Filling in the Blanks with Ramee Gentry: Addressing high school capacity

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Ramee Gentry is chair of the Alexandria City School Board.
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The school board’s core priority and mission is ensuring academic excellence in our school division. It’s at the heart of our daily work. We continually monitor the performance of our division across a wide range of measurements designed to ensure that our students have access to opportunities that enable them to be academically successful and prepared for life, work and college.

While access to opportunities and academic growth will always be our primary and foundational pursuits, there is another kind of growth that we as a school board must address – the steadily increasing growth of our student population and the acute crowding situation at our high school as a result.

When the new King Street campus of T.C. Williams High School opened in 2007, it welcomed 2,137 students. Today it has a population of more than 3,000 students. Over the last decade, as the entire region has seen significant growth in student population, we are the only school division in the area that has not increased our permanent high school building capacity. Simply put, we must pursue a solution to be able to serve our city’s students.

Over the past year, the school board has been laying the groundwork to address this critical issue. In collaboration with the city and with input from the community, we completed the Long Range Educational Facilities Plan Phase II, which includes specifications to meet the needs of 21st century classrooms. We have also researched and analyzed the educational effectiveness of different types of grade level configurations.

Results indicated that the grade nine stand-alone campus model that was put in place in 1993 at Minnie Howard does not demonstrate an improved learning environment over the more typical model of grades 9 through 12.

We are now ready to begin the planning phase of this project, which involves designing an optimal educational learning environment for our continually growing high school population. We are grateful for the support we have received from the taxpayers and the city to fund our planning work in the upcoming 2019 budget.

Our initial steps will include a review and analysis of relevant case studies by external consultants. We will examine school divisions that have a single high school and have similar demographics to learn about the methods they have used to address significant population growth. An integral part of this process will be a robust period of community engagement where our community will be able to review and reflect on our options that will take place leading into the fall.

While there has been much speculation in the community about options – a multi-campus school, two high schools and three high schools – the options to be considered will be the result of a rigorous research and planning process and information gleaned through our community engagement process. Ultimately, in addition to addressing critical space concerns, the solution will ensure equitable, excellent educational opportunities for every single student in the city, regardless of background or neighborhood.

To stay informed as this process evolves over the coming months, please sign up to receive email updates at www.acps.k12.va.us/longrange-planning

The writer is chair of the Alexandria City School Board.

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