By Melissa Quinn
Despite signs of academic improvement at T.C. Williams, administrators admit the city’s sole public high school remains on rocky ground with federal funding due to end next year.
T.C. earned a “persistently lowest achieving school” label in 2010 after failing to meet the federal Education Department’s benchmarks. The classification meant T.C. ranked among the lowest 5 percent of schools based on English and math Standards of Learning test scores.
And for the last three years, the school has remained on the state’s list of lowest-achieving schools, receiving a $2 million grant to transform test scores from below average to stellar.
“We have this school perceived as a really great place, but the reality is that it just wasn’t making it,” said Superintendent Morton Sherman.
After the high school received the embarrassing designation, Alexandria City Public Schools took several steps — known altogether as the T.C.
Williams transformation — to help the institution rise from the ashes. ACPS staff replaced the principal and partnered students with guidance counselors to set goals and monitor progress.
In addition, administrators bolstered the English and math departments — the two subjects needing substantial improvement — with five teachers each. They also created learning centers for the subjects and restructured the administration to include deans for each grade.
“The difference in the school is that all children are important, and all children can learn,” said Principal Suzanne Maxey. “It is no longer good enough to serve one section of the population. Every child is important.”
Maxey and her team created five focus areas as part of the transformation: individual achievement plans, professional learning plans, student achievement goals, school support structures and external partners. Each was designed to analyze performance on standardized tests and offer resources for improvement.
But a few have been slow to embrace the transformation.
“Every aspect of T.C. we want to make excellent, and for some folks, students and staff, that’s not been the yardstick they use for whatever reason,” she said. “That’s very hard. It’s been incredibly challenging.”
All programs funded by the grant became part of the transformation — and the administration and school board hoped to see substantial change. Last month, Maxey and Sherman received word that the plan was working.
According to a report by Hanover Research, students have improved substantially in English and math, meeting federal benchmarks for the first time last year. Additionally, the number of students taking advanced placement classes and the SAT jumped while the school’s dropout rate fell.
We’ve turned the corner, Sherman said.
“I think that T.C. Williams is entering a bronze stage,” he said. “It’s not yet silver and it’s not yet gold, and so the question … we’re dealing with is whether or not T.C. Williams has ever had a golden age.”
Despite T.C.’s hard-earned success, though, a challenge remains for officials: Federal funding for many of the new initiatives dries up at the end of the school year, putting the future of many programs at risk.
“All initiatives are on the chopping block,” Sherman said.
But administrators are toying with the idea of increasing the school’s operating budget, compensating for the loss of federal dollars and saving initiatives with proven records of success.
The district has yet to make a final decision, and Sherman has asked T.C.’s staff for suggestions on what to keep. He will put together a proposal for the budget after receiving recommendations — though he insinuated replacing the full amount of the grant with local dollars in the fiscal 2014 budget.
“I look at $2 million a little differently,” he said at a school board work session last week. “It’s like a military surge. … But guess what? It worked. So now we’re going to pull it out before our work is done? I don’t think so.”