Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings: The future of the high school should be more than a fleeting holiday wish

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Dr. Gregory Hutchings (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)
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This is the time of year so many of us make wishes for what we want and then hope that they come true over the holidays.

At ACPS we have been wishing for more capacity, particularly at the high school level, for some time now. Our high school has more than 4,000 students, and the number is expected to rise again in the next couple of years. We have trailers outside the front of the school and crowded hallways during the change of classes. There is nothing that any of us would like more than to be able to magically fix it overnight.

At the same time, we have an opportunity to profoundly impact the long-term future of the high school. If we think big and act boldly, we can put Alexandria on the map for the skills for which our future graduates are known and create a talent pipeline into the workforce and higher education for generations to come.

It is essential to go through the process – to weigh up all the options on the table, explore others that we may not be fully aware of yet and assess new program options alongside the great programs we already have at T.C. Williams. Following a proper, established process is one of the ways that we ensure we are resolving issues for the long-term and taking a 360 view of the solution, as well as the problems we are setting out to solve.

In November, the administration made a recommendation to the school board both for an educational vision and an expansion strategy based on a connected campus concept. We are calling this a connected high school network. This strategy was derived from a combination of ideas from more than 50 separate focus groups and expert research around skills needed for the workforce of the future and the way students of the future need and want to learn.

Our goal is to mesh these with some of the successful programming that ACPS already has in place. This is the perfect opportunity to reflect on the 400-plus courses we already offer at T.C. Williams and build them into fully fledged, interconnected programs that offer our students a package of opportunities that prepare them for the workplace and higher education of the future. Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, part of the Amazon deal, is arriving at a time when we are already reviewing our educational vision for the high school. This is a genuinely exciting opportunity that needs to be included in any long-term plans.

The school board’s role is to ask questions about the high school project recommendation, push the thinking of the administration and review the project with an open mind – which the board is successfully and actively doing. It is expected and exciting to have our board engaged in discourse around the future of the high school. They have asked to extend the date for a vote on the vision to Jan. 24 to allow them more time to digest the results of the community engagement process, assess the expert research and data and consider what the arrival of Virginia Tech in Alexandria means for ACPS. They have also asked for a cost analysis and an outline of possible future programming spaces before the January vote.

It is easy to forget that this project is still in the early stages, between the engagement phase and the define phase. Once the educational vision and a strategic approach for expansion is in place, then the work can really start to define the programming and the space needs. Ultimately, we will be searching for an additional 400,000 square feet of space across Alexandria – close to the size of T.C. Williams – with a focus on a combined environment that will support grades nine through 12.

It takes time, planning, discussion and input from the whole community to take a step as large and important as this to the future of Alexandria as a whole. It is well worth the extra thought, work and time to do it right.

Stay up to date with the project at www.acps.k12.va.us/hsproject.

The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.

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