State lagging on marching orders for T.C. reform

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By June, Alexandria City Public School leaders hope to gain state approval for their three-year proposal to free T.C. Williams High School from its relatively low-achieving past.

To do so, ACPS officials said they now have to build upon their own year-old strategic plan and educational goals at a greatly accelerated rate, outlining their new blueprint for the future in about 10 weeks.

Adding uncertainty to urgency, Alexandria schools had yet to receive the official application form from the state on Wednesday afternoon, ACPS spokeswoman Amy Carlini said. It is due at the end of May.

T.C.’s “persistently lowest-achieving” label requires Alexandria school leaders to choose one of four options for school improvement.

At a School Board work session on the situation held last Thursday evening in the high school cafeteria Superintendent Morton Sherman said he is pursuing the “transformation” option as opposed to the other, more blunt alternatives.

Up to $2 million a year for three years is at stake to fund reform efforts at T.C. It should become available in June, Sherman said. He expects the funding for T.C. to be close to that mark.

Sherman told Board members the school’s plans “will be very concrete and very specific and be in your hands for discussion and approval by the end of May.”

The process calls for ACPS to include within its funding application how success will be sought and measured at T.C. 

The state has a lengthy set of guidelines for reform, but has not defined the exact leap schools must make.

“I think we have the superstructure in place that we can build on,” said Monte Dawson, executive director for accountability. “Once we have the application in hand we’ll be able to determine” the specifics of the plan.

Dawson said the Virginia Department of Education is looking for “measurable progress” within a year, not just in English and math where T.C. earned the low-achieving label “but in a holistic sense.”

State directives for the transformation option offer many distinct and overlapping points for Sherman and his staff to consider for T.C. Williams.

One requirement, replacing the principal, has been ongoing since current Principal William Clendaniel announced his retirement in February. A successor should be named sometime in May, Sherman said.

The guidelines also require administrators to “identify and reward school leaders, teachers and other staff,” remove ineffective personnel and implement “financial incentives” and other tools to recruit and retain staff for T.C. Williams in its transformation process.

Currently without a “vertically-aligned” K-12 curriculum, which educates students by building directly upon the previous grade, the state regulations require T.C. to institute an educational program that is research-based and flows from one grade to the next.

Other steps ACPS must take toward transformation include increasing instruction time at T.C. and hiring an “internal lead partner” who would act as a school-based liaison to Sherman and possibly an outside firm while changes take place at the school.

Initially, ACPS leaders appeared to recoil at the idea of a T.C. Williams in crisis. But weeks of attention and contemplation gave Thursday’s meeting a noticeably somber tone.

Senior administrators spoke matter-of-factly about “embracing the opportunity” presented by the PLA designation the funding and the work required to improve results at T.C.

“[Transformation] is not tinkering … it is not saying slower or louder or in another language that things are different here,” Sherman said. “A crisis provides a pretty remarkable opportunity for important conversations about how you transform, how you move ahead, what you do on behalf of the kids.”

After a year pockmarked with concerns about high numbers of dropouts, crowded schools, crippling snowstorms and other high school issues, Board member Mimi Carter wasuneasy about what the persistently low-achieving reform work would do to other system-wide projects.

“What I want to avoid is the PLA title creating yet another fire for us,” Carter said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re going from fire to fire to fire.

“I just want to make sure we’re not putting all of our [resources] into one basket to put out the one fire that is now a persistently low-achieving school.”

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