Solution to T.C. Williams overcrowding remains elusive

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T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)
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By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School has a serious overcrowding problem.

On that one point, there is total agreement between Alexandria City Public Schools administrators, school board members and the community at large. There’s considerably less consensus around the best way to solve the problem.

In a classic “which comes first” conundrum, there’s a tug-of-war taking place between new Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. and the school board about whether a new programmatic vision should come first, which is Hutchings’ preferred approach, or whether plans for expanded seating need to be the priority, which most school board members appear to prefer. One approach is literally concrete while the other requires more imagination – and a leap of faith.

This decision is being complicated by several factors, most notably timing. Hutchings recently celebrated his 100th day as superintendent. Prior to his arrival in July, the school board approved a process that included a presentation this fall and vote on the issue before the end of 2018.

But because the local election was held in the midst of this process – and five of the nine board seats will be occupied by new members come January – it meant a lame-duck board was being asked to approve the biggest school-related decision in years. Meanwhile, the five new members have been powerless to weigh in as this saga has played out; all they can do is attend meetings and observe.

Because of the current board’s strenuous pushback to the superintendent’s proposal, coupled with the timing issue, the vote on a capacity plan was postponed from the school board’s Dec. 6 meeting to its Jan. 24, 2019 meeting.

What follows is a look at various aspects of this decision process. It’s based on comments made by ACPS administrators and school board members at the Nov. 8 and Dec. 6 school board meetings and the Nov. 26 work session, as well as interviews with Hutchings, ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony, ACPS Communications Director Helen Lloyd, School Board Member Margaret Lorber, incoming School Board Members Michelle Rief and Chris Suarez and Melynda Wilcox, former PTA council head.

The overcrowding problem

According to the ACPS website, there are 3,959 students total between the main T.C. Williams campus at 3330 King St. and the Minnie Howard building a few blocks away at 3801 Braddock Road. Of that total, 2,803 students attend grades 10 through 12 in the main building, which was rebuilt in 2007 with a capacity of 2,500.

The remaining 1,156 students attend ninth grade at Minnie Howard, which was built in 1954 as an elementary school. The 64-year-old Minnie Howard building is widely considered rundown and in need of either extensive refurbishing or a teardown and rebuild. Through the years, it has also served as a middle school and ACPS administrative offices.

ACPS enrollment has grown steadily at all levels since the mid-to-late 2000s. A variety of factors have contributed to this surge, including the recession of 2008 that led many parents to send their children to public rather than private schools, an increase in the city’s population and the school system’s improving reputation, which has attracted more young parents to Alexandria.

The overcrowding problem is not new. It was one of the factors behind the major redistricting effort, three years in the making, that took effect in September. Elementary school overcrowding informed the purchase of the office building on Alexandria’s West End that became the new Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School. Overcrowding was also a factor in the rebuild of Patrick Henry, which has been expanded from an elementary school to a pre-K through eighth grade school and is expected to open in 2019.

Overcrowding at the high school level also has been talked about for several years, but it was the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force that met throughout 2017 that jumpstarted work on the problem.

Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. alluded to the history behind these discussions in an interview.

“We’ve been having a discussion about capacity for many years at the high school,” Hutchings said. “We’ve had discussions around one high school or two, we’ve done redistricting, we’ve built new schools. … I think that sometimes we as a community, it’s easy to forget the work that we’ve done and the practice that we’ve had.”

Former Alexandria PTA Council Head Melynda Wilcox said that because the overcrowding problem has festered for so long, there’s now an immediacy that may limit options.

“If the city had allocated the money five years ago, or more than five years ago when the school board asked for money to rebuild Minnie Howard, this conversation would be really different right now because we wouldn’t be in the crisis mode that we’re in,” Wilcox said.

The superintendent’s proposal

Hutchings presented the capacity plan, called “The High School Project: Inspiring a Future for Alexandria” at the Nov. 8 school board meeting, held just two days after the Nov. 6 local election. The plan was developed by ACPS in partnership with Stantec, an engineering services company.

“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.

Hutchings has repeatedly emphasized that there need to be multiple pathways for students regardless of any individual student’s situation.

“We have to make sure that we are not just catering to what we think all students should have. We meet them where they are, not necessarily where we want them to be,” he said in an interview. “Us having multiple pathways to obtaining a T.C. Williams diploma is to me best practice. We genuinely want every one of our kids to succeed, and that’s part of our vision.”

The plan Hutchings and Stantec presented would meet capacity needs by establishing several satellite campuses around the city, rather than creating one large second high school. It would consist of new options for vocational-type programs and experiential learning opportunities such as internships and expanded field trips.

“We’re really not talking about anything, and quite frankly maybe some folks haven’t made that connection yet, that we’re not sort of already in the throes of doing,” ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony said. “It’s just a twist on a similar concept. But doing it better to accommodate this large growth that we have.”

