As Alexandrias sole public high school undergoes a much-heralded transformation to academic success, Washington and Richmond are watching with interest.
Local school officials were well aware of the Commonwealths Department of Education was keeping close tabs on the T.C. Williams transformation after all, they mandated the changes after labeling the school persistently underachieving in March.
But when state officials alerted them the U.S. Department of Education has taken an interest in the roadmap for renewed academic achievement, they were pleasantly surprised.
Theyre watching us, theyre on top of us, said Superintendent Morton Sherman. They think what were doing has promise. Its not like theyre watching to get us, theyve done that already.
The individual achievement plans for students, professional learning plans for teachers, new math and writing centers: it has been enough to catch even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncans eye, according to Kathleen Smith, director of the office of school improvement at VDOE.
Arne Duncan is actually an Arlington resident, so we know that hes watching Alexandria very closely, because its very near to his heart, being from that area, Smith said. [Alexandria City Public Schools] has no choice of what they have to do. What they have a choice in is how they do it. What I see is larger scale reform and larger scale reform efforts that are probably a little more out of the box than others, which is good.
Officials with the Department of Education wont confirm whether Duncan is actively following the T.C. transformation as a model for national school reform, but said the department is closely watching progress and is impressed with the work so far.
Duncan addressed ACPS roughly 1,200 teachers during the districts convocation ceremony in August and members of his department are attending monthly meetings on T.C.s progress with city and state officials. The visit was Duncans third to the school system in about a years time.
I keep on getting these signs and hear indirectly about the importance of the T.C. model and how its being perceived, Sherman said.
If Duncan isnt looking at the transformation as something worth emulating elsewhere, Richmond believes the lessons learned in Alexandria might be worth sharing with the states 17 other troubled schools.
T.C. staff is further ahead in the turnaround effort than most other struggling schools, Smith said. The high school bucks a current trend heralded by other school systems: smaller facilities diffused around the district. With a new state-of-the-art facility and little space for new buildings in an urban community, it will be interesting to see how Alexandrias high school ends up, she said.
Its not like they can build more schools or smaller schools, Smith said. They have to create a smaller learning environment inside a very large high school What we learn from T.C. Williams we would hope to bring to schools very similar to them, the large high schools with limited growth potential. Were going to learn a lot from that.
The added attention doesnt worry Sherman. He has full confidence in T.C.s new principal, Suzanne Maxey, to finish the job.
Theres already pressure enough to do right by the citys children, Sherman said.
To have national attention is just fine, he said. I think were going to deliver and held up in a year or two as the model for taking a good high school and making it great. The pressure is what it is. Its more of a compliment.