School board lays further groundwork for preschool centers

School board lays further groundwork for preschool centers
File photo

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Alexandria City School Board approved the educational specifications for future public preschool centers at a July 5 meeting, but deferred similar action on specifications for an additional high school for further study.

The specifications came about as part of the second phase of ACPS’ long-range facilities planning, which looks to help the system cope with rapid enrollment growth. The first phase was approved last year for the elementary and middle school levels, while the second phase is set to include pre-K and high school. Enrollment is expected to grow steadily be- tween now and 2030, when it is anticipated to plateau.

In the fiscal 2017 budget approved in May, city council agreed to spend $3.4 million on a new centralized pre-K facility, which Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley said would house 360 students. Meanwhile, T.C. Williams High School faces capacity issues of its own, especially at the ninth-grade Minnie Howard campus, which will not have enough space for all ninth graders in the 2017- 2018 school year.

ACPS planners will use the specifications as a guide as they look to design and construct new buildings and modernize
existing ones, as well as to form a model of the ideal school.

“It is important to note that these documents do not indicate ACPS’ intent to build new schools right away, but is just so we have them and we know where we want to be,” said Erika Gulick, a facilities planner for the school district, at a school board meeting last month where a draft of the specifications was presented.

Gulick said the proposed ideal capacity for the pre-K center is 360 students, with a range of 320 to 400. It would include 20 classrooms, a multi-purpose room, stage, group play area, two multipurpose areas that double as cafeterias, a health suite, library and outdoor play space.

According to the proposed specifications, the ideal high school capacity is 1,600 students, with a range of 1,400 to 1,800. It would include 72 core academic spaces, along with other extracurricular and community spaces. Other options slated for exploration to ease high school overcrowding include a specialized academy and an early college, although those are not included in the current draft.

The school board approved the pre-K specifications with minor amendments, including altering the language on playgrounds to account for different play spaces, adding a staff lounge and a small shower for group bathrooms among others. Board member Cindy Anderson raised concerns that the classrooms were too similar to those in elementary schools, but Gulick said staff would continue to examine their options.

But the specifications for high schools came under fire from multiple board members at their July 5 meeting, especially the recommendation to have fewer teachers than class- rooms, meaning many would move between rooms. Gulick said it encouraged greater flexibility, but board members were uncertain.

“At least you have a space [with permanent classrooms for teachers] where the student knows they can find the teacher,” said board vice chairman Chris Lewis. “I don’t want us to discount the relationship-building that comes between teachers and students and the advice and counseling that comes with that relationship.”

At a joint work session between the school board and city council last month, Lewis raised concerns at the level of community engagement, especially as it relates to the long-range planning work group.

That group included members of city council and the school board, as well as representatives of local PTAs, The Campagna Center and the community, as well as city staff from a variety of departments to formulate the first phase, and will return to offer feedback on the second.

“I worry about us doing community engagement that is just check-the-box community engagement,” Lewis said, noting that often the group only had information presented to them without the ability to make actual decisions.
City planning director Karl Moritz said the group’s role in the process will be reexamined.

School board chairwoman Karen Graf said July 5 that the decision to further study high school specifications will be helpful, especially since the pre-K center is a bigger priority at this point.

“I think there was a little bit more urgency and press on the preschool, just wanting to have a little bit of guidance as we go into a build this coming year,” she said. “As for high school, I wish we had that same problem, I wish we had property that we were pressing to build on, but at this point we have a little luxury to build some more ideas into those specifications.”

The work group will reconvene this month, having worked on the first phase that was approved last year. Gulick said at the joint work session that a community meeting will be hosted in September, followed by separate pre-K and high school meetings in October. Another community meeting likely will be held in November, with the school board and city council slated to receive final versions in December or January for public hearings and adoption.