The school board’s reaction

Most school board members endorsed the general concept of experiential learning.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in offering more options to kids who either don’t have the money or the interest in plowing right back into school when they graduate from high school,” Margaret Lorber, a school board incumbent who won re-election on Nov. 6, said in an interview. “Some kids have to go to work and figure out what they’re interested in when they graduate.”

Many current school board members, current and incoming, said the experiential approach should be paired with a new brick and mortar building, possibly a Minnie Howard rebuild and a new comprehensive high school.

“I do think that experiential learning is good,” Michelle Rief, an incoming school board member, said in an interview. “I think it can happen within the confines of a comprehensive high school.”

At the Dec. 6 school board meeting, Vice Chair Cindy Anderson, who was recently re-elected, said most of the satellite learning centers could be congregated in one building.

While they expressed support for the general concept of experiential learning, several board members said they were upset about various aspects of the plan and process, including the reliance on internships, equity concerns, problems with the timeline and a lack of public input, particularly on the topic of whether Alexandria should have one or two comprehensive high schools.

Outgoing Board Member Chris Lewis, who was one of the most outspoken critics of the plan at both the November and December board meetings, said on Dec. 6 that he felt the proposal was misleading, as it implied that the one high school solution was the only one where experiential learning or diversity could be adequately addressed, which he said was not accurate.

Rief was adamant that a second high school would be less likely to raise equity concerns than would multiple satellite campuses.

“There are many obstacles to ensuring equity and fairness, whether in one high school or two, but with multiple off-site classrooms, the obstacles become exponentially greater,” Rief said. “Caps on program enrollment, the logistics of shuttling students between sites, the erosion of community and connection due to isolating kids in off-campus centers, and the challenge of properly resourcing all of these sites are just a few examples.”

Hutchings, in an interview, pushed back against school board complaints about equity.

“Equality and equity are two different things,” Hutchings said. “And sometimes people use them interchangeably and they’re not meant to be that way. Some students benefit from not having all of those options. Some students would prefer to be in a smaller learning environment and to not be on the main campus with all of those other kids. Some students may want to have an experience where they’re on a community college campus and they never walk through the building of the high schools. Some students may want an experience where they’re online and they don’t interact with people.”

Board Member Veronica Nolan, who was re-elected on Nov. 6, has expressed concern about the new vision’s emphasis and reliance on internships, which she said she fears may not exist in the quantities ACPS administrators seem to assume will be available.

“There’s going to have to be another brick-and-mortar building,” Nolan, who spent 16 years helping place high school students in internships through her nonprofit, Urban Alliance, said at the Nov. 8 school board meeting. “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.”

Community engagement

The main area where the administration and school board seem to be talking past each other is on the topic of community engagement.

Hutchings and ACPS Communications Director Helen Lloyd said that extensive, and adequate, community outreach was conducted in putting the plan together, while school board members are equally insistent that the one significant missing facet is community input.

Stakeholders of all kinds were involved in discussions as Stantec and ACPS administrators were putting together the plan in late summer and early fall.

“We have had almost 50 separate community engagement sessions around the high school project since Aug. 13. When you think about that short timeline, that very short period of time, and to have 50 separate community engagement sessions in that time,” Lloyd said. “And we’ve had 400 people who’ve also responded to a separate survey on that. So when we talk about the community, we’ve reached out to an awful amount of people. … And we’re still continuing that engagement process. It’s not over now.”

Lloyd emphasized that the plan that was presented was a product of community input and that community members have said they want a connected high school network.

“We listen to our community,” Lloyd said. “This community engagement process is not a check-the-box process. We’ve listened to them and this is why it’s part of the recommendation.”

Multiple current and incoming school board members disagree, and have said the crucial missing piece is an extensive conversation within the community on whether one comprehensive high school or two is best for Alexandria. They said that conversation must take place before a decision can be made.

“The board has not, nor has the community, had the discussion of one high school or two,” School Board Member Bill Campbell said at the Dec. 6 meeting. “We need to be clear about that: it has not happened.”

Incoming Board Member Chris Suarez emphasized the need for community input on the proposed plan, and said getting that input is the most important element for buy-in.

“I do understand that some have been concerned that the solution that was proposed was just focused on programming, [and they] may have some challenges just adding satellite campuses. My view is that we’re going to, I don’t want to say completely go back to the drawing board, I think a lot of important work’s been done, but again I just want to make sure that whatever is decided that the community is behind that decision,” Suarez said.

Suarez said he’s heard from community members who feel they haven’t been able to weigh in on the one or two high school issue.

“Certainly during the campaign, the perception I had from voters was that all of these different options were on the table,” Suarez said. “Then literally two days after the election happened, this was presented at the board meeting. … I certainly wouldn’t take that [two high schools] off the table, but it needs to be a community-informed decision at the end of the day.”

