By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., spearheaded the Alexandria City Public Schools’ presentation of “The High School Project: Inspiring a Future for Alexandria” at the Nov. 8 school board meeting, during which he faced significant pushback from the board.
The plan focuses on the programs and skills that ACPS graduates will need to be more employable rather than first tackling the T.C. Williams capacity issue. Curriculum characteristics would include more experiential learning like field trips, internships and apprenticeships.
“Rather than simply looking at buildings, space and land acquisitions in isolation, we are using this opportunity to assess the skills that our students will need to be successful in the workforce in the future,” Hutchings said in a letter to the Alexandria community.
Several members of the school board, led by Chris Lewis and Karen Graf, forcefully questioned aspects of the plan and the administrative team’s process. School board members were most concerned about the proposal’s ambitious timeline and goals that some said were more aspirational than attainable.
During the meeting, Hutchings was joined by ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony and Derk Jeffrey from Stantec, an engineering services company hired to help develop the project.
Hutchings emphasized that there need to be “multiple pathways for students” regardless of an individual student’s situation. He said this project would bring the city together and involve non-profits and other organizations. The objective is for Alexandria’s children to have multiple options to achieve their goals.
School board member and former chair Graf, who attended the meeting via speakerphone, expressed concern about programmatic elements of the plan.
“Not only in the community meetings but in the discussion today, there has been an overemphasis on the programmatic and there needs to be a balance between programmatic and capacity issues in whatever decision we come up with,” Graf said. “I don’t think the programmatic can completely drive our decisions. This kind of new or innovative direction that we’re trying to take the division in, I think it’s not fully formed at this point …”
Veronica Nolan, who was easily re-elected last week, agreed with Graf and said she was particularly concerned about the practicality of placing so much emphasis on internships. Nolan said the proposal seemed more aspirational than practical.
“Similar to what Ms. Graf was saying, I’m hoping that some of these recommendations are rooted in reality,” said Nolan, who has helped place high school students in internships for 16 years through her nonprofit, Urban Alliance. “We don’t want to be thinking to ourselves, ‘Wow, we’re going to get 500 students internships,’ when our community is only capable of providing 100. I want to be sure that’s the kind of data we’re also utilizing.”
The project is in the “Initial Phase.” There have been meetings with students, businesses and community focus groups, in addition to town hall community vision sessions over the past several months.
The timeline calls for a work session on Nov. 26 between ACPS officials, Stantec and the school board. The timeline as currently configured calls for the school board to vote on a plan at its Dec. 6 meeting.
The timeline was a sticking point for numerous board members. Lewis was skeptical from the start.
“What are you asking of us as a board?” Lewis asked. “… What are you asking us to vote on?”
Hutchings responded that ACPS would present the school board with specific recommendations at the Nov. 26 work session. He said the goal was first to gather feedback through community engagement around the future vision of what traits ACPS students should possess. Then the capacity issue should be addressed, whether that’s additional schools, an addition onto T.C. Williams or satellite campuses. Hutchings said the plan all along was for the Nov. 8 meeting to allow the board to digest the educational visioning.
Lewis expressed concerns about the timeline and process.
“That’s a concerning answer to me,” he said. “If we say, ‘Yes,’ does that mean one of these three options? So, there’s a work session and a vote and not a lot of time for the community to say, ‘School board members, here’s the way I think you should vote.’ I know we get paid the ‘big bucks’ to make those calls, but that time period seems real short for such a consequential decision when there’s no recommendation from our staff on which option to take yet. … Maybe we need to add more to the back end before there’s a board vote.”
School Board Vice Chair Cindy Anderson echoed Lewis’s concerns.
“I’m going to agree,” Anderson said. “I heard something about input, but I don’t know when that input is going to occur, because the recommendation is the next thing we’re going to hear. … As a board member, I really don’t see at this point being able to make a decision by Dec. 6 either. Because I think we need a lot more information.”
Ewan Thompson, a student school board representative from T.C. Williams, urged his colleagues to defer action on the capacity issue until the new school board, which will have five new members out of nine seats, is installed in January.
“I’m concerned given that this current iteration of the board has only a few meetings left on its current term and we will have a board with over half new members on it,” Thompson said. “… I almost feel like it may be better if we punt a decision on this until we have the new board so we can get max buy-in from the new board members who are going to be committed to this very long-term project for the next three years.”
Hutchings defended the timeframe, and said the proposal does exactly what the school board asked earlier this year.
“I just want to go back to the charge. What the board asked the administrative team to do was not to come here today and say, ‘This is exactly what we’re going to do.’ … The charge was to determine what the educational visioning of the school division was. That’s what I recommended and the board gave the marching orders to move forward with that.”
After being pressured by Lewis and others on which of the three options the administrative team was going to recommend – building a new school or schools, adding capacity to T.C. Williams or building smaller, satellite campuses – Hutchings admitted that their choice was number three, satellite campuses.
“Out of these three strategies, and we’ve already discussed that, based on all of the data that we already have, strategy three is going to be the most accommodating to fulfill everything that’s in the educational vision,” Hutchings said.
Nolan expressed concern that not enough input had been gathered from T.C. Williams teachers.
“We need to dive in deeper before the work session,” she said. “In particular, with T.C. staff feedback. … I think we are extremely fortunate to have such a talented staff at T.C. Williams, and they are the ones that are on the ground day-today and have been thinking about this for the past few years. … I don’t get the sense that the teachers feel that their feedback has really been brought to the table.”
Graf emphasized the need for consensus on the board before moving forward with a project of this magnitude.
“I feel like if there’s discord about when we’re making this decision and how we’re making this decision, and the components of that decision, it’s going to be really hard to get our community buy-in on any decision we make,” Graf said.
Hutchings said the goal has always been to go back to the stakeholders prior to the Nov. 26 work session and afterwards.
“It is a short period of time. … We’ve been talking about the high school project for two years. Now’s the time to make a decision.”