Filling in the blanks: Searching for solutions to ACPS’ capacity crunch

Filling in the blanks: Searching for solutions to ACPS’ capacity crunch
School board chairwoman Karen Graf

By Karen Graf

December is traditionally a happy time of the year for most, full of holiday celebrations with friends and family. While the majority of us do not associate school system budgets with anything particularly exciting, this year I honestly have to say Superintendent Alvin Crawley’s proposed budget is just that.

This year’s 10-year capital improvement plan must be creative and comprehensive. Our goal is to continue to address decade-old issues of aging buildings and the profound student enrollment growth over the last five years.

In the last three years, the Alexandria City School Board has worked hard to align our budget calendar with city council’s; to save funds and resources by partnering with the city on capacity projects and bundling non-capacity projects; and to think of creative ways to supply our staff and students with the most optimal and equitable academic experiences at each of our campuses.

This has been quite a challenge over the past few years due to budget constraints. Our school system has grown by nearly 500 students each year over the last five years. Such rapid growth has been difficult to address. But this is a great sign for ACPS. Families are staying and investing in the school district and the City of Alexandria.

Last year, Crawley introduced the concept of modernization, which means that the 10-year budget will plan for both indoor and outdoor renovations of a building based on, but not constrained by, the long range facilities plan, drawn up jointly by city and school leaders. This approach is particularly budget conscious when you think of how old our buildings are and how many students continue to use them on a daily basis. The patchwork approach of
fixing what breaks was not advancing the quality of aging buildings or improving the academic experience for our staff and students.

Our current capacity crisis is felt from kindergarten through 12th grade. ACPS is already nearly 1,000 over capacity from kindergarten through ninth grade, according the data analysis in the long range facilities plan. T.C. Williams’ King Street campus has more than 2,700 students and is projected to see another 700 over the next five years. In fact, the student growth is projected to continue until 2030, when it will plateau, not decline.

Last year, city council was unable to fund planning for a project to increase capacity at T.C.’s Minnie Howard campus. The school board and Crawley went back to the drawing board and looked not only at our academic goals but also considered the goals for youth across Alexandria.

With one of the goals of the city’s youth master plan being about early childhood education, Crawley thought there could be an opportunity for the school system to advance that goal. ACPS is working with our local partners to look at the curriculum, teacher training and opportunities to combine resources to create a strong pre-K program for the city as a whole. The research is indisputable that students who go to preschool have a better academic experience in their K-12 years.

Crawley’s proposed budget suggests a central location where our current preschool classrooms and partners’ classrooms can be under one roof, with a goal to eventually offer a preschool option to every 4-year-old in the city.

This proposal would temporarily provide additional space at the elementary level, but not enough to address the current capacity issue. Crawley also is proposing a new elementary school on the West End that would help address the nearly 200 students displaced from Samuel Tucker Elementary School each year. This school would require converting an existing space in the city and be less expensive than building a new school from the ground up. The city does not have much left in the way of open land, so this is a creative and sensible approach to the space and budget constraints we are experiencing.

Lastly, Minnie Howard still needs capacity; that has not changed. The current proposal is to modernize the building and add 10 new classrooms.

Each year there are also costs for non-capacity projects just to keep buildings and outdoor spaces in optimal condition. But that must be balanced against providing for capacity for the students that are already here and the students that are coming in the next 15 years.

The school board is slated to adopt the ACPS 10-year capital budget December 17. To learn more, visit The school board, Crawley and ACPS staff will continue to think creative, be fiscally responsible and strive for equitable, optimal learning environments.

The writer is the chairwoman of the Alexandria City School Board.