Lorber also said she has heard from many people who want to have a discussion around the topic of one high school versus two.

“There’s a feeling I’m hearing growing is that really, the debate that people wanted to have had to do with two schools versus one school,” Lorber said. “And they didn’t get to have it. And I think there’s a consensus growing among us that … that should have come first. They don’t cross each other out.”

Rief said she strongly supports having the conversation with the public about a possible second high school.

“During the campaign, I repeatedly heard from voters that they supported a second comprehensive high school, and the report from Hanover last year shows that a lot of teachers do too,” Rief said. “We need to have a very public dialogue with the community about the options in front of us. We also need a thorough examination of the cost and implementation of these options. … This is a huge investment that we need to get right.”

A myriad of proposals

Is the answer four satellite campuses as Hutchings proposed? Is it a second comprehensive high school? Is it a Minnie Howard rebuild? Or is it some combination of the above?

Wilcox said immediate action is needed to solve the overcrowding problem.

“If I were in charge, I would buy the Bradlee Medical building today,” Wilcox said. “I would retrofit it and I don’t know maybe have it ready for next fall, for Minnie Howard or T.C. or whatever.”

Wilcox also said she opposes building a second high school for multiple reasons.

“I think an additional, comprehensive high school is a mistake,” she said. “For one thing, it doesn’t get us the capacity fast enough. It would be very expensive. … I just don’t see a happy ending to the story of a second high school in the City of Alexandria with our history, with our demographics, with the identity that the high school has in the community.”

Lorber shared Wilcox’s sense of urgency that additional capacity is needed immediately.

“I’m one that’s always pushing for trailers or portable classrooms – anything you can do to relieve the pressure and give teachers better teaching conditions; give kids better learning conditions,” Lorber said.

Hutchings said he’s not as concerned about immediately solving the capacity issue.

“We need to keep reminding our community that we’re not going to have 1,000 more kids next year,” Hutchings said. “It’s not like we’ve got 10 years to work with, because we don’t, but there isn’t a sense of urgency that we have to build something tomorrow. I think that we have other things in the works that’s going to help with our capacity issues.”

Rief’s preferred approach is a second high school and she’s open-minded about where it might go.

“I’m inclined to think that a second comprehensive high school would be the best approach,” she said. “I think the second high school might not be where Minnie Howard is located. … It could be elsewhere in the city.”

Suarez said the final product could be a combination of elements from various proposals.

“The three options that were presented at the [Nov. 8] board meeting, just speaking for myself, I don’t think they’re all mutually exclusive either,” Suarez said. “It could be different approaches that are created that we adopt as well.”

An emerging consensus

Most school board members have expressed support for a rebuild of Minnie Howard school to alleviate the overcrowding issue.

There’s a sense this rebuild could happen relatively quickly, because the city owns the property, and that rebuilding Minnie Howard could be either an interim solution to capacity or the long-term solution. It could remain part of T.C. Williams, be a second high school or be a step toward a separate comprehensive school elsewhere in the city.

“We’re going to have to build a second building on Minnie Howard, the biggest building we can,” Nolan said at the Dec. 6 meeting.

Graf, Anderson, Lorber and Wilcox have all also expressed support for a rebuild at the Minnie Howard site.

“I think a rebuild of Minnie Howard is pretty obvious,” Wilcox said. “So why can’t we just go ahead and do that?”

What’s next

The consensus on the school board appears to be that much more community engagement is needed before a decision can be made about a high school capacity plan. Board members have also asked for significant and specific data on site analysis. It remains to be seen whether these concerns can be alleviated by Jan. 24, despite Hutchings’ desire to hold the vote then.

Campbell said at the Dec. 6 meeting that administrators have not provided enough specific information about cost and projected outcomes for the board to make a decision.

Likewise, Rief said she would like to see more information.

“I think what’s needed is a thorough feasibility study of the current proposal and a feasibility study of building a second high school,” she said. “I’m really curious. I’m looking forward to seeing what additional information is presented between now and then.”

Suarez emphasized that the board has to take whatever time necessary to get sufficient community input.

“Speaking for myself, I don’t think we want to slow roll the decision,” he said. “But I also do want to make sure that the community is fully invested and has full opportunity to have input on whatever decision is made.”

Graf said more data is needed on how big a building can be put on the Minnie Howard property.

“We can make time to make the right decision,” she said.

At the Dec. 6 meeting, Board Chair Ramee Gentry asked Hutchings to provide the specific information that the consultant used in recommending one high school instead of two and recommending against a rebuild on the Minnie Howard site.

“It’s helpful for people to understand that options were looked at and discarded,” Gentry said. “What was problematic about the other options? If people are asking these questions, it means current information does not answer that.”

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