Two-school solution

Two-school solution

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

A scant few years after educational officials broke the city’s two middle schools up into five entities, the experiment looks close to an end.

The Alexandria City School Board is considering recombining George Washington and Francis C. Hammond middle schools in an effort to improve academic performance at both campuses.

Splitting George Washington and Francis C. Hammond into multiple schools — two at the former and three at the latter — within the existing buildings was a landmark initiative for former Superintendent Morton Sherman.

But in recent years, students at the schools have struggled. Four out of the five institutions were accredited “with warning” in math last year.

Alexandria City Public Schools officials outlined their reorganizational plan to the school board at a February 6 meeting. Each middle school would fall under the leadership of a head principal, who directs the overall direction of the institution, while three academic principals would work at the classroom level, supporting teachers and ensuring quality instructions for students.

“Academic principals can provide feedback that allows teachers to improve the delivery of instruction,” said Gerald Mann, district director of middle schools.

While support for consolidating the Francis C. Hammond schools is broad-based, officials said combining the George Washington campuses is more controversial. School board member Marc Williams asked why the structural changes couldn’t occur while keeping the schools separate.

“I see elements that I think are the right things for students, with the increased number of counselors and the academic principals in the classrooms,” he said. “But why is it a necessity that you merge the schools?”

Mann, who previously served as principal of George Washington 1, said he knows first-hand the difficulty of making multiple middle schools co-exist in one building.

“The schools are just different,” he said. “I don’t know quite how to frame it unless you’ve lived it, how different each side of the building is.”

Mann added that combining the George Washington schools will regiment academic rigor and teaching strategies, particularly in areas like math, where one school is vastly outperforming the other.

“We have to look at … the quality across both schools,” he said. “We have silos of success, so we have to try to strengthen the overall program. Our academic focus needs to drive the structure and not have the current structure drive our academic focus.”

School board member Ronnie Campbell pointed out that consolidating the schools would mean combined support for students in specialty programs, like English-language learners and special education. Although the staffing levels in those areas would remain the same, a unified school makes it easier to share resources.

“If the schools are combined back together, then there will be more supports for students,” Campbell said. “There will be more actual physical people in the special education department, instead of having two divided departments.”

In addition to the consolidation plan, Mann and his staff are still working on proposals to revamp discipline procedures at middle schools and ways to provide more project-based learning for talented and gifted students.

The school board is slated to vote on the consolidation proposal at a February 20 meeting.