022 and be finished by September 2024, during which time construction will occur on open space at the school. That means that students will have to do physical activities off-site, and staff and construction workers may have to park elsewhere.

“ACPS will explore nearby properties that are likely to have parking vacancies during school operating and construction hours,” ACPS said in a staff report. “During construction the athletic fields and courts will be displaced and will need to be accommodated off-site. ACPS is to explore holding physical education classes at the King Street Campus, Chinquapin Park and alternate locations.”

The Pinwheel is so named since it organizes “learning neighborhoods” and future athletic facilities in orbit around the heart of the school. It also includes a plan for an aquatics facility that is currently unfunded. Additionally, there will be no affordable housing co-located at Minnie Howard, since the Board voted against it in February.

The school will hold at least 1,600 students and continue as a satellite campus for T.C. Williams High School, which will be renamed Alexandria City High School on July 1.

“Community use of, and access to the building will be supported through the creation of community access zones that will allow portions of it to be safely used during and outside of school hours,” notes a 200-page report submitted to the Board. “These resources may include the gyms, the ‘Forum’, the Library/Learning Commons, an aquatics center, and other services that may be provided by the Alexandria Health Department and Department of Community and Human Services.”

The project will now continue into another design phase until construction begins in June 2022.

Images via ACPS

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A new report on plans to overhaul Alexandria High School’s Minnie Howard campus made a splash as staff said a planned aquatics facility likely won’t make the cut.

In a School Board meeting on March 18, staff reviewed three concepts for what the new school could look like. But while the proposed aquatics facility is included in school designs, staff said it’s ultimately unlikely that ACPS will have the funding necessary to go forward with a pool.

Staff said the issue isn’t so much the cost of the pool, but the cost to offset the energy requirements of the pool keep the school at Net Zero.

“It is currently not in the ACPS budget,” staff said. “Currently, the PV to achieve net zero for the pool is $1.2 million.”

As the School Board dove into the new designs, several members of the Board expressed frustration at the prospect of eliminating the pool.

“Our swim and dive teams have never had a regulation-size pool,” said School Board member Jacinta Greene. “They have to go outside of our city to have our meets. Right now they go to Saint James [in Falls Church]. We should try to push as hard as we can for our current students and future students.”

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said ACPS is looking into potential partnerships that could help reduce the cost, along with colocation to make the price tag more reasonable.

“We are working directly with the city with regards to any type of co-location, specifically with regards to the pool,” Hutchings said. “At the same time, the city has not supported funding for the pool, but I know there are other entities we’re trying to explore.”

Staff noted that public-private partnerships are being considered, which got some support from the Board. Hutchings also said that ACPS has reached out to new Assistant City Manager Julian Gonsalves to work on putting that kind of partnership together.

“If there’s anything the Board can to do help with P3 partnerships, or send letters or push,” said Board Member Christopher Suarez, “on behalf of myself, I’d want the Board to push that.”

Photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook

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ACPS has acknowledged that community feedback has generally opposed putting affordable housing at a new school development.

In a recent joint Alexandria City Public Schools and City Council meeting, ACPS Director of Capital Programs Erika Gulick said that feedback from Alexandria residents indicated that locals were not comfortable with housing, including affordable housing, being co-located at some school developments.

The acknowledgement is the latest in the debate that was ignited almost exactly a year ago when feasibility study for George Mason Elementary School included an apartment complex. ACPS apologized for the inclusion, saying the complex wasn’t planned for that site, but co-location of housing and other non-school uses at ACPS facilities has repeatedly been stated as a priority for the City Council.

Designs for the new T.C. development are scheduled to go to the City Council early in 2022.

“The co-location goals are not only trying to make sure we have complimentary uses, but increasing use of the site outside of traditional school hours,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in the meeting. “To the extend that we could have public space used for other services. I would encourage us to continue looking at those kinds of opportunities.”

Gulick said much of the community’s feedback has been negative toward housing at the planned expansion of the school formerly known as T.C. Williams High School, but more accepting of other uses.

“We did some community engagement before end of calendar year and collected feedback,” said Gulick. “In general, the community generally opposed to affordable housing or housing on a school site. There’s a concern of ‘is it appropriate to use school land or co-locate these two things.’ But [there is] support for other colocation, like a pool or teen wellness center.”

Gulick said school programming remains the highest priority in plans to add new facilities to the Minnie Howard campus, with loss of athletic fields or open space being considered unacceptable, but that development that adds additional uses to the sites would require additional density approval from the city.

A few other school districts across the country have co-located school facilities and housing, and Alexandria Living Magazine has compiled them with a look at how they compare to ACPS plans.

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In a candid discussion on Facebook last night (Thursday), Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson outlined some of the largest impacts COVID-19 could have on Alexandria citizens and the city government.

How the outbreak could impact plans for schools, economics, and the health of the community were the top issues in Wilson’s “living room town hall”.

With $56 million less in preliminary estimates for the budget than was originally planned, Wilson said nothing was off the cutting table.

“Nothing is sacred,” Wilson said. “Nothing is off the table. Nothing is untouchable. We will see impacts to the capital budget and operating budget. One of the bigger projects is the rebuild at MacArthur [Elementary School]. My guess is, given where we are in the project, that would be a project we want to continue to proceed. However, we’re going to have to look at everything. If there’s a school project affected in the near term, probably going to be the rebuild of Minnie Howard.”

