ACPS plans to address high school capacity crunch

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T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

With a rapidly growing student population and facilities that can’t keep up, Alexandria City Public Schools has taken the first step in finding a solution to the high school capacity crunch.

High school enrollment in ACPS increased from 3,132 to 3,949 students between 2012 and 2017– a 26.1 percent increase in five years. When school starts up in less than a month, enrollment will grow to 4,074 students, ACPS Director of Communications Helen Lloyd said.

On Monday, ACPS announced it would address the problem over the next year with an initiative called The High School Project: Inspiring a Future for Alexandria.

Rather than tackling the capacity crisis head on, however, the initiative involves working backward to find a solution. The school division, instead of looking at buildings and other physical solutions right away, will begin by determining programming for future high school students.

“We have a capacity issue here, obviously, a big capacity issue, but instead of looking at it as a capacity issue, we want to make sure it has long-term impact,” Lloyd said, “So, we’re starting with the end goal for it, what we want to achieve for our students at that end goal.”

To determine what kind of programming the city’s new high school system will offer, the school division will go through an outreach process beginning with those most impacted by the change: the students. Three focus groups, totaling 68 students, started meeting on Tuesday to share their thoughts on the future of high school in Alexandria.

“We [asked] them not about numbers and overcrowding, [but] what they want from a high school,” Lloyd said. “What is their vision for a high school for the future? What do they think future students will need? What would they have liked?”

After hearing from the students, ACPS will research business and workforce needs to gauge what skills Alexandria high school students need to be successful after they graduate.

Once feedback from businesses and students are compiled, ACPS will wrap up the engagement process by meeting with parents, colleges, community members and other stakeholders.

“This is a huge shift in thinking that we’re going to have to bring the community back to,” Lloyd said. “We’ve always been hearing the conversation around capacity, … but what we really want to do is to make sure that we’re turning the conversation into something that is more visionary, a bigger thing, deeper and more rewarding in the long run as well. Rather than just solving the question of numbers and students and seats.”

The division plans to have programming options by Nov. 8 to present to the school board. Only after the school board approves a program structure will ACPS look at space, buildings and land acquisition to see what physical solutions best suit those programs. From there, ACPS aims to have final approval on the plan by the end of May 2019.

Mignon Anthony, ACPS chief operating officer, said it is important to start with programming rather than physical space because addressing capacity may involve a multifaceted solution.

“The solution, we don’t feel is an all-in-one solution. It’s not just a matter of making T.C. bigger or making a second high school. It may be a combination of things,” Anthony said. “If we decide to, say, focus on four main programs for the high school experience, some of them may need to be in a large facility, some may be smaller facilities, some may be in a campus.”

In the research phase of the project, ACPS will be looking at cities throughout the country for both high school structure and programming.

Anthony said they’ve been looking at other cities that, like Alexandria, function with one large public high school. For example, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts has a single high school that integrates an arts program, technology program and traditional program all into one campus, she said.

Lloyd said they have also been looking into places where the high school’s curriculum mirrors the city’s workforce, such as a tech-focused program in Boulder, Colorado.

“We’ve got to figure out what the high school’s going to look like: what are we going to teach and what are the kids going to be when they graduate?” Anthony said. “We’ve got to ask those questions because kids are learning so differently today.”

Anthony said the program-focused mentality and process, though counter-intuitive, would help ACPS solve the capacity issue while being innovative about the future of high school learning. It will also help streamline the process, she said.

“There is the discussion about whether it ends up being one high school … or whether it’s separate high schools themselves. That’s the big question everybody gets sort of hung up on,” Anthony said. “We felt that if we keep getting hung up on that, we won’t make the date … so we said, let’s figure out the program, then figure out the options for placing it somewhere.”

The city’s focus on capacity and the funding for the project were a result of the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force. Over the next three years, the city allocated $124 million toward solving high school capacity.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, one of the task force’s greatest advocates, said he was excited to see the project take off.

“I am particularly interested in the opportunities around shared use between school and municipal facility needs. The days of building facilities to serve only one need should be long over in our city,” he said in a text message.

Until a solution comes about, ACPS will still face overcrowding in schools throughout the division. Anthony said to understand the scope of the problem, all one has to do is visit the T.C. campus.

“If you go [to T.C. Williams] during class change time, you feel like you’re a salmon trying to make your way upstream,” Anthony said. “When you walk in, you’re like, ‘Wow, look at these nice big hallways and it seems so wide open.’ But that bell rings, and yeah, it’s little frightening actually. It’s very, very tight.”

One of ACPS’ short-term solutions is implementing mobile classrooms, which are separate from the school, and modular classrooms, which are essentially additions to existing buildings.

At the start of this school year, there will be 11 mobile classrooms spread out among T.C. Williams High School, James K. Polk Elementary School and Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, and at least 16 modular classrooms at Polk and Charles Barrett elementary schools.

The solution, whether it’s a new school, satellite campuses or a remodel of an existing building, is expected to be complete by the start of the school year in 2023.

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