New ACPS superintendent plans to spearhead school capacity issues

New ACPS superintendent plans to spearhead school capacity issues
Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

By Missy Schrott |

Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., Ed.D., Alexandria City Public Schools’ fourth superintendent in five years, said he’s here to stay.

The Alexandria native is no stranger to ACPS. Hutchings, a product of the city’s public schools and a T.C. Williams High School graduate, also worked for the school system in various administrative roles from 2010 to 2013. He returned to Alexandria after spending five years as superintendent of Shaker Heights Schools in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

Hutchings, who assumed the position July 2, said the theme of his first 100 days in office would be collaboration and relationship building.

“I know I’ve been here before, because this is my hometown, but I haven’t been here in five years, so it’s time for me to really reconnect with our community members, with our city, with our mayor, with our parents and our students all throughout the City of Alexandria, and you’re gonna see that in the next 100 days,” he said.

Gregory C. Hutchings answers questions from summer school students taking a personal finance class at Minnie Howard on Tuesday. (Photo Credit: ACPS)

Since he was named superintendent in December, Hutchings has been working with Lois Berlin, former interim superintendent, to catch up on the challenges facing ACPS. He commended Berlin on her commitment and credited her with enabling a smooth transition.

The superintendent role has been embattled in recent years. Alvin Crawley resigned after four years in 2017 and, before that, Morton Sherman abruptly resigned from a fiveyear term in 2013 just days before the start of the school year.

Hutchings said the constant turnover has caused challenges for staff.

“I’m the fourth superintendent in five years, which is significant,” Hutchings said. “I think we want to make sure we have continuity, and that’s something I’m hoping to bring to our staff in regards to the morale, that they’re going to have someone who’s committed, someone who’s going to be here for the long haul.”

As he kicks off what he hopes will be a long tenure as superintendent, Hutchings said his immediate priority, beyond getting ready for the first day of school in September, would be finding solutions for Alexandria’s growing student population.

Hutchings said the school system’s failure to address capacity has been one of the consequences of the frequent superintendent turnover.

“I think they put it on hold for a while because there was a transition time with Dr. Crawley leaving and Dr. Berlin coming in and now I’m here,” Hutchings said. “So I want to be able to hit the ground running and not put it on hold for another year. I want to make a decision about that. That’s the top priority.”

He said that going through the rezoning process, opening Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School and building the new Patrick Henry K-8 school were steps in the right direction.

Finding a solution for an ever-growing high school population, however, is the largest issue and top priority for Hutchings.

High school enrollment is one of the most pressing capacity issues. T.C. Williams, ACPS’ only high school, has experienced an influx of students since 2012. High school enrollment increased from 3,132 to 3,949 students between 2012 and 2017– a 26.1 percent increase in five years. This year, the high school expects to break 4,000 with a projected enrollment of 4,074 students, ACPS Director of Communications Helen Lloyd said.

“Our challenge is going to be, ‘Okay, if we need to build other schools, where is it going to be built?’” Hutchings said. “Or are we going to have to be very innovative? I think that’s something I want to bring to the table – my innovation, thinking outside the box a little bit, but staying true to our tradition and who we are in Alexandria.”

Hutchings said that by December he plans to have narrowed down three tangible options for addressing high school capacity for the school board to consider.

He said at the moment there were no clear solutions, but potential options that have been discussed include building a new school, expanding Minnie Howard and building different high school satellite campuses throughout the city.

“I think that the sky is the limit really at this point, but we need to narrow it down from the sky being the limit to ‘We have three options,’” Hutchings said.

T.C. Principal Peter Balas said he trusted Hutchings to address the issue.

“He’s smart, he’s thoughtful, he’s thorough, and I know he’s somebody who’s going to be very thoughtful and purposeful around what we do at the high school,” Balas said.

Hutchings said once ACPS came up with a solution for high school enrollment increases, solutions for the school system’s other capacity issues would fall into place.

While the high school’s population increased by about 26.1 percent in the past five years, the division’s overall enrollment increased by about 18.4 percent, according to Lloyd.

“I know the capacity thing is an issue,” he said, “but we still want people to come to Alexandria City Public Schools and enroll in our buildings so that we can continue to grow and have more opportunities for our kids.”

Solving major challenges will necessitate forging positive working relationships with city leadership, something that started under Berlin’s guidance.

Berlin said her greatest piece of advice for Hutchings in tackling those issues would be to maintain the open line of communication she’d established with the city.

“Keep the positive relationships going,” Berlin said. “Build on those positive relationships, which I know he will do, because he’s a relationship person. I adore the man, so I know Alexandria will be in good hands.”

Hutchings started that process by meeting with City Manager Mark Jinks his first day on the job.

“We literally ended up talking for almost two hours because we had so much, one, to catch up on, and two, we’re establishing a rapport as well,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings said an open line of communication with the city would be essential.

“We cannot have a prosperous city if our schools are not prosperous,” he said. “We go hand-in-hand. And I think the schools working directly with the city, if we do not keep that going, if we do not make this a priority for us, then we’re not going to be able to see the success that I’ve been talking about, that I know we can attain.”

Jinks said he and Hutchings would be meeting regularly every two to three weeks to discuss what was happening in their respective institutions. He said he felt Hutchings was the right fit for the position.

“He is a product of T.C. Williams, he has worked here before, and I think that that will be invaluable in understanding the Alexandria community,” Jinks said. “I think Dr. Hutchings has the right set of skills and, from what I’ve judged, good people skills as well, so that he can continue that collaboration that Dr. Berlin has started.”

Hutchings has also invested in ACPS by enrolling his children in the system.

“When I think about my kids graduating from my high school, that to me is just amazing,” Hutchings said. “I’m just happy that my kids get to experience what I experienced growing up, and we’re going to have that experience to share with each other, which every parent doesn’t get to share with their kids.”

Hutchings, who now lives in Old Town with his family, said parents and residents could also expect to see him out in the community.

“You’re going to see me not only at our kids’ events in their school, but I’m committed to really being a part of our athletic programs, our plays, our back-to-school nights, different events that we’re having throughout Alexandria City Public Schools, as well as throughout our city,” he said.

Hutchings said, while the first week in the position has been busy, it’s gotten him excited for his new role.

“The team here is pretty amazing,” Hutchings said. “Everybody has bent over backwards to help this be a smooth transition, and I feel extremely welcomed and ready to roll up our sleeves and just do what we need to do to make this one of the best school divisions in the country.”