Superintendent: ‘We need to up our game’

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For those who are all too familiar with the issues facing T.C. Williams High School, the recent news of its underperformance isn’t exactly new it’s just packaged differently.

The announcement earlier this month that the city’s flagship school is considered “persistently low-achieving” by the state and federal government, a fact that has been public information for years, is only a revelation in name and consequence. The new label could “earn” T.C. as much as $1.5 million over the next three years in federal fuding. But it would require leaders to make serious changes to the school.

“This is not news,” said Superintendent Morton Sherman. “It’s now a bright, shining light to say, ‘Pay attention.’ We’re not hiding from the fact that we have work to do.”

T.C. has never made “Adequate Yearly Progress,” the distinction of continual improvement based on standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind Act. 

The city’s only public high school has instead continually lagged behind the state averages for achievement in reading and math. Its poverty statistics qualify it as a school eligible for Title I federal funding, but if it had accepted that status and funding in the past, Sherman said, it would have already undergone a forced, wholesale turnover of staff.

The new label is based on that fact: Among Title I-eligible schools in Virginia not taking the funding there are 128 T.C. is in the bottom 5 percent based on 11thgrade math and English test scores, according to the state.

School leaders must choose one of four school-improvement models for T.C. to get the additional money. The school could be closed entirely not an option as it’s the city’s only high school or closed and reopened as a charter school, but Sherman said he’s essentially ruled out those options.

That leaves the “turnaround model,” which would require a leadership change and rehiring up to 50 percent of the faculty, or the “transformation model,” which is based on additions or changes in school programming.

While Sherman seems to lean toward the latter, the turnaround model remains an option.

“That’s still on the table,” Sherman said. “I’m not inclined to do that I favor the transformation model but I haven’t taken it off the table yet.

“I don’t mean to scare anybody or threaten anybody, but it’s just that I need everything for consideration,” he said.

According to Sherman, the transformation model would not harm or hamper reforms he has already lobbied for during his year and a half on the job, like those aimed at closing the achievement gap between white students and minorities. He said the whole situation reminds employees and stakeholders that “we need to up our game.”

“It accelerates things, it’s more of an imperative [for changes],” Sherman said. “In many ways, before, people saw the data and said it can’t really be that bad. 

And now, when you have the federal government saying, yes, it is that bad, people sat up and listened.”

Technically, the school could also opt to not take the funding, but it’s currently unclear whether the state could or would respond by taking away funding for two of Alexandria’s worst performing schools.

While not a lot of money is at stake, considering T.C.’s multi-million dollar budget, it would bolster the school’s support structure.

“If we have the title and we can add more counselors with that money, if we can add more teachers, if we can pay for professional development, it doesn’t change what we need to do anyway,” Sherman said.

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