Your View: We need a stronger vision for Patrick Henry Elementary

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Your View: We need a stronger vision for Patrick Henry Elementary
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By Sissy Walker, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
The Patrick Henry Elementary School and Recreation Center project time clock has begun in earnest. The architect soon will be selected. The community advisory committee has been formed. Neighborhood traffic studies have been completed. But something very fundamental to the process of creating a new school has been missed completely. I speak of the school’s vision as an integral part of the Alexandria City Public Schools system, and as a unique educational setting in its West End neighborhood.

When planning a major educational project, it makes sense to start with a discussion about educational values, unique community contexts and hopes and dreams for students and staff. A distillation of those ideas creates the vision, and drives — or should drive — the eventual selection of an architect, since form follows function.

Yet while there were community discussions and school board meetings, they focused on the physical condition of the school, overcrowding issues on the West End, whether or not to have swing space during construction, project timelines, traffic issues and an audacious attempt by some officials to put an oversized and over budget recreation center on the property. These were all needed and important discussions, but they occurred in a vision
vacuum, and resulted in a less than robust feasibility study that pleased no one.

An educational vision emerges from the school’s leadership and wider community, is a reflection of the school system’s culture and way of working, and provides a unity of purpose that excites and energizes all the stakeholders — it’s synergistic and future-oriented. It gives meaning and an arc of purpose to children and teachers, and acts as a powerful draw for the wider surrounding community to be engaged and involved with the school. It makes you want to be in that building.

An example: I invite readers to imagine Patrick Henry School and Recreation Center as a place of “expeditionary learning” and field exploration. On the West End we have abundant natural, civic and industrial resources, many within walking distance, which students can investigate first hand. Just a short distance from the school, students can study the health of nearby streams and creeks, observe migratory waterfowl and even those pesky beavers in Cameron Station.

An expeditionary learning model isn’t the only possible vision for the school, but it does reflect the context of the West End and is a well-established approach to teaching and learning. Other schools in the area, notably Campbell Elementary School in Arlington, pursue this approach, so there is a wealth of existing resources available.

While Patrick Henry does have a planned educational structure in serving pre-K to eighth grade, a set of best practice architectural guidelines and a set of performance expectations for the school, these don’t constitute a vision. I’m afraid that without one, especially one as exciting as expeditionary learning, ACPS’s efforts to redistrict school attendance zones and secure needed capital funds will fall short.

The need for space may be pressing, and the opportunity to give a small number of families a middle school choice may be well intentioned, but neither constitutes a vision for our children that can light a fire of enthusiastic support from all corners.

I strongly urge the school leadership, the new school board, the superintendent, and the community advisory committee to open up time and space for this dialogue. We can aim for higher ground.

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