Your View: It’s time for action on high school capacity issues

Your View: It’s time for action on high school capacity issues

By Yvonne and Brian Folkerts, Nancy and Marc Williams, Brooksie Koopman and Mark Eaton (File photo)

To the editor:
“Well, it was a lot of talking about talking,” was T.C. Williams junior Sam Wingfield’s reaction after attending a town hall meeting on the overcrowd- ing at TC’s King Street and Minnie Howard campuses with Vice Mayor Justin Wilson last month. More than 100 Alexandrians, including students and teachers and members of city council and the Alexandria City School Board, came to Beatley Library to discuss what to do about our crowded high school.

Talking about talking, or process, is a necessary element of government at every level. In June 2015, after a lengthy investigation, council endorsed and the school board adopted a joint long range educational facilities plan that outlined an approach to deal with the capacity needs of our schools, which have added 5,000 students over the last 10 years.

But that plan did not address the capacity issues at the high school level. Next January, the elected bodies will begin Phase II of the planning process to address the secondary grades. The recommendations from Phase II may not be ready for years.

At the town hall, numerous parents asked variations of several questions about our crowded secondary schools: “How did things get to be in this condition? What do you plan to do to fix the problem now?” Or, as one parent asked, “Who do we have to harass?”

Process is important and the joint planning efforts of the school board and city council are commendable. But there
are times when circumstances combine such that deliberative planning processes compound, not relieve, problems. This is one of those times.

The school board will start deliberating its capital budget in October. City council will take up its capital budget, which includes the ACPS capital budget, next spring. In ordinary circumstances, the school board and council might be tempted to defer decisions regarding the long term infrastructure needs of the secondary schools until completion of the second phase of the long range facilities plan. But we are not in ordinary circumstances. Here are some facts:

The capacity of T.C.’s King Street campus is 2,766. Enrollment as of September 23 was 2,945. We are well on the way to 3,000 students at the main campus, which will be 10 years old next fall.

The enrollment pressure on T.C. will continue unabated as enrollments at the middle schools continue to rise at rates not expected to subside for years.

The staff and students are increasingly apprehensive about safety involving the movement of large groups of students, passing times, dismissal and fire drills.

At the meeting, Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley acknowledged the need for near-term “temporary solutions,” which likely means trailers. While short-term remedies are necessary, they are not sufficient. A long-term vision coupled with action is required.

The long-delayed 10-class- room addition planned for the Minnie Howard campus has been publicly called a Band-Aid by board members and openly described by city councilors as inadequate for the number of students projected for Minnie Howard.

So what do we do? We should not invest so much in the short term that some will believe the problem has been solved. We need a long-term solution that is educationally sound, deliverable in a reasonable time and comprehensive.

Much as some might wish for it, 23 acres in Alexandria — the minimum lot size required by the Virginia Department of Education — for a second high school is not likely to materialize. The best alternative is the construction of a new multi-story facility on the 13-acre Minnie Howard site to accommodate the growth in high school enrollment.

The Minnie Howard property is large enough to accommodate a new facility for our secondary students — a partner to the nearby King Street building — of which the community can be proud. The issue of grade and program configuration can be debated as planning goes forward on a swifter timeline than originally contemplated.

City council and the school board should act expeditiously to give Alexandria’s public school students and families hope, a vision of, and action on one great high school in two state-of-the art facilities.