Those financial estimates are based in large part on financial estimates for business closures, which Wilson said is only likely to become direr.

“We are going to lose a lot of businesses in our city through this situation,” Wilson said. “The federal CARES Act is helpful, but won’t be enough. For several, revenue has gone down to zero, which makes payroll and paying rent impossible.”

Acknowledging the risk of coming across as callous, Wilson said the city needed to start preparing for how to help the city’s commercial tax base recover.

“We are looking at how we see around the corner,” Wilson said. “We need to prepare for the recovery and how we bring back commerce in our city. We’re going to have a lot of work ahead.”

For now, though, the number of confirmed cases in Alexandria continues to rise, currently sitting at 67 cases.

“The challenge with testing numbers: this is a picture of time,” Wilson said. “Because of the delay in testing and the incubation period, this is reflecting folks who were infected quite a while ago. We’re going to continue to see that before we see things get better. If you believe the models, we’re still several weeks off from the peak.”

Wilson said every expert he’s talked to has said Alexandrians should expect that number to continue going up. The state is putting together new models for the spread of the disease with the University of Virginia, Wilson said, which should be released early next week.

“This is reflecting infections that happened two weeks ago in some cases, because of the incubation and several days of lag in test results,” Wilson said. “We won’t see the impact of social distancing for a while now.”

In the meantime, the health department is interviewing each positive case and doing contact tracing to determine who else those people came in contact with and making sure that they track down and notify those folks, Wilson said.

Those with medical experience can help by volunteering with the Alexandria Medical Reserve Corps. Other organizations throughout Alexandria could also use help, and volunteers able to sign up either at Volunteer Alexandria or on the city website.

On a smaller scale, Wilson said many local residents have been using the stay at home order as a chance to get more gardening done. Wilson warned that yard waste collection has been suspended, meaning if residents want to dispose of those weeds they’ve pulled up they’ll have to do so by composting.

“When we have the ability to restart that we certainly will but right now we’re encouraging people to set up backyard composting to deal with that,” Wilson said.

Wilson also noted that because more people are staying at home, the city is seeing much larger amounts of trash being set out on curbs.

Living Room Town Hall

Posted by Justin Wilson on Thursday, April 2, 2020

Staff photo by James Cullum

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Continuity of leadership will be crucial to the success of the future expansion of T.C. Williams High School’s connected high school network, according to a panel of national experts who spoke to more than 100 parents, educators and staff on Wednesday night.

The Alexandria City Public Schools system has seen much turnover over the last two decades, with six superintendents over the last 20 years and just as many principals at T.C.

“There is not a school district in the country that has succeeded with constant changes in leadership, not one,” said Dr. Pedro A. Noguera, faculty director for the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. “School board members have the responsibility to support leadership. They need to make sure they ask the right questions, but they need to get out of the way, too, and let them do their job so that the schools can focus on education, not politics.”

Last September, the Alexandria School Board voted to expand T.C. by building on the Minnie Howard campus (3801 W. Braddock Road), which is a satellite school a few blocks west of T.C. The city’s only public high school currently teaches more than 400 courses to about 3,800 students, and it is anticipated there will be 5,000 students at the school by 2025.

Dr. Jonathan Plucker, president of the National Association of Gifted Children, said that there has been too much turnover at ACPS.

“Stable, talented leadership is not just an important issue, it is your key important issue in this district right now,” Plucker said. “So, doing whatever you can to maintain that at the department level, at the building level, at the district level really has to be your focus.”

ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., agreed, and said that the issue is the most important element in the success of not only the high school expansion project, but of the school system overall.

“I think continuity of leadership is the most important ingredient to accomplishing our mission, and it is the one area where we have been lacking,” Hutchings told ALXnow. “If it’s not the superintendent it’s the principal and vice versa. In order for us to attain the goals that we set forth we can’t constantly be starting from scratch.”

Dr. Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center, said that an advantage of the high school network will be that students will be forced to adapt to a more college-like atmosphere with multiple campuses.

“I think one of the biggest advantages of the multi-campus approach you have here is that this is what kids are going to get in post-secondary [education] in many cases, and we know that the hidden crisis in America is the college dropout rate,” Balfanz said. “Fifty percent of kids who go to college don’t make it. One of the reasons they don’t is they don’t have the navigational skills to go from a very sheltered, structured environment to one which is a multi-site campus.”

Dr. Jaime A. Castellano, an authority on the education of Hispanic and Latino students, said that the campus will take students out of their comfort zones.

“It will allow them to apply their critical thinking and problem solving,” Castellano said. “Mommy and daddy aren’t going to be holding their hands their entire lives, right? So, it’s important that those kids get a feeling of independence, a feeling of autonomy by making sure they are responsible and play their role in making sure they have a successful high school experience. A multiple campus district would allow that to happen.”

Hutchings will present the school board with an update on the high school project at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 9.

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Update at 1:05 p.m. — Police are now investigating another report of gunshots heard along Richmond Highway, near Potomac Yard. Nothing has been found so far.

Update at 12:25 p.m. — The secured building status has been lifted, according to ACPS.

Earlier: T.C. Williams High School on King Street and the Minnie Howard campus have been secured due to a report of numerous gunshots heard in the area.

Both Arlington and Alexandria police are investigating the reported gunshots, which were heard near Columbia Pike in Arlington and the intersection of King Street and Quaker Lane in Alexandria, according to scanner traffic.

Thus far, no evidence of actual gunfire has been found.

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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.

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